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Apple's Interface Strategy: Building on the Familiar

By Joe Wilcox MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jun 23, 2004 5:20 AM PT

In 2001, Microsoft and Apple released new major operating systems, with features for using digital-media content, software and devices. Differences in approach illustrate deft and daft product design and marketing.

Apple's Interface Strategy: Building on the Familiar

In a recent JupiterResearch report, I explained how consumer adoption of Windows XP is modest compared to its forebears. One reason is Microsoft's strategy of integrating features into Windows. Deep integration of enticing digital-media features makes them more difficult to market or for users to discover.

By contrast, Apple bundles digital-media software separately, although they are sold with the operating system. Each product is distinct, with marketable brand name -- and consumer discovery is straightforward.

Take iPhoto, which is part of Apple's iLife digital-media suite. The name is distinct; features are discoverable, as Apple links to the product from the Mac OS X dock; and there is a clear identity around which to market.

The comparable Windows XP feature is the Scanner and Camera Wizard. The name is cumbersome; the feature is buried deep within Windows XP and so is less easily discovered; and the long name and deep integration make marketing or building brand identity difficult. Exactly by what means does an ad agency sell people on the Scanner and Camera Wizard? Build a marketing campaign around Dungeons and Dragons characters casting spells with digital devices? Humph.

What's in a Name?

Long product or feature names are a Microsoft staple. Examples: Windows XP Media Center Edition, Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 or Plus! Digital Media Edition.

The first rule of good product name marketing is to watch the syllables. The rule works in writing, too. There are good reasons why book titles tend to be five words or less -- and short on the syllables.

Apple picks memorable or evocative product names; short and simple, too: iDVD, iMovie. iCal.

Plenty of people assume the "i" in Apple product names is just shorthand for Internet. Maybe, but there are lots of subtle connotations carried in the use of "i." Several things come to mind: the book I, Claudius, the "i" as statement of self, of something important. The name might read iDVD but you hear I, DVD. I, Movie. I, Photo. The "i" denotes something special, something important, something you should take notice of. The impact is most effective when the product name makes the "i" personal, as in I, Chat for the product iChat.

Other Apple product names are evocative in a different way. GarageBand is classic. Plenty of folks know what a garage band is and the hope said group has of breaking out -- making the big time -- if only the members practice hard enough and get the sound just right. Apple's approach to operating systems is to spice up the boring numerical name, like Mac OS X 10.2, with something catchy. Jaguar. It's a fast cat or classic car. Mac OS X 10.3 named Panther, a cat that prowls and stalks (in this case, maybe Windows) -- or Tiger for Mac OS X 10.4.

How effective are Apple product names? Just look at iPod or iSight. My fourth grader refers to video conferencing as iSight. She's convinced Apple invented the technology. Part of Apple's pop-culture charm comes from the product names. Their measure of success is when they move right into the everyday vernacular, like with iPod.

Strange that Microsoft takes a different approach, seeing as how many product codenames are simple and smart. Mira, Spanish "to look," was the codename for tongue twister Windows CE for Smart Displays. Mira, that's cool. The first version of Windows XP Media Center Edition was codenamed Freestyle. Microsoft could have done great youth marketing with the name.

In Just Four Moves...

Another important issue is the approachability built in to product designs. Microsoft tends to use wizards that guide users through processes. Apple doesn't. The Scanner and Camera Wizard takes the user through several steps to import, organize or print digital images. By contrast, when a user plugs a digital camera into a Mac, iPhoto launches and goes directly to a screen with a flashing blue button that reads "Import." One step.

Another part of iPhoto's appeal is its subconscious familiarity. The images are laid out just like on a page -- a semblance of how they might be in a physical photo album. But, Apple extends the familiarity by doing something many people wish they could do with their photo albums: The pictures can be resized on the fly. Likewise, images import as digital rolls of film with an accompanying date, a familiar process for physical film.

Simplicity appeals, yet is too often overlooked. I'm amazed at the human mind's tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be. When in high school, I won 95 percent of my first chess games with new opponents in four moves. Virtually no one looked for the four-move checkmate. It was so obvious, it wasn't. Opponents looked for the complicated play. Of course, that trick usually worked only once.

Hey, I Just Want To Make Toast

Microsoft's wizard approach would make more sense if the products truly needed to be more complicated. "So, how do I steer this nuclear submarine again?" To make toast, the process should be no more complicated than putting in the bread and pulling down the handle. Why is a wizard necessary -- and so the addition of five or six extra steps -- just to brown bread?

Anyone who didn't bother to learn how to program a VCR knows the problem. Too often, high-tech design weighs down products with features most people don't want or need. In many cases, the features add unnecessary complexity, too.

Microsoft is catching on and taking a simpler approach with some newer products. Cumbersome name aside, Windows XP Media Center Edition adds a second user interface that gets right to the digital-media features. Big and bold options: Photos, Movies, Music, TV. The user clicks Photos and goes right to the digital image library. Design doesn't get much simpler than that.

Windows Media Player 10, which is in public testing, adopts a similar approach. Straightforward tabs -- Rip, Burn, Synch -- simplify the predecessor product's more complicated approach.

Microsoft has a ways to go before catching onto Apple's knack for building on the familiar. But Redmond is on the right track. The changes could broaden Windows XP's appeal, given how important digital-media content and devices are to consumers. Considering Windows' enormous market share compared to Macintosh, whenever Microsoft starts consistently delivering simpler, smarter, cooler products, I'd watch for the worm in Apple.


Joe Wilcox, a MacNewsWorld columnist, is a senior analyst with JupiterResearch, where he covers Microsoft.


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