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Apple's 'Just One More Thing' Product Design

By Joe Wilcox MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jul 7, 2004 5:01 AM PT

All computer companies must make tough decisions with respect to product design. In some ways, Apple is the exception because the company has tougher decisions to make. Steve Jobs' "just one more thing" aura creates an expectation that every Apple product will be exceptional.

Apple's 'Just One More Thing' Product Design

The expectation isn't realistic, but it is the price Apple pays for the secrecy and rumor hype that surrounds new product releases. I anticipate heightened expectations as Apple prepares to release the new iMac quietly hinted at last week.

The Cube Debacle

Some design decisions go awry. Who can forget the Cube debacle? I bought one, which set me back almost US$3,700 with Apple 15-inch flat-panel monitor. Plenty of folks have their reasons for Cube's market demise. Mine is different than most: timing.

Apple released Cube during the great Internet service provider rebate craze that drove down Windows PC prices and sales up during 2000. Meanwhile, the core Mac market had just completed a major upgrade cycle.

Then there was the design problem. The diminutive Cube really demanded a small, elegant monitor. But flat-panel monitors then were pricey, with the 15-inch Apple Display adding another $1,300 to the Cube's cost.

By January 2002, when Apple announced its flat-panel iMac, the situation had changed. I'm convinced Cube could have been a hit if released then, and it would have offered consumers more choices than the flat-panel iMac.

For one thing, all-in-one computers aren't easily upgradeable. In contrast, the Cube offered similar advantages but more easily swappable components or choice of different monitors. Flat-panel prices had dropped enough to put the Cube in the same price range as the new iMac, too.

Ditching ADC

Last week, Apple did away with a design decision launched with Cube: Apple Display Connector, which was replaced by Digital Visual Interface. If I were making that change, it would have come with great angst.

When introduced in July 2000, ADC reduced the number of monitor cords from three to one by consolidating graphics, power and USB connectivity. The approach made setting up a Mac monitor more convenient than those for PCs, which typically use two or more cords.

A friend of mine just got a new Power Mac with the older Apple ADC 20-inch monitor. He commented how computer setup was easier than any PC, which he credited, in part, to the fewer number of cords.

The return to DVI brings Apple monitors back to a widely adopted standard, which from one perspective is good for some customers and the company. In another tough design decision, Apple earlier chose to use DVI on recent Power Mac portables, which makes sense given the potential problems of powering a monitor from a notebook. But, DVI also meant that a PowerBook owner had to buy a bulky, $150 adapter to connect an Apple Display to the notebook. The monitor move to DVI connectors would reduce some complexity and cost using Apple monitors.

Still, from another perspective, ADC's disappearance is a compromise. The connector distinguished Mac monitors from those strictly for PCs. Setup will be more complicated, as newer Apple monitors' single cord has four connectors at each end.

Living in a Windows World

Apple's monitor connector change is consistent with the company's increased emphasis on interoperability and also recent practice of releasing hardware supporting Windows and Macs. The iPod mini and AirPort Express are recent, good examples.

As Apple's market share diminishes, the company must make harder decisions similar to abandoning ADC. Initially, the Mac-only iPod looked like a good way to sell more Apple computers. But, recognizing the sales potential of the much larger PC market, Apple rightly added Windows support. The iTunes Music Store started out on the Mac but later found its way to Windows, too.

The new monitors demonstrate how Apple is trying to find the right design balance: Interoperability with the Windows world while distinguishing Macs from PCs. While the new 20-inch and 23-inch Apple displays support Macs and PCs -- and that means Linux as well as Windows -- the 30-inch model is just for Macs. Not just any Macs, either. The 30-inch Apple Display requires a dual-DVI graphics card and Power Mac G5. Existing Mac owners covetous of the new monitors would need to upgrade.

The Mac-Envy Approach

Apple is right not to abandon its Mac-envy approach, which really is the pinnacle of the company's product design. While some vendors look to lock in customers, so that they have to live with the products. Apple's panache is creating distinctive products that are so cool some people feel that they can't live without them.

But there's more to Apple's approach than good design. Smart marketing is key, too, which is one reason I see as brilliant the way in which Apple tipped off that a new iMac is coming. Rumor sites will likely churn up lots of buzz, which can only benefit Apple.

Tactics like this one separate Apple from some of its design-savvy competitors. HP is among several Windows PC manufacturers releasing good-looking, innovative products that should be the envy of Mac users. Last summer, HP released more than 100 products on one day. At least five -- including a swank scanner with transparent lid -- would have been Macworld showstoppers if released by Apple.

iLoveit!

Better example still is something called LightScribe, which HP announced in January. The company has developed a way to use a CD-DVD burner's laser to etch a disc. So after burning, say, a music CD, the user would flip the disc over and burn a label into the plastic.

If Apple had developed something similar and called it iLaser, the news media would have told the world how Steve Jobs had done it again; that Apple had crossed another threshold of innovation. HP isn't the same kind of marketing company as Apple, and so doesn't draw nearly the same kind of attention to innovation.

I don't mean that as criticism. HP's marketing goals are different than Apple's. HP doesn't need to put on the same kind of showstopper performance to keep the masses buying its products.

Apple's situation is different. "Just one more thing" is the definition of Apple product design and the expectation the company must meet. Otherwise, those same headlines that might praise an iLaser would howl about Apple losing its edge. Apple can't ever let that happen.


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


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