Unicorns and wheels: Apple's two types of products  OCT 05 2011

A common reaction to Apple's announcement of the iPhone 4S yesterday was disappointment...Mat Honan's post at Gizmodo for instance.

I was hoping for something bold and interesting looking. The iPhone 4 was just that when it shipped. So too were the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G. If I'm going to buy a new phone, of course I want it to look new. Because of course we care about having novel designs. If we didn't we'd all be lugging around some 10-inch thick brick with a 12 day battery life.

Mat's is an understandable reaction. After I upgraded my iPhone, Macbook Pro, and OS X all at once two years ago, I wrote about Apple's upgrade problem:

From a superficial perspective, my old MBP and new MBP felt exactly the same...same OS, same desktop wallpaper, same Dock, all my same files in their same folders, etc. Same deal with the iPhone except moreso...the iPhone is almost entirely software and that was nearly identical. And re: Snow Leopard, I haven't noticed any changes at all aside from the aforementioned absent plug-ins.

So, just having paid thousands of dollars for new hardware and software, I have what feels like my same old stuff.

Deep down, when I stop to think about it, I know (or have otherwise convinced myself) that these purchases were worth it and that Apple's ease of upgrade works almost exactly how it should. But my gut tells me that I've been ripped off. The "newness" cognitive jolt humans get is almost entirely absent.

For me, yesterday's event, Apple's continued success in innovation *and* business, and the recent CEO change provided a different perspective: that Apple makes two very complementary types of products and we should be excited about both types.

The first type of product is the most familiar and is exemplified by Steve Jobs: Apple makes magical products that shape entire industries and modify social structures in significant ways. These are the bold strokes that combine technology with design in a way that's almost artistic: Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. When they were introduced, these products were new and exciting and no one quite knew where those products were going to take us (Apple included). That's what people want to see when they go to Apple events: Steve Jobs holding up a rainbow-hued unicorn that you can purchase for your very own.

The second type of product is less noticed and perhaps is best exemplified by Apple's new CEO, Tim Cook: identify products and services that work, continually refine them, innovate at the margins (the addition of Siri to the iPhone 4S is a good example of this), build interconnecting ecosystems around them, and put processes and infrastructure in place to produce ever more of these items at lower cost and higher profit. The wheel has been invented; now we'll perfect it. This is where Apple is at with the iPhone now, a conceptually solved problem: people know what they are, what they're used for, and Apple's gonna knuckle down and crank out ever better/faster/smarter versions of them in the future. Many of Apple's current products are like this, better than they have ever been, more popular than they have ever been, but there's nothing magical about them anymore: iPhone 4S, iPod, OS X, iMacs, Macbooks, etc.

The exciting thing about this second type of product, for investors and consumers alike, is Apple is now expert at capturing their lightning in a bottle. 'Twas not always so...Apple wasn't able to properly capitalize on the success of the Macintosh and it almost killed the company. What Tim Cook ultimately held up at Apple's event yesterday is a promise: there won't be a return to the Apple of the 1990s, when the mighty Macintosh devolved into a flaky, slow, and (adding insult to injury) expensive klunker and they couldn't decide on a future direction for their operating system (remember Copland?). There will be an iPhone 5 in the future and it will be better than the iPhone 4S in significant & meaningful ways but it will also *just work*. And while that might be a bit boring to Apple event watchers, this interconnected web of products is the thing that makes the continued development of the new and magical products possible.

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
Apple   business   iPhone   Mat Honan   Steve Jobs   Tim Cook

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