Apple needs a true competitor

Make no mistake, the reason that Apple has become so big over the last ten years is not just because it’s good. It’s also because the rest of the industry is so bad.

People have been buying Macs and saying how great they are for 26 years. For 25 years, people have been buying Windows machines and complaining that they are over-complicated rubbish. And yet Windows users think that Mac owners are brainwashed. The truth is that there isn’t a single large manufacturer out there that can compete with Apple and it’s long past time we had one.

Let’s get one thing straight: this article is not about the software experience. This article is about the hardware. Microsoft, after a couple of decades of trying, finally managed to produce Windows XP and, although Vista tanked badly, Windows 7 is generally well regarded.

Apple gets lots of column inches. Even in major national newspapers. Those column inches are mostly about the design of some new Apple product. The recent MacBook Air update is a good example. The column inches weren’t about OSX. When was the last time a major national newspaper made a fuss about a new Dell or HP design?

You need only look at Dell’s new Inspiron One. It’s an attempt to fill the same niche as an iMac. But although it’s much cheaper than an iMac, it looks it. Where the iMac looks chic and understated, the Dell looks like it belongs in a teenage boy’s bedroom.

But it’s not just the looks, it’s also the attention to detail. There’s a Mac Pro here in the office. If you want to put a new hard drive in it, it takes less than two minutes before you’re using the machine again. That’s including putting it to sleep. That’s including opening the case. There’s no hunting for SATA or power cables involved. There’s no hunting for screws to mount the drive.

Apple also manages to cut costs in ways that are sensible. Take the new MacBook Air and its inbuilt SSD. Geeks the world over started sneering because it means you can’t fit a bigger hard drive. But the average user never does. Putting the SSD onto the main board of the Air is cheaper for Apple. It removes a load of extra circuitry and less circuitry means longer battery life. It means one less supplier. One less component to potentially fail.

Windows users might complain that the 64GB drive in the base Air isn’t enough. But OSX only takes up 5GB compared with Windows 7’s 35GB so it is enough for a Mac. And remember this article is not about the software, it’s about the hardware.

The big question is, why does the PC industry fail even when it’s directly ripping off Apple’s designs? HP’s attempt at an iMac, the All-In-One, looks even more cheap plastic, teenage-boy’s-bedroom than the Dell Inspiron One. You can put money on that both look far worse than the Apple internally.

How does the rest of the industry start to compete again? If the industry wants to grow it needs to embrace all of the things that Apple has in its hardware design: holism, user focus, elegance, simplicity, manufacturing knowhow, material science and bravery.

Holism because the PC industry needs to start thinking of its designs as a whole. They need be  working down from the top but also thinking about its individual components and working up. Where those two meet is where Apple resides.

User focus might sound like a cliché but it’s not. Most companies in the PC industry don’t seem to have any idea. Why else would ordinary users be offered such terrible tat? Most of the PCs on sale are either bad attempts to copy Apple or the same old beige boxes. Only now the beige boxes are sprayed black and have a few plastic bits stuck to the front.

Elegance means making something uncomplicated, tasteful and well thought out. Making something uncomplicated means that your designers have to be clever. It’s their job to take something complicated and make it less complicated. They also need to understand what is tasteful. If they think tasteful is a pair of Dolce & Gabbana glasses or a Gucci handbag, you’ve got the wrong people. We’re talking about people who find inspiration in catalogues of taps, marvel at hinges, can talk meaningfully about architecture and so on.

Simplicity because, as Albert Einstein said, “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” There is no waste in an Apple product. No useless bits of plastic stuck are to an Apple. If it’s there, it’s useful. If a slightly more expensive interface can do the job of two cheaper ones, the more expensive one gets used. Not because it’s more expensive but because it makes life easier for the end user and the price will come down eventually.

Manufacturing knowhow and materials science are also important. It’s no coincidence that when Apple decides it wants an item to look a particular way, it has been known to come up with completely new manufacturing processes. Or it has taken methods and materials from completely unrelated industries and used them in new ways.

Above all is bravery. For all of the shouting that geeks do about technology, Apple is not afraid of upsetting them. When the first iMac was released without a floppy drive, it left at least one tech journalist in tears. Try finding any machine with a floppy drive now. Many geeks are deriding the SSD built onto the Air’s main board but it’s a good bet that most laptops will be like that in five years.

We need a few more companies that are willing to be brave pioneers like this. If our industry is to move on, Apple needs some true competition.