Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few weeks, you’ve already heard about the verdict in the technology Trial of the Century, pitting Apple against Samsung in a battle over who violated whose intellectual property. The blogosphere is abuzz with what Apple’s decisive victory means to the consumer electronics industry, Apple’s rivalry with Google, the nature of design, and even the future of innovation itself.
In the long run, I don’t think it matters one bit. Whether we realize it or not, we’re already living in a post-Apple world.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve still never spent a dime of my own computing money on anything other than an Apple product. And I still think the Cupertino gang does the best job out there at making and marketing beautiful, useful devices and services.
But the world is catching up. Slowly… inexorably.
Take the most obvious Apple advantage and the one everyone seems to talk about: a beauty in physical design. Combining a minimalist aesthetic with an obsessive attention to detail, Apple defined what consumer electronics and computing should look like for an entire generation, much like Nokia did with cellular telephones a generation earlier.
And yet… I’m typing this post up on a new company-supplied Dell XPS13™ Ultrabook™. At first glance, it appears to be a blatant ripoff of the MacBook Air. You can argue how much of a copy it is, but as I’m experiencing it, if it’s a ripoff, it’s a damn good one. It’s not just the obvious shapes, colors and materials that are emulated. No, my XPS also has the same solid feeling, the same sense that this machine was carved out of a single chunk of something, that I get with my MacBook. And the keyboard, it looks nice and clean, but the feel is also superb… great travel and bounce, no cheap clackety sounds when I type. The engineer in me knows that all of this is no accident, that it’s hard, that it’s the product of an attention to design detail, tight part tolerances, and supply chain management that requires careful planning. The Apple fan in me hates—hates—to admit this, but this new PC is beautiful.
And so are an increasing number of mainstream products.
It’s not just the lust-inducing physical design part of Apple’s mystique that’s starting to appear in other products—it’s also the old Apple “it just works” magic. Fueled by the widespread penetration of tablets, smartphones and connectivity, alternative integrated ecosystems of devices and services are starting to appear and gain traction. Ironically, many of the enablers, like the iPad, have been created by Apple itself.
For a long time, my response to why I paid a premium for Apple products was just this, how well they all played together, and how brainless they were to configure. I streamed my music from my iMac throughout my house using AirPort Express units. Ditto my home movies, stored and backed up upstairs and instantly available on the big screen in the family room via the AppleTV. We all synced our own playlists to our iPods and my iPhone. Really, it did all just work—unlike just about anything else at the time.
About a year ago, my two teens got smartphones… Android smartphones. The iPhone, mid-product cycle, wasn’t as cool. (Ugh. More on THAT another time.) But now we were in no-man’s land, outside the Apple circle of trust. Music didn’t “just work” for us anymore. So I gulped and tried Google Play. To be fair, it took a long time to upload our music. And I had to download a third party app to get it to work on my iPhone. But you know what? It basically… just works. We can all get our music wherever we happen it be now, streaming without having to worry about storage or sync, something iCloud still doesn’t let me do.
Another example. Last year I switched DVRs to a DISH Network set top with an integrated Slingbox®. For those not familiar with Sling technology, it allows you to stream your television content from your set top—live or recorded—to any computer, tablet or smartphone. As a frequent traveler, it is awesome. I can watch recorded shows or access my cable package online, on my iPad or even on my iPhone, just about anywhere. No more absurd hotel movie charges. Watch the White Sox game I recorded today while in Boston tonight? No problem. DISH calls their strategy TV Everywhere™. And you know what? Yep, you guessed it. It just works. And while it’s my preferred personal solution, I know DISH isn’t the only company making ubiquitous TV a reality.
So the world is catching up to Apple. Companies are starting to get the importance of design thinking, attention to detail in physical design, and integrating experiences across devices in a way that solves real problems with a minimum of hassle. In short, they’re doing a much better job at designing compelling experiences. Unfortunately for Apple, that idea is just too big to patent.