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.
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