I’ve heard and read a lot of commentary in the last couple of days about Apple’s market value surge past Microsoft, and on the frenzied sales of the iPad. Everyone talks about Apple’s style and the “sexiness” of their products.
I think this is just part of the answer, and not even the most important part of the answer.
The real reason Apple has been doing so well lately is not the kind of products it makes, or the audience it is targeting. Apple continues to succeed because it understands the importance of balance in all aspects of its product.
Not only are Apple products beautiful (i.e. “sexy”), but everything else about the Apple experience is beautiful too.
The packaging that my G4 Tower came in, all those years ago, was brilliant. The holes in the box lined up with the handles on the tower; so I wasn’t lifting the box, I was lifting the computer – thus ensuring that the computer wouldn’t fall out the bottom of the box. When I opened the box, a black folder was perfectly set in the centre of the white styro padding; the folder was not shrink-wrapped but encased in a perfectly creased clear plastic sleeve that was neatly folded over and sealed with a small Apple logo sticker. Even the sticker was perfectly aligned and centred.
Ditto for the inside of my G4. I once opened it just to see what was in there. The internals were as aesthetically pleasing as the exterior.
Ditto for my iPhone; the packaging is designed to impress and to communicate that they care about their products.
Ditto for the Apple Stores, which provide an experience I’ve yet to find in any other kind of store.
But underlying this is something more important: excellent function. No matter how cool something may look, people will just not buy it if it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work. Apple clearly places as much emphasis on “look and feel” as on internal function and external form and aesthetic. They do this because they are looking for the “globally optimal” product and they are balancing all the different aspects of each of their products to find it.
Optimizing just one aspect of a product – finding a “local optimum” – will lead to something that is superior to other products, but only on that one aspect. That one aspect, however, is not what the product’s users see. The users see the product as a single whole thing, not as a collection of aspects. Apple could probably make more aesthetic products, but only at the expense of function. They could also make more functional products, but at the expense of aesthetics. In either case, the total product would suffer.
Instead, Apple has a knack for finding the right way to balance all the aspects to find a holistic optimum that makes for better overall products. They succeed because they make every aspect of every product matter, all the time.