Jump yourself over to an alternate universe where Apple’s iPod doesn’t wipe out all of its competition. Perhaps they leave it tethered to the Mac too long1 or a competitor swoops in and steals their thunder. For the sake of simplicity lets also assume that they went on to develop the iPhone and iPad as they currently exist today. In that world I believe the iPad would simply be yet another marker along tablet failure highway. While I do believe that the iPad is a remarkable device it’s consumer faith that has allowed it to become the runaway success.
Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field
The iPod was the first device to come along that allowed your average consumer to listen to digital music on something besides PC speakers. It opened up the wonderful world of downloadable music to a group of people that had been too intimidated or too busy to learn how to use the myriad of tools needed to listen to an MP3. Assuming the user actually went through the arduous task of learning how to use these tools they would still be woefully unprepared for trying to choose an MP3 player. The long list of features would be almost entirely meaningless and the sheer number of choices would leave most consumers in a state of decision overload. Put yourself in the shoes of one of these consumers and imagine that a friend of equal technical savvy is showing off their new iPod. They load up iTunes, buy a song and plug in their iPod to sync. Already you would be impressed at the simplicity of the process and when you actually pick up the device and navigate down a few intuitive menus to find yourself listening to the latest Avril Lavigne hit you would be stunned. All within 5 minutes. Tops. You have now witnessed the birth of the “Reality Distortion Field”; it had nothing to do with Steve Jobs and everything to do with an expectation of usability. Apple has always promised to deliver a superior user experience and they rarely disappoint. It’s reliability that brings people back, not some magical marketing aura.
While the tech elite chalked the success of the iPod up to the fashion symbol of using white headphones they were completely blind to revolution that was taking place around them. As people discovered a product that did what they wanted it to in an intuitive way they were quietly changing the way gadgets were built. When Joe Shmoe found himself able to make a purchase decision without having to rely upon his 18-year old nephew he became the target. Instead of being able to impress buyers with feature charts and acronyms gadget producers would soon find themselves having to focus on esoteric things like usability and aesthetic design. As they would soon find there was a sleeping giant ready to dominate that field.
The iPod introduced people to the Apple ethos of “it just works” but it was the next six years of product upgrades that cemented Apple’s title as king of usability. What is now known as the iPod classic was gradually improved without losing usability while side products like the iPod shuffle impressed consumers with it’s compact size and minimal feature set. Yes that’s right, minimal feature set. By taking things away Apple has made their products simpler, easier to use and ultimately more attractive to consumers. By improving without cluttering they showed consumers that newer can indeed be better. I dare you to find someone who upgraded MS Office for anything but .docx compatibility.
Enter the iPhone
People have been carrying around crappy feature phones with little incentive to upgrade to so called smartphones. So wait, it’s bigger, uglier, shorter battery life and comes with a task manager? Thanks, I’ll keep my Nokia+iPod combo that gets the job done. With that kind of landscape it’s no wonder the iPhone and it’s open source clone Android were runaway successes. All Apple had to do was announce a new phone and I’m guessing most iPod users would have bought it sight unseen.
I don’t believe Apple could have jumped straight from the iPod to the iPad and achieved the same level of success. The iPhone proved to the world that Apple was not a one-hit wonder2. They entered a new market and promptly put the entire industry to shame. Apple’s role as a market disruptor was solidified by the success of the iPhone.
A new product category
Building upon these successes Apple was able to repeat it’s most impressive feat yet; they created a new product category. Up until now all so called tablet computers had merely been desktops that you held in your hand with no discernible advantage. Windows had been in development for 20 years with the keyboard and mouse in mind so how would allowing someone to essentially hold their monitor in their lap improve the experience3? Clearly it didn’t as nobody had been able to sell a table computer with anything approaching success. Apple took the opposite approach. Instead of giving people a desktop in their lap they decided that there was a product category somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop computer that needed to be filled. Nerds were incredulous and called it a giant iPod touch but consumers would once again prove them wrong.
Perhaps we should not have been so surprised that Apple was able to create a new product category though. After all they had done it before with this thing called the Personal Computer.
- the first iPod used Firewire to transfer music which was something very few Windows users had [↩]
- Yes, yes there were plenty of minor successes in the past but nothing mainstream [↩]
- add a keyboard and mouse and you have something useful. A laptop. [↩]