How Apple can get its mojo back

Apple executives like to talk about the post-PC era as an opportunity. But they have a post-Steve Jobs crisis that needs resolution first -- and fast. This week's calendar fourth quarter earnings report is time to assess where the company is and where it might be a year from now, and whether investors should lift falling shares from the nosedive.

Post-Steve Jobs -- and I'm talking as much about the time before his death -- Apple has lost the quality that made great products. The company’s approach to computer/device design is consistent and pervasive: Humanization. Apple design seeks to humanize complex technological products. There has been much written about Apple design in context of products that look good. But there is something more fundamental: Designing tech that is easy to use by making it more an extension of the human being -- more part of you. It's this quality missing from recent new product iterations, which aren't any more human-like than their predecessors. Meanwhile, competitors like Samsung do better.

Crisis of Heart

The severity of Apple's problem hit me aside the head on Thursday, when I received simply unbelievable email from Carlos Viscarra. He is BetaNews' most notorious commenter, and the only one who generates consistent complaints and requests to ban -- and I have done so a couple times (He's back with new identity). Carlos uses such foul language directed at me that Al Pacino in movie Scarface would blush. He's Apple fanatic extreme and has offended just about every reader while defending the company.

Yet in the message he confessed switching to Samsung Galaxy Note II from iPhone 5. There are no words to describe my shock. Given our sordid history, someone else would have deleted the message and let that be it. But I don't take Carlos' attacks personally (which is one reason why previous bans only came after a torrent of others' complaints). He's a loyal reader after all, and I respect the passion. So I suggested turning Carlos' switching tale into a story for BetaNews.

In context of his passionate, unabashed Apple defense, switching to Note 2 says much about iPhone as a competitive product and what Apple needs to do differently. But so does the response to his switch. I posted Carlos' "I can't believe I switched from iPhone 5 to Galaxy Note II" late Friday. By Sunday, the switcher tale is the most successful BetaNews story, as measured by social media response, ever. I see 4.9k Google +1 and 1.2k Facebook Likes. I shared story link on Google+, generating more than 2,800 +1 there and maxing out the 500-comment limit in about 12 hours. Clearly someone is interested in this tale.

If you haven't read Carlos' story, and care anything Apple, you really should. Because when someone so loyal to the so-called cult has the tech equivalent of a different religion conversion, something seriously is wrong down 1 Infinite Loop.

One More Thing

Apple's current problem is one-part perception and another-part execution, and they're intertwined. Last week, Robert X. Cringely astutely summed up the previous leadership: "The Steve Jobs technique is to grow the company by entering new markets with brilliant solutions, creating whole new product categories". The approach accomplishes a couple things, starting with the mystic that Apple out-innovates everyone else. Meanwhile Apple expands its business into new areas, which was all the more important when Jobs' assumed the role of Interim CEO in 1997; Microsoft dominated the only viable computing platform, and there was no growth opportunities for any competitor.

Apple's category creation or reinvention of existing ones is simply stunning. Among the many, many examples:

  • iMac (1998)
  • iTunes (2001)
  • Titanium PowerBook (2001)
  • iPod (2001)
  • iTunes Music Store (2003)
  • iLife (2003)
  • iPod mini (2004)
  • iPod nano (2005)
  • iPhone (2007)
  • App Store (2008)
  • MacBook Air 13.3-inch (2008)
  • iPad (2010)
  • MacBook Air 11.6-inch (2010)

Each of these products opened new categories for the company, and some for the broader tech industry. Like a sculptor, Apple refined each product line over the years. iPod and iTunes Store are among the best examples of successful iteration from initial innovation. Using the newest ultra-thin iMacs as example, Cringely observes: "It’s increasingly harder to be demonstrably better within a mature product class". That's particularly true when product lines pass what analysts sometimes call the "good enough" threshold. Apple is there with iMac and iPod.

"Jobs’ answer to almost any challenge was to create a new product category", Cringely claims. Current CEO Tim Cook's answer is the same now as a decade ago. Jobs orchestrated "one more thing" products, while Cook as COO maximized profits from them by way of logistics. He continues to do just that, and magnanimously based on revenue. Starting in 2010, Apple saw tremendous -- simply astounding -- revenue and profit gains, nearly doubling in one year from $13.5 billion to $24.7 billion and $3.1 billion to $6 billion, respectively. During fiscal 2010, Apple generated $65.23 billion in revenue. 2011: $108.25 billion. For fiscal 2012, which closed end of September: $156.51 billion. Apple revenue is up 140 percent from fiscal 2010. During the same time period, Apple's net income rose from $14.01 billion to $25.92 billion to $41.733 billion.

But post-Steve Jobs, with shares down 29 percent from the all-time high set in September, Apple has a perception problem. Rumors abound about slowing iPad and iPhone sales, which overwhelmingly generate the bulk of revenue, and no new category in sight feed ongoing perception problems. Simply stated: There is no new mountain to climb, and Apple needs one.

Back to You

I disagree with this thinking. Apple can hugely succeed, even turnaround perceptions, by simply getting back to basics.

Steve Jobs had a vision in the beginning that is part of Apple's core corporate culture: emphasis on simplicity by making tech more extension of the user. Three years ago, I posted: "What 1984 Macintosh marketing reveals about iPad". The advertising taglines reveal much about this design approach.

Apple didn’t invent the mouse concept but most certainly brought it to market first in a more meaningful way. Early Macintosh marketing emphasized the importance of the mouse, in conjunction with the graphical user interface, as an extension of your finger. From the 1984 Newsweek ad spread for the original Mac:

If you can point, you can use Macintosh, too. It’s probably safe to assume, at this point, that you can point. And having mastered the oldest known method of making yourself understood, you’ve also mastered using the most sophisticated business computer yet developed. Macintosh...Macintosh lets you create something as complex as a vertical bar chart. With something as simple as your finger.

Now compare to iPhone marketing, circa 2010: "Control everything on iPhone with a tap, a flick, or a pinch of your fingers" Or to iPad: "Navigating the Web has never been easier or more intuitive, because you use the most natural pointing device there is: Your finger".

These similarities aren't coincidence. They represent an approach to product design and marketing -- something missing right now. As recently as three years ago, Apple iPhone marketing focused on human-like qualities -- how the device responded to users -- with emphasis on benefits. Take a look at the iPhone 5 product page posted in 2013. Emphasis is features -- things like microprocessor speed, size of the display, LTE network support and new Lightning connector -- rather than benefits.

I cannot express the differences' importance. In October 2004, I compared Apple and Microsoft marketing movie-editing products. Microsoft's Plus! Digital Media Edition website read like a list of product features, like "50 new video effects and transitions". Emphasis: Features. By contrast, Apple's iMovie product website enticed: "You're the producer. You're the director. You're the editor". Would you rather have 50 features or feel empowered to make a movie?

For years, I praised Apple for aspirational marketing that emphasized benefits, and I contrasted against competitors rattling off feature lists. Sadly, Apple is feature crazy. Cook and Company have lost their way, and with it the humanity that created great marketing.

But more fundamentally, something else is missing, and that circles back to the Macintosh when launched in 1984 and iPhone and iPad (in 2007 and 2010, respectively) -- and, really, to the entire list of products above. Each and every one focuses on simplicity while making the device less inanimate. Humanness made the original iPhone stand apart from all competing cellular handsets. Apple used a variety of sensors to imbue the quality. Touch, and its intimacy, and the way the handset responded to your proximity gave it the human quality. There really was nothing like iPhone in June 2007. Three years later, Apple refined the concept with iPad.

Most Natural User Interface

It’s all very sensible. Human beings are tool users who experience and manipulate the world through five senses. Apple products appeal to the eyes through design, whether it’s the software GUI or hardware appearance. But the eyes are passive instruments. Hands and fingers are more important because they are active -- they’re how people tactilely manipulate the world around them.

People examine objects they desire as much with their hands as their eyes. Watch how people interact with items for sale -- first people look, and then they touch.

Too many technological devices are too difficult to use because they expose too much complexity. Compare to the human body: The underlying biological mechanisms behind hand movement may be complex, but for most people the complexity is largely hidden. The keyboard is unnatural user interface; it exposes too much complexity. There is little in human biological or cultural experience that supports use of the keyboard. It’s a particularly unnatural construct, in which organization is based on the number of times letters are likely to be used. The mouse is more natural than the keyboard, because of the hand and finger-clicking movement. But the mouse is still a makeshift extension of the human being.

The finger and touch are more natural, because they extend you. Good user interfaces build on the familiar -- and there is nothing more familiar than me, myself and I. See, say, hear and touch. Apple’s approach to non-Mac devices --iPad, iPhone and iPod touch -- more naturally extends the hands, fingers, eyes and even mouth (for voice activation). Successful user interfaces of the future will have similar attributes.

And this is where Apple started in 1984! Why stop in 2013? Because the concept's champion and shepard is gone. Human responsiveness once set iPhone apart from every other handset, but competitors get it. Meanwhile, with the exception of Siri, Apple has done little the make iPhone more human-like, more responsive to you since 2007.

Take Samsung as example. Galaxy III's ad tagline is "designed for humans", and it's apparent in features making the device more responsive to people and product marketing site that emphasizes benefits (like Apple used to) rather than hardware features.

Sammy Says

Example text:

  • "Smart Stay. It waits till you're asleep: the screen maintains a bright display as long as you're looking at it".
  • "Direct call. It knows when you want to talk: if you're sending a message but decide to call instead, simply lift the phone to your ear and it will dial your friend's number automatically".
  • "S Beam. It shares what’s in your heart: place two Samsung Galaxy S III's back-to-back and you can transfer pictures, music, videos, and more".

These are aspirational benefits that make the phone more responsive, more human-like. By contrast, as aforementioned, it's all A6 processors, LTE support and Retina Display over at the iPhone 5 product page. Since Apple didn't really add any more humanness to the new device, perhaps that's reason to focus on what's different. But feature focus steps back from what made Apple products, and marketing around them, stand apart from all others. They also rightly buoyed the innovation-above-all-others mystic.

So we come back to Apple lover Carlos Viscarra discarding iPhone 5 for Galaxy Note II: "I am biased but not stupid. Galaxy Note is so much better, and I can't deny it -- much as I really want to".

Apple has got to get back to basics, to recover its mojo. That means making humanness a product development priority. That will take time, and there's no need to wait. Advertising can be changed instantly. The company should get back to the kind of aspirational product marketing that made campaigns like "Think Different" historic. Hello! Tim Cook! People often don't know what's good for them unless you tell them. Apple isn't telling a compelling enough story about iPhone and iPad, for starters. Show people the benefits and why their lives will be better for buying one of these touch devices -- and better than if they bought something else.

I see glimmer of hope in iTunes 11, which streamlined user interface satisfies and foreshadows that maybe, just maybe, the post-Steve Jobs era can realign product development or marketing priorities. If not, Carlos will stand as a metaphor for the future.

Photo Credit: Joe Wilcox

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