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The real secrets behind Apple's success

Ever wondered why Apple is so popular? Hint: it's about a heck of a lot more than just good marketing -- though that certainly helps a lot.
June 6, 2014
Apple Patent rejected

With the arrival of iOS 8 we’re seeing the usual level of mixed reactions. On the Apple fan side of the fence, there’s tons of positive remarks about how iOS 8 is a solid step in the right direction. For Android fans, it’s easy to point out that half the features that Apple introduced for iOS 8 have already existed either directly in Android or via 3rd party apps, skins and OEM customizations.

As my colleague Simon Hill pointed out in a recent article, regardless of what side of the fence you are on, competition is a good thing in the long run. What’s frustrating, however, isn’t the fact that Apple copies Android from time to time. It’s arguably their attitude that Android fans (or just those that dislike Apple) really have a problem with.

It’s not the copying. It is Apple’s attitude that most Android fans really have a problem with

Part of Apple’s keynote was spent bashing Android, pointing out everything it is doing wrong from malware to fragmentation. Half of Apple’s time in court revolves around fighting Samsung and other Android OEMs for “copying” Apple patents. And then Apple reveals several new Android inspired features at WWDC and acts like they created something new and different.

At least when Burger King copies its rival McDonalds with sandwiches like the Big King, they are big enough to playfully make fun of their own ‘copying’ and somewhat acknowledge their idea wouldn’t possible without the Big Mac.

So why does Apple take this approach? Honestly, it’s just how their game is played. You want your loyal fans to feel that you have a superior product, one that’s well thought out, more secure and simply better. It’s part of why Apple is a success — they know how to sell themselves as the superior option.

Of course, excellent marketing and PR are only two of the keys to Apple’s success. Let’s take a look at a few “secrets” to Apple’s success that go beyond just marketing. For those of us that know Apple well, these might be obvious points, but they are true nonetheless.

Apple’s secret to success: Watching, waiting and carefully making your move.

You think Apple just woke up one day and decided, “let’s make an MP3 player!” Obviously not. Before the iPod’s 2001 debut, Apple was working on a “digital hub” experience, basically creating software for the personal digital devices market (read: the early days of iTunes). By watching the product category, Apple soon realized that current devices were big, clunky and overall a pain in the ass to use. It is worth noting that it was Tony Fadell that helped push Apple to that realization.

Apple wasn’t the first to build an MP3 player, but they were the first to make a memorable one

Apple didn’t dive in with their own “me-too device”, though. Instead, Apple gathered up a team of engineers and they got to work. They bought the rights to the Toshiba disk drive and slowly but surely put together a product that contained cutting-edge components and (then..) killer aesthetics.

Apple wasn’t the first to build an MP3 player, but they were the first to make a memorable one. If you ask average people about the first MP3 players, you’ll probably get an answer like “I believe it was the iPod”, or “I think there were a few little ones, but Apple was the first to build a good one’. No one knows or gives a damn about the Korean-made MPMan F10 or any of Rio’s very early MP3 players, because it’s not about being first — it’s about providing the most polished, enjoyable experience and making your consumers forget there were ever any other alternatives.

Obviously software and hardware are two very different categories, but the strategy is the same. Apple can borrow Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry OS features until it turns blue in the face but Apple fans won’t know or care. It’s because Apple does more than simply take a feature verbatim, it adds several coats of polish.

A watch and wait approach lets Apple learn from the mistakes of others, and allows Apple to deliver a polished product.

Part of the magic of Android is that Google, OEMs and developers of the platform aren’t afraid to try new innovative features and ideas. Of course, many times these features end up feeling more like beta products upon first release. Not to knock Android, it’s just a fact of life. If you are the first to introduce a feature, you are learning on your feet and are bound to make at least a few mistakes along the way.

Bottom-line, by taking a watch and wait approach Apple can learn from any potential mistakes made by its competition and deliver a finished product that arguably stands above anything that came before it.


Apple’s secret to success: the careful curation of features and ideas

Apple introduced a large number of features in iOS 8, but it wasn’t just about rushing out any idea that popped into their head. By taking the “watch and wait” approach mentioned above, Apple can see what features consumers care about the most and can then carefully select which features they want to borrow and “build upon”.

So what do we mean by careful curation? Simply put, the features that Apple did choose to add to iOS 8 weren’t done at a whim, they were selected because Apple knew there would be real mainstream interest in them. Sure, HealthKit and HomeKit aren’t ultra mainstream ideas yet, but we’re heading in that direction.

There’s a reason Apple hasn’t added features like NFC support to its hardware and software. Even though NFC could easily be integrated into Apple’s Passbook, NFC still remains a cool idea but one that has little mainstream appeal. Apple is very good about understanding what mainstream consumers want and then they deliver.


Apple’s secret to success: dog the competition’s innovations, until it’s your turn to play

During the early days of 7-inch tablets, Steve Jobs make it clear that he thought this form factor was “dead on arrival”. He was certain 10-inches was the minimum size for good tablet apps. He was wrong, but the Apple faithful believed him and many of the most crazed fans had no trouble making fun of the “tiny tablets” on the Android side of the fence, while claiming the superiority of their iPads. And then the iPad Mini arrived, with it’s 7.9-inch display and suddenly the product category was cool.

The same goes for phone screen sizes. While Apple has been fairly quiet about directly insulting Android phone sizes, there’s still this belief among most iPhone users that their 4-inch and smaller-sized devices are better and that the giant screens of Android devices are ridiculous.

In order to maintain it's position as the premium, superior option, it's important that Apple dog the competition

Yet if a series of rumors (including one from Foxconn) prove correct, Apple is getting ready to release 4.7 and 5.5-inch iPhones. And if this turns out true, we cant bet that many Apple fans will eat up these larger sizes happily.

In order to maintain it’s position as the “premium, superior” option, it’s important that Apple dog the competition and make its users feel that these new hardware categories and/or software features are unneeded. That is, at least until Apple feels the features and/or products are worth re-branding with the Apple logo.

Apple vs Android

A strategy that works well

Is Apple’s watch and wait approach a bad one? Obviously not. Apple has found tremendous success by creating maintsream products and introducing polished features that are as easy to use as possible. They’ve also been able to maintain the illusion of superiority by dogging the competition whenever possible.

In reality, neither Android or iOS are superior options. They are for very different kinds of folks and both have their advantages and disadvantages. Those who want easy-to-use, polished features and hardware will likely prefer Apple. Those who want freedom and bleeding edge features will generally choose Android. Obviously there is some overlap here though, and Android itself has become much more polished and refined in recent years.

Even as someone who isn’t so keen on Apple’s tactics, I have to admit they work well. All that really matters is that we know Apple isn’t the only option when it comes to an enjoyable smartphone experience. Different strokes for different folks, as they say.