Apple isn't the biggest consumer electronics company, nor the most profitable, but it probably holds the title of the coolest technology company on the planet. With the iPod by far the world’s most popular media player – even more so since Apple launchd the iPod touch – and the iPhone the most talked about gadget of 2008, Apple can lay claim to being the world's most admired technology company.
You can divide consumer electronics companies into two groups: Apple, and everyone else. Apple really is that different. Its influence on global design is many orders of magnitude higher than its nearest competitors. It engenders customer loyalty significantly greater than that earned by any other company in the consumer electronics space. The Apple brand and awareness of its products in the general culture far exceed what you might expect, given the company's actual sales.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is famous for a crazy video in which he yells, "I...love...this...company!" With Apple, it's the customers who shout that.
It's no accident, and it's not a passing phenomenon. Apple knows something that other companies don't. Here are the eight secrets that make Apple the best company in the industry.
Secret 1: Engineering supports design - no exceptions
Most companies bring designers in late in the product development process to create an experience 'wrapper' around all the features and technologies the engineers and marketing people created.
At Apple, designers rule. Apple's brilliant designers figure out in detail how the product will look, feel and work, and then the engineers are tasked to make it happen.
Years ago, Jeff Hawkins changed the world by creating the Palm Pilot. He designed it by walking around with a Palm Pilot-size block of wood, pretending to use the device. He took notes about what he wanted to do with the device and how he wanted to use it. He refused to be influenced by existing organisers.
By the time he gave the engineers their marching orders, the Palm Pilot was conceptually complete. He got massive push-back on it from his engineering team - "If we add six more buttons, we can make it faster..." - but the original conception prevailed, and an awesome product was born.
Palm seems to have lost this visionary approach to product design and is paying the price in the marketplace. Apple still has it.
Secret 2: Fewer is better
Far too many companies give too much power to market analysts as a substitute for product vision. One result is product over-segmentation that reflects the finely tailored targeting of a product to a specific market segment.
Sony, for example, has just unveiled four new Blu-ray HDD recorders - each with minor, largely irrelevant differences. The company obviously thinks consumers will dedicate an hour of their time just to consider Sony's various Blu-ray options. In reality, eyes will glaze, and people will wander away, confused. Imagine if Sony poured all its energy into just one Blue-ray HDD recorder. You'd probably want it.
That's what Apple does. It tries to develop the fewest possible number of products, each with the broadest possible appeal. Yes, there are multiple iPods, but feature overlap is close to zero, and it's super easy to learn which product does what.
Look at the iPhone. Or OS X. Or any other product area. The experience of going into an Apple store provides a relief from product variation overload. You can pretty much try every product in the store in 30 minutes, not including content and accessories.
Microsoft should have learned this secret in January. Vista came in so many versions that online experts had to publish tables to explain what was for sale. Consumers still have no clue about the differences between the various versions. Buying Vista isn't a thrill. It's a homework assignment.
Let me make this extremely clear for all the companies out there that still don't get it: these subtle product variations create anxiety. And anxiety makes people not want your product. Fewer is better.