Why Apple Stands Apart From the Competition

on July 20, 2012

I have been covering Apple now for 31 years and have a pretty good feel for how Apple works. Of course, how they worked changed over the years depending on who was CEO at the time, but there have been a few guiding principles that has driven the company from the intro of the Mac in 1984.

I was sitting in the third row of the De Anza Flint center when Steve Jobs unveiled the Mac. My first reaction upon seeing it was “that does not look like any computer I have ever seen.” But as he got the Mac to say hello to us and started showing us how it worked, I began to realize that Apple did not think like the PC vendors I knew at the time.

In 1984, all computers were square boxes and most of them were painted battleship grey. And when it came to ergonomics, it was clear to me that not much thought was given to its design. Although Compaq’s first PC, which looked like a Singer sewing machine, did break the mold of past PCs, it was not long before they started making PCs in square box designs and basically copying what IBM and others were doing with their PC designs.

But the Mac broke all conventional wisdom of what a PC would and should look like and in my notes of the event, I wrote that Apple clearly thinks differently then the other PC vendors at the time. Little did I know that this term, or the grammatically incorrect “Think Different” theme would eventually become a major marketing campaign for Apple as it strove to set itself apart from the rest of the PC vendors schlepping PCs that all looked the same.

Think Different, Be Different
The first way Apple sets itself apart from the crowd is to “think different” and not let what others do impact the products or services that they themselves create and bring to market. This has to be a very freeing feeling for Apple execs as they continue to put themselves in the drivers seat and create new products and even new categories of products that have driven innovation desktops, MP3 players, smartphones, tablets, and laptops over the years.

Team Players
There is another important way that Apple sets themselves apart from their competitors and that is in the way they run and control their own company. I have worked with a multitude of companies over the years and so much of their decision making process is done by committees and having to get approvals and partnerships from one of their “silo businesses” before they can move ahead. This is why many companies have so many problems keeping up with Apple and the market. Their individual businesses seldom talked to each other and getting approvals on any device or project took serious coordination between these silo businesses to get anything done.

But Apple has one central executive committee that works together seamlessly to design products and make decisions on how the company moves forward. Also, they own their own hardware, software OS, software apps, and services, as well as their new Cloud architecture so they can tie everything together neatly. There are no silos inside Apple and all decisions are made by this single executive committee. That is why all they do works together so seamlessly. This difference of the way Apple runs their company compared to competitors can’t be emphasized enough. And it gives them a big edge over the competition because of that.

But the third reason Apple is set apart from their competitors is design.

At the Fortune Tech conference in Aspen this week, former Apple executive Tony Fadell summed it up pretty well. He told this stellar audience that “great design principles are pervasive in the Apple DNA.”

In Steve Job’s Stanford commencement speech, he spoke about his love for calligraphy and how this influenced his thinking about design and how this drove him to be a perfectionist. And you can see this design DNA in everything Apple brings to market. Although Steve Jobs is not with us any more, Jonathan Ive is now tasked to embed this design DNA in all of their products and teach it to new Apple employees as the company grows.

Over the last few years I have been often asked how to compete with Apple. At the moment, if you look at pretty much all of the smartphones and even new laptops like the Ultrabook as well as competing tablets, they all are mostly copying Apple’s smartphones, tablet and thin Macbook Air designs. So when I am asked that question, I tell these folks that if they really want to compete with Apple, they need to start innovating on their own and stop simply trying to copy Apple. These folks often shrug when I tell them this and point out that Apple’s products sell and they just follow Apple’s lead. But what they are really saying is that they have companies that are run very differently then Apple, that they have little design skills and that they must lean on others to drive any innovation.

The good news is that at least a few ODM’s are getting their own internal design teams and I am starting to see some really new and interesting products, especially coming out of Taiwan and Beijing. But even with that, the OEM’s are slow to react and continue to let Apple lead while they follow.

The bottom line, unless these competitors start innovating on their own, is that Apple will continue to have at least a two year lead on them and thanks to their ways of “thinking different,” management style and design DNA, will keep their competitors following them instead of truly leading the market forward themselves