AH Tech Talk: Did Apple Ever “Think Different”?

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Can Apple once again become the company that told us to “Think Different”? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read some variation on this question over the last few weeks. We all remember the famous Apple commercials from the last twenty-five years. I won’t take the time to re hash those marketing schemes ranging from the “Think Different” campaign to the once-popular “Mac vs. PC” series. I don’t really need to go through each of these marketing efforts again, because we all remember them. No matter how much you may dislike Apple’s products or corporate culture, if you work in marketing and think you have nothing to learn from Apple’s advertising and branding, you are dead wrong. The picture that Apple painted was simple: PCs are boring and stodgy, your parents use PCs and look at how sad their lives are. But Apple products are cool, out of the main stream and different. Sure, there were the occasional attempts at actually discussing features of Apple products. There were vague, statistically irrelevant claims about durability or virus protection. And as consumer electronics became increasingly complex, Apple sought to simplify and streamline the consumer’s experience. Buy your products and software from Apple, have your Apple products serviced at an Apple store, buy your content from iTunes, and download it to your iPod, iPhone, iMac and Macbook. Sure, we charge a premium for products with mediocre specs, but look at how pretty it is. Everyone in Starbucks will know how serious you are taking your screenplay if you are tapping away on a $1500 Macbook Pro instead of a $400 Dell like some kind of chump.

I won’t take the time to discuss my opinion of Apple, their customer base, or their products. Because that isn’t what this article is about.  There is no question that over the last decade Apple has been hugely successful in building a brand and monetizing it effectively.  Apple boasts the largest profit margins by far in the consumer electronics industry, and that doesn’t come from offering premium products at a premium price. Wide profit margins come from offering cheap, pretty products with enough features to keep someone happy, but few enough that they will be willing to buy an upgrade next year.  And Apple has some of the most loyal customers in any industry. Nearly 88% of Apple’s customers said that they are planning to upgrade to the next iPhone, and that is before they even know what the next iPhone will look like. Any company that makes a consumer product would kill to have that kind of customer retention. And yet in 2012 Apple’s customer satisfaction fell for the first time by 5%.  Apple’s aggressive litigation and abuse of the US court and patent system has failed to stop its main competitor, Samsung, from far outselling the iPhone in every country in the world. And as Apple’s market share among smart phone users has plummeted over the last 2 years many are beginning to wonder if Apple is still a company capable of innovation.

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But that is the wrong question to ask. Apple hasn’t ceased innovating, Apple never began innovating. Yes, the iPod was a revolutionary product in some respects, but Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player. It didn’t invent selling downloaded music online, or even the type of interface the iPod took advantage of. Apple simply took existing technologies, bundled them together into something pretty, jacked the price up and sold it to people who were still using portable CD players. From a business perspective this is brilliant, of course. Let other companies spend billions in R&D inventing  new technologies and then repackage them, refuse to licence that technology and then sell that product at a massive markup. Then when your competitors catch up to your design, sue them for not licensing the technology that you originally borrowed to use in your product. Use the billions you made from using other company’s technology to keep your competitors from bringing superior products to market. Apple has proven that this is a profitable business model, but as someone who loves the tech industry, it is sad to see our courts punishing innovation instead of rewarding it.

Apple certainly did a lot to popularize the smart phone and the touch screen. But no matter what their high-priced lawyers tell you, Apple didn’t invent these things. Apple made them very pretty and very expensive and made a mind-boggling amount of money from them. Apple wasn’t the first to make a touch-screen smart phone, or a smart phone with a web browser. But Apple did help to create that market. Yes, the iPad is essentially a giant iPhone, but Apple got many talented developers and designers on board early to create beautiful apps that take advantage of the extra screen real estate. Amazingly, tablets are beginning to replace the laptop for many of us. And although increased competition from cheaper, faster, and more powerful Android tablets had taken a chunk from Apple in the tablet market, the iPad continues to dominate for the moment.

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So back to the original question: Can Apple once again be the company to “Think Different”? The answer is no, because that was only a marketing slogan. Apple will continue to make products that appeal to customers who crave simplicity and high prices over flexibility and control. But as the average consumer demands more and more from their device, the iPhone and the iPad will continue to fall further and further behind in terms of both hardware and software. One needs to look no further than the recent Apple Maps debacle, or the launch of the iPhone 5 without NFC or any new features to speak of, to see that Apple simply doesn’t have the creativity to bring exciting new products to the marketplace. Innovation will continue to come from Google, Microsoft, IBM and other companies in the Silicon Valley and although Apple’s glory days are not yet over, they are certainly numbered.

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