There are some things in the technology market that kind of drive me nuts and at the top of the list is Apple. At the core of my pain is that Apple is held up as the physical representation of technology excellence and we seem to all agree that not only is the company the best in the market, it also has the best CEO.
Yet, company after company looking at this example somehow concluded that building products that look like Apple products, but don't embody the rest of the Apple ideal, is the lesson to be learned. It is kind of like seeing someone look at Oprah Winfrey, say they want to be just like her, and then dressed and use makeup to get there - which doesn't fool anyone - and think that is enough.
I spend lots of time wondering if a large number of product managers are mentally challenged. That can't be the case, can it? So let me try this another way.
My working theory is that most technology companies are led by engineers who fundamentally don't understand how to motivate buyers and thus don't understand marketing. Apple is the only company that is marketing-driven, which means that it engineers products primarily so those products will self-generate demand.
Look at any CE or tech company, say an HP or a Samsung for instance, and what you see is a strategy of bringing out lots of different products, something I like to call a "shotgun approach," in the hope that the product will meet the needs of most people by having a broad spread. This is like shooting a flock of birds with a shotgun. Apple's approach is to build fewer products, but design them so that people will be driven to them. This would be like using a sniper's rifle and working to get the birds to stand in a line. The second approach eliminates much of the chance and Apple demonstrates that this approach is vastly more successful.
So, to be clear, Apple builds a few products that are designed to be very attractive and then spends a lot of money to get people to want those few products. Pretty much everyone else spends a lot of money building lots of different products and then hope that the resulting spread meets the desires that people already have.
Apple is designed to do one thing and that is to drive customers to what it builds in terms of products and services; other vendors are designed to build products. Apple's approach assures success; the others' approaches rely much more on luck. This is why Apple can bring out hits like clockwork and everyone else seems to be surprised when one of their shot pellets actually hits something.
Wrapping Up: Why This Is Such a Hard Concept
Now, frankly, this is like basic math to me and it isn't like what Apple does is a big secret. We see it played out day after day, month after month, year after year. However, core to this process is the practice of getting people to chase a product, and to do that you have to understand, at a fundamental level, not what makes technology work, but what makes people work. For Apple, that took Steve Jobs, who is probably one of the best people manipulators on the planet. It is no surprise that he has historically been known for being able to get his way. His adopted parents changed their lives to make him happier, he manipulated and took advantage of his closest friends to create Apple and he is even known to have repeatedly sold products that actually didn't exist. He may be the greatest con artist since P.T. Barnum, and what makes a great con artist is that they never get caught. At the core of that skill is a deep and natural understanding of what makes people tick, and Jobs could literally sell freezers to Eskimos and they would likely be grateful he did. Hell, they'd likely line up to buy them over and over again.
To an engineer, this seems dishonest, but as long as the customer is happy with the result, and with Apple products customers are arguably consistently happier than with the alternatives, then there is no real foul. I'm not dissing Steve Jobs. I am suggesting that understanding this core aspect of Apple is critical to achieving the same level of success and in even assuring that Apple continues to achieve it once Steve is gone.
I'm pretty sure, even in Apple, there are a lot of folks who just don't understand how Steve does the magic. I know what Steve does can be emulated, but it never will be inside or outside Apple; that is, unless folks understand what makes Steve's Apple different. In short, most people think reality drives perception, but Steve rightly gets that this belief is backwards.
Or, looked at in another light, if you could sell freezers to Eskimos, just think how amazing you would be if you also used that skill to build things Eskimos would naturally lust for and then use that same skill to sell them. You'd probably be CEO of the decade.