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Humanized > Weblog: The Mac and the Whole of the Mac
Apple does not sell computer hardware: Apple sells personal computer systems.

15 Aug 2006

The Mac and the Whole of the Mac


In his excellent recent article Confidence Game about Apple and Microsoft, John Gruber made a statement I take issue with:

“Apple’s Macintosh business is built around selling computer hardware; their competitors in this market are companies like Dell and HP and Sony.”

Apple does not base its business on selling computer hardware. It bases its business on selling computers. Complete products. An Apple Macintosh “off the shelf” is, in the words of Terry Pratchett, “the thing and the whole of the thing”. It works as-is, for all basic computer functions. Computers made by Dell, HP, and Sony don’t even come close to this standard.

Consider this:

You’ve just purchased an $1800 Windows computer. It has all the latest features: DVD burner, big flatscreen display, 3-D sound, etc… the works. You put your favorite DVD in and–after a substantial wait–you’re bombarded with prompts to accept licenses for software you didn’t even know you had. Then you spend more time trying to figure out the cryptic control buttons. If you had purchased a DVD player from Wal-Mart you would be well into the movie by now. Your $1800 computer takes longer to use and is much more frustrating than its $40 cousin, the DVD player. But with my Mac… put “Die Hard” in and the movie is playing in seconds.

Why the difference?

Dell, Sony, HP, and the others–or, DeSHato, as we’ll call them–do not make personal computers: they assemble personal computers. In today’s world, I really think that software is more important that hardware. DeSHato does not make or guarantee the software for their computers. The operating systems they use are made by Microsoft (or sometimes the open source community), their hardware drivers are made by either their hardware vendors or themselves (neither of which make the operating system), and even pre-shipped applications for using the hardware (like DVD players, CD burners, and photo viewers) come from the hardware vendors. If the DeSHato bunch had been making DVD software for the last five years, then their DVD software would be as mature as Apple’s DVD Player. But I have recently used three different HP machines, each of which was shipped with completely different software for playing DVDs.

The difference is in the approach.

All PC manufacturers assemble third-party parts to make their computers; after all, there are only a handful of really saleable CPUs. But most Windows PC manufacturers also assemble third-party software to install on their computers. Since the computer world is volatile, these manufacturers frequently switch hardware and software suppliers to get the best price. The resulting computer is an eclectic set of software with differing interfaces and styles. It’s an utter mess the first time you turn it on. For power-users: how much time have you spent uninstalling software, or wiping the drive and doing a clean Windows install, with the attendant search for drivers? For normal users: how much of the software on your computer do you actually know how to use?

On the other hand, when Apple’s designers create a personal computer, every part of the hardware is picked by the same company that writes the software. Once the hardware is chosen, it stays the same until the next major line of Apple PCs comes out. Basic software for using the hardware is built-in and standardized, so you don’t have to find DVD-playing, CD-playing, CD-burning, text-editing, chat, address book, image viewing, or web-browsing software. Excellent versions of all of these are ready to go. Built-in. Apple designs complete products. They design their software to utilize all of the hardware. And then they sell products that function as advertised, without hassle. They sell products that work out of the box.

You’re familiar with other such complete products: simple stereos, alarm clocks, and televisions are examples. They do what they do, without much hassle. Even cars, highly complex pieces of machinery though they are, do everything advertised without substantial hassle. Not very many computers do that. Yet almost all of Apple’s products seem to manage it.

Consider the iPod.

When Apple launched the iPod, it had zero market share of the portable music device sector. Four years later, it had 70% of that market. But Apple did more than just grab 70% of the market. It created a market where there wasn’t one before: iPod was the first music player that was a complete product: the hardware was designed to use the software, the software was designed to use the hardware, and every part of the system was connected by a master-plan. iTunes was at least half the reason that iPods became so popular. iPods come with iTunes. If your computer meets the very simple requirements, than you can use your iPod with what ships in the box. Any music files you make with iTunes can be played on your iPod. Anything you download from the iTunes music store you can play on your iPod. Very little hassle: the iPod just works.

Compare the iPod with other digital music players.

With Napster, you need a recent version of Windows Media Player, and a recent version of Internet Explorer. If you get a portable music player, your Windows Media Player must be up-to-date, or your media application won’t work (even if you aren’t using Windows Media Player). It’s easy to have created music files in three applications. The files are protected, and it is difficult (sometimes impossible) to have one application that plays all your files. It takes good voodoo magic to make it work, or the willingness to sit through, read, and follow the instructions of every error screen that your application blesses you with. And there will be many.

Compare, again, with a complete product.

Apple makes iPods. Apple makes iTunes. Apple makes them work together nearly seamlessly. Meanwhile, Microsoft makes Windows and Windows Media Player, Napster makes Napster, and Sony makes portable music devices. No wonder they have difficulty talking to each other: one version difference in software between various bits, and the whole house of cards comes crumbling down. It’s like the difference between an organized nation and three walled city-states with an uneasy peace.

Now, I’ve have had problems with my Mac hardware and software. Apple is not infallible. The company has made mistakes, in both design and implementation. Big mistakes. But with Apple, you can go straight to Apple with the problem. If you point out a flaw to HP in its DVD software, you’ll only get a run-around, since HP neither designed nor implemented that software. And there is little hope that HP will fix the problem, because they’ll likely switch DVD players before their next generation of PCs comes out.

All of which is to say:

Apple does not sell computer hardware: Apple sells personal computer systems. Apple does not sell portable music hardware: Apple sells a portable music system. Apple sells complete products…which is depressingly rare in an industry that affects our daily lives so much.

by Andrew Wilson


14 Voices Add yours below.

Excellent and right on the nose.

When I worked at Sun, this was the thing that we were reminded of all the time. We didn’t build individual systems like Dell, we built data centers, the full stack from hardware to the OS and the application servers.

The biggest difference between building or buying a ‘PC’ and a Mac is that the Mac “just works”, there’s a single point of contact for the whole thing, be it the hardware, OS or otherwise.

It certainly does make sense.

Yes, but…

because of their near-monopoly, MS have been prevented in the courts from providing too complete a (software) solution in order not to crush smaller competitors. If Apple had a bigger share of the market, might they experience similar anti-trust objections to the whole product approach?

Spot on!

The OEM model that Microsoft, Dell, HP, Sony and others continue to cling to for Windows PCs will not survive the new “experience-focused” culture. Xbox and Zune already show that Microsoft is finally exploring other models. The OEM model just cannot deliver great, complete products.

Great, complete products will continue to find success as customers continue to be more and more experienced-focused in their purchases and less and less patient with things that don’t just work.

Bill: The “prevented by monopoly” excuse is long in the tooth. Show me the court case that prevents MS from adding a well-designed DVD player in its OS. What actually prevents this is MS’ preference to squeeze every last dime out a copy of Windows, rather than provide a user with a superior experience. If they added a DVD player, they would have to pony up for the licensing fee on DVD decoding for every copy of Windows sold, whether it was on a box with a DVD drive or not.

your assessment is correct but i’d say it can be distilled to an even simpler distinction - the OEM hardware vendors and the approach of M$ and pc’s in general is an attribute-based one vs. Apple’s which is a situational-based approach. Clayton Christiensen talks at length about this critical distinction in his book Innovator’s Solution - basically when Apple is creating a product (which is a combo of the hardware/software) they’re looking at the situation the customer is using the product for and solving their challenges. M$ and PC manufacturers generally only look at the _features_ they are adding instead of focusing on the situation.

this is a fairly decent 2min audio summary of this concept->


Miro Jakubowski
August 16th, 2006 1:23 pm

I buy computers for only one reason which I consider the raison d’etre, i.e. programming. For that very reason they are open and not whole.

BTW your link to the John Gruber article has an extra http//…

Part of the problem as well, is that it is easy to attach metrics to hardware for selling purposes: A consumer may not know what a 2 GHz processor is, but they know that it sounds faster than a 1.7 GHz processor.

However, no metrics exist to describe the usability or “it just works” factors that might make a more effectively utilized, easier to use but slower piece of hardware a better choice. This intrinsic ease-of sale in bleeding edge hardware specs, combined with the fact that usability is by definition an experiential good will continue to limit Apple?s market share and growth potential.

I wonder if it might behoove someone to devise some usability metrics that sales people could slap on a box? I.e. this new computer has a 98/100 usability factor considering it?s built in hardware and software.

Richard Karpinski
September 24th, 2006 8:41 pm

Hmmm. No action on a busted link many weeks later. Does nobody read what we say? Is this really a web monologue?

Colin, you said:

“If they added a DVD player, they would have to pony up for the licensing fee on DVD decoding for every copy of Windows sold, whether it was on a box with a DVD drive or not.”

And they would pass that cost along to the consumer, whether that consumer wanted/needed a DVD drive in their box or not.

Thanks, Richard, Lemi4, for pointing out the broken link. My apologies for not fixing it sooner.

stiven Kerestegian
October 24th, 2006 1:10 pm

Comparisons between MS and Apple stopped making sence 15 years ago. They are completelly different business models and platforms.
This might be taken as an insult to all the Apple fanatics out there, but Apple does not have better designers or more innovative employees than other top players in the industry, it’s just that it’s much easier to create complete and beautifull solution when you control and own all the elements and components in a sytem experience. In my opinion, Apple should have a much greater lead in user experience and innovation than what it actually does. Do you know how much more complicated it is to develop “anything” when you have to consider thousands of other companies applications. Not to mention the whole array of hardware components and periferals. As an industrial designer I trully appreciate and use Apple products but I’m not blinded by my appretiation of good design. This closed system approach will be less of an advantage as applications move from the OS computer software model to an on-line web service model as Google, Yahoo and MS are heavily leanig towards.

10 years ago, we just had a computer, and we spent lots of time fiddling with the settings. Now we have a computer, cell phone, iPod, and a PDA. We don?t have time to fiddle with all the settings anymore. Consumers now demand straightforward products ? ones that function as advertised. Those are the complete products and those are the ones that sell.

So…when are we going to see Enso for the Mac? [sez he, typin’ away on his Dell Latitude D820]

Sure, I make my living programming on Windows - it doesn’t mean I have to like it!


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