A friend was telling me the other day about his new Mac. He bought it, took it home, and said it was like Christmas; opening it up, the ease of getting started, and the look and feel of the hardware, as well as the software. Normally a buyer of PCs, he decided to buy a Mac. A few months before, another friend said the same about buying his first iPhone. What’s unusual is that these two, like me, are ex-Microsoft employees.
I’ve heard some people recently mention that Apple is a “prestige” brand. I guess you can call it that, but to me it’s more than that. I just bought a new printer. It’s a Brother. I’ve had an Epson, a Canon, an HP (all a few years ago, to be fair), and now this. Frankly, they all sucked. None had an experience that made you feel good about your purchase when you opened the box, all of them were painful to set up, and all (we’ll see about the Brother, if I keep it) required care and feeding in terms of constant ink upkeep. Starved by the margins of their disposable devices with overpriced cartridges, manufacturers always skimped on the cables (whether parallel or USB), and now can’t seem to spend the money to build a point and shoot Wi-Fi setup that works regardless of your network. Printers could be so much more, but like the fax machine, they’re a technology teetering on the edge of death due to their hostility to consumers – mocked almost 15 years ago in Office Space, yet never improved.
I’m going to tell you a secret here. Most human beings don’t want to buy hardware. They don’t really want to buy software, either. They have things they need to do, and want tools to help them do those things, faster and easier than they could otherwise do.
Many people cynically look at the iPad, iPhone, or similar Android devices, and say that these are only consumption devices. Bull. If a user (consumer or business) can get the tasks done that they need to in their home or work life, it’s not a consumption only device. It’s a productivity device. The iPad was so great and so unique because it created a blank slate for whatever task the user wanted to work on, and enabled users to get work done anywhere. iOS developers have created innumerable apps that help consumers and businesspeople get tasks done – and some of them have walked away from PCs as a result, though certainly lots of users can’t, and probably shouldn’t.
Microsoft historically had a unique problem; it made software, and others made hardware. The hardware purveyors owned the final task of gluing the software in, and frankly many of them never did that great of a job. Conversely, Microsoft never did, and still sometimes struggles with, integrating the hardware into the software – or at least consistently exposing it. Trying to find a device which is exploitative of all of the multimedia, security, or other features of Windows 8.x can be an exercise in frustration. There’s no logo that tells you that a device supports Miracast, no logo that says, “this device has a TPM and supports measured boot” (though I contend in a world of BYOD, consumers don’t care a whit about measured boot, or most security features unless work mandates them through NAP or other means). Again, a user doesn’t care. All they care about is, “Can I do the things on this device that I need to get done?” Sometimes that will mean using Microsoft Office. Sometimes – especially if Office isn’t available there, users will find other tools to get their tasks done instead.
To me, Apple isn’t a prestige brand, it’s a respect brand. I don’t mean what you likely think; I don’t mean cachet in the “I’m better than you” sense at all. I mean when a consumer buys an Apple device, they get the feeling that Apple respects them, their time, their lack of desire to make the sausage, and their desire to simply get things done. When you buy so many devices, even today, you get them home and get a tinge of regret (what I have now about this new printer). “Did I buy the right thing? Should I have bought the 5510 instead of the 5500? Should I take it back?” Apple is famous not for pushing out new technology – frankly they’re often not really that innovative at all. But what they do, and do quite well, is take technology that others shipped when it wasn’t quite ready, fix it, remove the sharp edges, and deliver experiences that just work, from end-to-end.
No, Apple isn’t perfect. But my point is that they fuss the details in a way that so many other companies don’t. When you fuss the details, you get happy consumers. You get repeat consumers. You get consumers who go out of their way to tell other people that they should buy the device(s) as well. That’s not a prestige brand. It’s just the way things should be if you want your business to have continuous, sustainable profits. If PC OEMs (or Android/Chromebook OEMs, for that matter) want to rock and roll the sluggish PC market, they need to dump the crappy cut-rate hardware – there’s this huge battle for the bottom end of the market that is going to end up in mass consolidation of, and likely demise of, some OEMs. We’re moving from a world where IT bought truckloads of the same PC and doled it out to employees, to a world where employees are choosing the devices they want, and the devices that help them complete the tasks they need to. Instead, OEMs need to remove the sharp edges, sweat the details, and start building experiences that users fall in love with from the moment they open the box.