SAN FRANCISCO, MACWORLD 2011 –There’s no great secret to understanding what Apple has up its sleeves, according to Jason Snell, editor-in-chief of Macworld magazine, who spoke to attendees about “How Apple Does It” at the Macworld Conference and Expo Industry Forum Wednesday morning.
Anyone who makes a habit of keeping up with technology news understands one of the longest running games in the business involves predicting what Apple will do next.
Despite its reputation as an obsessively secret company that consistently produces products no one ever thought they needed until Steve Jobs invented them, Snell described Apple as a consistent, rational company that doesn’t do anything unexpected — and doesn’t rely on crazy mind control to achieve its success.
From the company’s very founding, the roles Jobs & his cofounder Steve Wozniak played suggested Apple’s future: Jobs understood marketing and Woz was technically brilliant at making complex technology work. One of them understood products and the other understood technology; the way they worked together would become Apple’s greatest strength and one day set their company apart from all others in American business.
The Mac wasn’t so simple as “it’s a toaster” — but flash forward a quarter century — and iPad is the logical extension of the idea that Apple makes a computer “for the rest of us.”
Apple’s success today was built on the creation of a very strong corporate culture that now infuses the thinking and philosophy of every employee. When Jobs left the first time and Apple sank into the mire of producing products no one wanted and few could afford, he left a company that had not been fully indoctrinated in a corporate culture that starts at the top.
Today, the company has been absolutely instilled with his philosophy. And it’s a huge company – not a Cult by any means – with a great bench of people who work together to produce products wanted by millions of people all over the world.
The whole company now thinks about products the way Steve Jobs thinks about products. And, again despite the public perception and the one fomented in the media, Apple isn’t Steve Jobs, even if he is the company’s MVP.
So what are the secrets to Apple’s success?
The first is Apple gets the timing right, according to Snell.
MP3 players, USB and Bluetooth are all examples of technology that Apple didn’t adopt until market conditions were right for them to be introduced to the widest possible audience. The company also jettisons technology “a year too early” rather than one too late, examples of which Snell noted were the floppy drive, Firewire, and the iPod mini, among others. Apple’s lack of sentimentality serves it well.
“If you look backward in this business you’ll get crushed – you have to look forward,” Jobs was famously quoted after he returned to the company and was shown a great display of all the products ever made by Apple.
Many critics decry Apple’s “walled garden” and its “gatekeeper” philosophies, but another secret to success is that Apple seeks to control its own destiny, Snell said.
Apple created Safari because it wanted to make sure the user’s browser experience on a Mac was better than the browser experience on a PC. It’s a company that doesn’t want to be beholden to anyone, ever. PowerPC chip? No, let’s buy a semiconductor company and make our own chips, says Apple. Maps on a mobile device? We can use data from a company like Google but let’s build our own app so users get the experiecence we want them to have and later if there’s better data available somewhere else, we can use that.
Unlike with almost every other technology company in the world, design — and not science — drives Apple products.
Most engineers don’t think about customers, Snell pointed out, saying they think about processes. But Apple engineers must serve the priorities of Apple designers, who create products users want. Apple challenges its tech people to meet the needs of its customers.
And finally, what truly sets Apple apart from not only other tech companies but from almost all companies in American business, is its understanding of Showmanship.
Snell described the advancement of science and technology — which he himself loves and is interested in — as boring, dull, slow, hard work.
Apple succeeds because it turns technological innovations into a stage show. This is the philosophy behind the secrecy and the much hyped events three or four times a year. And the leaks? Maybe they are part of the show, said Snell.
“Apple doesn’t simply understand that products need marketing, the company understands that it needs a show,” Snell told the audience — and the company’s Retail strategy is an outgrowth of this philosophy.
As for the Products and what’s next, Apple always looks to get it right the fist time, according to Snell, which means the company will always focus on the features that can be perfected later. Better to have a feature not be available on a new product than to have it be there and be bad.
So, why aren’t there more companies like Apple?
There are some — Nintendo, Harley, Whole Foods, Lego — that are similar, perhaps, but being Apple takes a lot of courage, according to Snell, and avoidance of the herd mentality is very difficult in corporate boardrooms.
Even now, Apple is often roundly criticized by pundits and industry insiders alike, despite the company’s incredible success. “American business culture is fundamentally afraid of running companies the way Apple is run,” Snell explained in theorizing why there are more companies that run their businesses in the Apple mold.
And the funny, or perhaps just interesting thing is, the world would actually be better if there were more companies like Apple and didn’t look around to make sure they were following everyone else and doing things the way they are “supposed” to be done.
Technology itself would be better, too, according to Snell, if Apple had more competition from companies pursuing innovation from the forefront instead of simply trying to build a better version of something Apple created first.