Monday, October 10, 2011

Everybody wants to be Apple

Like many others, I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Steve Jobs this last week, even though I don't consider myself a hard-core Apple fan.  I love my iPad and my iPod, but I get frustrated by the simple things they are unable to do.  For example, I can't get my iPod to list all the titles of my Audiobooks, or my iPad to put all my martial arts documents (books and videos) in a single folder.  And I haven't used an Apple computer since I finally, and reluctantly, gave up on my Apple IIe sometime around 1990.  But I have enormous respect for what Apple, and Steve Jobs, has done and become in the last 14 years or so.  And it's interesting to see how Apple’s business model is being emulated by some very different players in the technology Industry.  Two that I'd like to call specific attention to are Oracle and Amazon.

It’s worth asking what makes Apple so special.  There's no single factor - they do an awful lot of things very well, and a misstep in any of them would dilute many of the others.  Most people say that Apple's secret is to make insanely great products.  This is true, but hardly sufficient.  The Flip was an insanely great product, for many of the same reasons that Apple products are great.  It ignored conventional wisdom about how to make a video camera (pack in loads of features).  Instead it focused on delivering the core features that people wanted, and packaging it in a small, elegant, easy to use package.  It was tremendously successful, but not successful enough - for reasons known only to themselves, Cisco pulled the plug, and stopped making them.  I'm not sure what I'm going to do when I need to replace mine.

Apple's real secret sauce is that it doesn't limit itself to making a single product in isolation.  It asks what experience it is trying to deliver.  Then it builds a product to create that experience.  But products don't deliver experiences by themselves - what else do you need?  Apple figures that out, and makes sure that those pieces are in place as well, either by building them, or controlling the delivery.  Ipods aren't nearly as useful without iTunes software to manage the library, or the iTunes store to sell media.  The Mac and iPad both work well because Apple doesn't look at hardware or software in isolation, but makes sure it owns both sides and integrates them seamlessly.

This isn't happening in a vacuum.  In one of the biggest non-Apple product releases in recent years, recently announced what may be the first serious competitor to the iPad, the Kindle Fire.  The naysayers point out that this new Kindle is doomed because it is both physically smaller and less capable than the iPad.  This is true, but it misses the point that these are the exact same reasons people used to claim the iPad would fail when it first launched.  Netbooks were available that were also small, and had much greater power and flexibility.  These critics failed to realize that many purchasers and would-be purchasers of netbooks had little interest in running all the Windows software a Netbook will run.  They wanted something light, easy to turn on, that would allow them to browse the web, read email, and perhaps use some applications.  IPad met the bill, and sales have been explosive.  Time will tell whether there is a similar niche at the lower end of the tablet market that Amazon will be able to dominate with an inexpensive competitor.

The Kindle Fire makes great use of the Amazon store, allowing it to be a seamless portable platform for consuming books, music and movies.  But Amazon's great conceptual leap lies in the leveraging of their cloud technology to seamlessly accelerate the performance of their new web browser, Silk.  Amazon has been one of the top players in the new Cloud marketplace, selling unused computing power from their massive server farms for low, hourly rates.  Now, harnessing that same horsepower will allow Kindle users to view the complicated web sites that proliferate these days much faster than would otherwise be possible with the hardware available at the Kindle’s price point.  Amazon cleverly made this an optional optimization, so people don't have to feel tied to Amazon's infrastructure if they want to browse the web directly, albeit at a slower speed.  I personally have no interest in the Kindle (the screen is too small for my needs), but I applaud Amazon for realizing that the web surfing experience doesn't need to be constrained to a single device, and figuring out creative new ways to solve the problem.  And although privacy advocates will howl, it certainly doesn't hurt Amazon's marketing analysts to gain a portal into the full web browsing experience of Kindle Fire users.  My guess is that most people will gladly trade privacy for convenience, as we've already seen in many areas of online life.

The other interesting innovator we've seen recently is Oracle.  When the number one database company purchased Sun Microsystems in 2009, the common speculation was that Oracle was after Java, MySQL, and Sun’s patent library, and would basically milk the hardware business dry.  But lately, Larry Ellison has been talking all about the hardware, crowing about how a tight integration between hardware and software will provide unprecedented levels of performance.  Sound familiar?

The funny thing is, what we now call the Apple strategy wasn't invented by Apple.  Not even close.  That award probably goes to IBM.  They wrote their own operating systems and software to run on their mainframes because they were the only game in town.  Only gradually did it occur to people that you might get greater flexibility by adopting a “best-of-breed” model.  At the time, this multi-vendor approach was considered a huge leap forward, mostly because IBM and the IT departments that bought from them had grown sluggish and inward focused.  Now we seem to be coming full circle.  IBM has moved on to selling software and services (and doing basic research, as they are happy to periodically demonstrate against the Chess and Jeopardy champions of the world) while Apple leads the charge back to the world of fully integrated solutions that just work.

Farewell, Mr. Jobs.  May your greatest legacy be not the products you invented, but the path you blazed which will lead Apple and many other companies into the future.

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