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Maybe it is because I am a recent switcher that I notice details long-time Mac owners may take for granted, details that are so minute yet so useful and so quintessentially ‘human’. The level of attention painstakingly paid to the many small details found on every Apple product is a testament to Apple’s design philosophy, and is what sets the experience of using an Apple product a head above its competitors. Here are some thoughts I have about The Apple Experience.
Apple’s One-Two Punch
To take at face value alone Apple’s own statement, that it is first and foremost a software company, is to be merely skimming the surface. The Apple experience, be it with a Mac, iPod or iPhone, has no equal only because of the way Apple marries software seamlessly to the hardware that serves it. In an Apple product, software and hardware are inseparable: the success of that product weighs equally heavy on the shoulders of both its software and hardware components.
Take, for example, the iPod. The two main factors that make the iPod the success story it is are the Wheel (hardware) and the user interface (software). Would the iPod have reigned if it had sported a four-way D-pad instead, as was the norm for devices of that era, with the UI probably taking an entirely different direction as a result? Probably not. Would the Wheel have worked if it served an alternate user interface? Again, probably not. Another software factor that can be considered as equally important is iTunes and its ease of use.
On the Mac side of things, a good example is the keyboard backlight on the MacBook Pro. You may not have noticed this, but when you fire up your MacBook Pro in a dimly-lit environment, the keyboard lights up when OS X boots into the login screen.
Now, this is not some technical feat. But, clearly, in the process of designing the MacBook Pro, Apple designers thought far enough to consider the various scenarios a user might be in and included this nice little engineering touch. Maybe the idea began in the development of OS X. Maybe it was added to OS X at the request of the hardware folks. Regardless, the result is elegant, understated and unobstrusive, the way good design should be. This is what absolute control over both software and hardware gets you. The iPhone is another showcase of this combination.
When You’re Not In Control…
In stark contrast, the Windows-PC software/hardware relationship, where the hardware is often nothing more that a shell for the software, makes it difficult for Microsoft and its partners to achieve the seamlessness and elegance of Apple’s software/hardware implementations.
I suspect life must be difficult for the PC designer who has great ideas to enhance user experience but is hampered simply because the OS was never designed to support those ideas. Sony, Fujitsu and Lenovo are, in my opinion, the three manufacturers who consistently produce remarkable design, whose industrial design I admire as much as that of Apple’s. Yet, the only way they can enhance software/hardware user experience is through the custom applications that serve their respective hardware.
Sony, for example, has a complete suite of custom applications from media management to custom control panels to complement its hardware features. While these applications add value to what a user can get out of the computer, and succeed in adding to what the OS lacks, the fact that these applications have a custom user interface so different to that of Windows is where the irony lies. A few snatches of brilliance ultimately defeated by the very thing they strive to enhance…parts that do not add up to the final sum.
This trend is apparent not only in PCs; HTC, Sony Ericsson, HP, Nokia and Samsung are doing the same with smartphones powered by Windows Mobile, Palm OS or UIQ. But how much can front-end applications mask the shortcomings of an underlying host OS that already has its own user interface? The first manufacturer who has an answer to that question will change the landscape forever.
Some manufacturers — Google, HP, Gigabyte and ASUS, to name a few — are thinking exactly that: Google already has an alternative smartphone OS in place, HP is toying with the idea of developing its own Linux-based OS, and ASUS is developing its own front-end to Windows Mobile, close on the heels of HTC and Samsung, both of whom have touchscreen front-ends for their Windows Mobile smartphones.
The Apple Way
Short of reading the minds of the powers-that-be at the helms of Apple, and not mentioning how Mac clones in the ’90s were eating away at Apple’s own sales, I suspect the lack of unity mentioned above is, to some extent, why Steve Jobs will never license OS X to other manufacturers. Sure, it would increase marketshare and sales. But Apple products were never meant to be mere commodity items, at least not under Job’s stewardship.
The Apple experience is a combination of form, function and intangible user emotional responses earned from its masterful blend of software and hardware (though not necessarily in that order; Apple does get naughty once in a while). This positive user experience further leads to strong emotional branding. The risk of disparities arising from the separation of software and hardware, with user experience as the casualty, is a risk neither he nor any one else at Apple will take, now and in the foreseeable future.