Apple's Near-Impeccable 10-Year Run: Where They Succeeded and Others Were Too Lazy to Innovate
In the decade we have been publishing TechSpot, we have watched Apple resurge from the joke that G3 and G4 machines represented, to the Apple 'Mac vs. PC' debate -- during a time the company had better luck selling MP3 players than computers -- to today's ubiquity of Apple products in all forms of computing devices.
Coming from near bankrupcy during the 90's, it took several years to turn Apple around, but perhaps most important, it took several innovations and breakthrough products to rebuild their image as a tech pioneer. Today, Apple gets much deserved respect from its competitors, and within the industry, there’s unsaid expectation that they are the ones paving the way towards the next big thing.
During the past 10 years Apple has systematically attacked and conquered from several fronts. Here's a brief recount of those winning products, and where it applies, the industry incumbents that for one reason or another failed to innovate or at least failed to beat Apple at breaking products to the masses first.
After nearly going bankrupt, Apple showed the first signs of a rejuvenated spirit with the release of the translucent iMac in 1998. It was bold and showed their willingness to leave old technology behind by ditching the floppy. It was the first product to carry the “i” branding and set the company on a course it follows to this very day. But it was the iPod, three years later, the hit product that turned the company around.
The iPod was a combination of clever marketing and the company’s relentless pursuit of getting the formula right -- on the hardware, ergonomics, and ultimately on the distribution of music. It wasn’t the first digital music player by any means, but it was the first to appeal to a mass audience.
The original iPod offered up to 10GB of storage in a package that fit into your pocket and synced with Macs only. Surely, Apple didn’t get everything right off the bat, in fact the first-gen iPod had as many flaws as it had advantages, but then heavy iteration came to be. Adding Windows support and USB was key, then two years later getting the music industry on board with iTunes. No one would have considered the $0.99 per song model at the time, but with record labels struggling to combat piracy, Apple saw an opportunity and made it happen.
By the time serious competition noticed (Sony, in particular) Apple had the market pretty much locked in. The iPod worked really well so there was little reason to take a gamble on an unproven gadget and leave your iTunes purchases behind.
iTunes Music Store
Apple was among the few players able to recognize early on that digital music was to shape new market dynamics. The store launched with five major record labels -- EMI, Universal, Warner, Sony Music Entertainment, and BMG -- with a set price of $.99 per song. Thousands of independent labels were added soon after.
As it turns out, people were willing to pay. A year after its launch, the iTunes Store had broken past the milestone of 100 million songs sold. Even though users could still load ripped and downloaded songs to their iPods, iTunes made the process of buying and moving music to your portable player simpler.
The iTunes Store flourished thanks to a huge iPod user base and Apple’s ability to maintain a balance between copyright holders and users. Today, all songs are sold without any DRM, and Apple is the largest music vendor in the world with over 15 billion songs sold.
Today we may see the iPhone as a natural progression of the iPod, but at the time of its release the iPhone was so different than anything anyone else was doing at the time (Nokia, Motorola, RIM, Microsoft, you name it...).
Based on a pared down version of OS X, the iPhone was the first smartphone that came close to mimic the browsing experience of a traditional PC. It rode on the success of the company’s previous hit - touted as an iPod, a phone, and a web browser in one.
Apple didn’t got all things straight on day one, in fact, some key elements of the iPhone formula didn't come to exist until a year later, but the company was quick to react where it could. For example, the phone first launched at a very steep $500 on contract. Eventually better subsidies, brought the upfront cost to $200. As before, Apple was able to operate like a well-oiled machine iterating on the same basic device with improved design, processor, camera, and connectivity year after year.
Developers soon realized there was big potential on this infant platform and when the App Store launched about a year later, it was game over for everyone else. Apple was years ahead of the game and it took that long for others to catch up.
Android has taken the market share crown since, which speaks highly of Google's execution, but the same can't be said of many other incumbents. RIM, once the darling of the smartphone world, failed to see and react to the changing times along with Nokia, Microsoft, Palm, Sony, Motorola all facing an uphill battle since.
The Apple App Store deserves a mention of its own, but not because of the millions it rakes in revenue each year, but because even with its often-criticized approval process, the store became a magnet for developers looking to reach the huge iPhone install base. It's also been mighty effective at locking in users into Apple’s ecosystem.
The closed nature of the iPhone and its accompanying store have received some deserved criticism, but ultimately has been a small price to pay. Ultimately it's allowed Apple to control the user experience across devices and those same strict guidelines also allowed the iPad to build an app base fast enough while Android has had to battle with OS segmentation, different screen sizes and aspect ratios.
Even with Android getting better every year and Microsoft emerging as a contender, long time iPhone users will think twice before jumping ship to another platform. Whether it's for sheer convenience or ease of use, it was a brilliant development that allowed the iPhone to become a software platform beyond the phone.
The iPad arrived as the industry was focused in churning out uninspiring cheap laptops. The netbook itself is not to blame, but manufacturers who believed the race was only about price and never about building a quality product for less (today's ultrabooks could be seen as a market correction).
Apple dismissed the netbook trend even though some clamored their entry. As everyone ate into their own margins competing in a race to the bottom, Apple released something completely new.
Sure, 'tablets' weren’t new, but this was nothing like consumer tablets of yesteryear. Naysayers claimed it was just a big iPod, and with some reason, we were just starting to figure out what a tablet like the iPad could be good for. Key aspects that made the iPad a success: a surprisingly low $500 entry price, a long battery life, and a well-behaved software platform inherited from the iPhone.
Apple's timing played a factor, too. With all the excitement surrounding mobile app development, soon iPads started to receive software support that until this day remains unmatched by competitors. Not to mention, the year or two it took everyone else to catch up.
MacBook Air, Retina Displays
As Apple faced a transition on what was important to them (Macs vs. iDevices), they were still able to innovate with laptops. Here I dare say, shame to all PC manufacturers for not coming up with some of the innovations that are differentiating Macs above Windows machines, or at least, why they are letting Apple come up first with these trend-setting ideas to market.
With the MacBook Air the company took optical drives and hard drives out of the equation, used custom components, and reduced the number of ports in favor of a slim form factor unlike anything available at the time. The Air did cost more than twice the typical netbook, but it was also significantly cheaper than "premium" ultrathin laptops like Sony's Vaio offerings. The first-gen Air suffered on the performance front, but that was corrected eventually as newer, less power hungry CPUs were released. Needless to say, the ultrabook movement is the result of the MacBook Air's success.
Most recently, MacBook Retinas are also paving the way for high DPI displays everywhere. On the mobile world it's already happening, while Windows PCs have yet to follow even though it's just a matter of time. However, the question here is not about the hardware, but software as of today Windows offers very poor support for DPI scaling.
Other notable mentions include: Unibody designs, minimizing build and keyboard flex and large trackpads that work flawlessly. Apple pioneered some and perfected others but it's clear they've left their mark.
Beyond controlling software and hardware, Apple took a bold step into retail back in 2001. This was an effort to lessen its dependence on big box computer retailers. The company's meticulous attention to detail successfully permeated the architectural design of its stores and the overall sale experience, helping bring in hordes buyers and onlookers. Today there are close to 400 retail locations worldwide and Apple Stores are the most profitable per square foot, according to Forbes.
That's no small feat considering retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City with years of experience have either gone out of business or been forced to downsize during the same period, as online giants eat their lunch. Apple Stores have considerably changed the landscape for consumer electronics stores and influenced other tech companies to follow suit, including Microsoft.
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