Apple – Nifty Product and Keeping Secrets

So I'm not exactly what you'd call an early adopter.  Sure, I try to stay up-to-date with all the trends, but I've always had a saying that I (like many people) like to be second.  I want to get something early, but I'd rather see someone else have success with it first before I have at it.  Of course, sometimes, a product is so compelling that I am willing to take the leap.  That's what I did with the Nike+ running device that connects to an iPod Nano.  Yeah, I know, a Microsoft person isn't supposed to have an iPod.  To be fair, I had a Dell DJ for 2+ years and loved every minute of it--and even that came after years with two Creative Nomads and a Iomega HipZip.  But the Dell eventually ran out of gas (darn hard drive couldn't handle all that Linkin Park and Stevie Wonder back-to-back) and they stopped making them.  Meanwhile, I fell in love with the size of the Nano (truly pocket size!) and when I found a refurbished 4GB version for $125 (thank you Circuit City scratch & dent), I had to go for it.  Plus, I liked the ecosystem of hardware that was being built for the iPod.  Of course, I didn't buy any of the ecosystem products, but it was nice to know it was there.  And then I saw the Nike+. 

Let me provide a little context.  Three years ago, my wife made the brilliant purchase of getting me a Timex GPS tracker.  It monitored distance, speed, time, etc. using a GPS tracking device that strapped to your arm and transmitted the information to my watch.  I say it's brilliant gift because I am sure she prefers me to run and stay in shape and she managed to appeal to my sense of competitiveness.  I already ran moderately, but she knew that with this device, I'd push myself--"how many miles can I run this day/week/month?"  Since the watch had an odometer, I was anxious to build up that number.  The next holiday season, she stepped up her game and got me a Data Recorder, which tracked each individual workout data and uploaded it to my PC for further analysis.  Ha!  Appealing to my competitiveness and my love of numbers.  She knew I'd want to know "what was the trend throughout the run?  when did I slow down and when did I speed up?"  Damn, this woman is good.

Well,  1400 miles later, I'd still become pretty reliant upon this GPS system.  But it seemed a little overkill in that the equipment was bulky, the GPS was sometimes slow to sync, and the data analysis tool was rudimentary at best.  I usually pulled down the data to an Excel spreadsheet and used Pivot Tables to see my information in the way that I wanted.  This year, since my daughter was born, my running had slipped (as expected).  Perhaps I was a little bored since I had crossed the 1000 mile mark, notched a few 10+ mile runs, and didn't quite have the inspiration I once did.  But, when I saw the Nike+, I saw great way to integrate music into my runs, a better interface for analyzing my runs, and even a way to get a little competitive with the running community (you can see where you rank against all other runners using the Nike+ system--for the record, my Nike+ alias is Sandman).

Hats off to Apple.  With Nike+, they did it again.  They essentially regressed a technology (going from GPS to a pedometer) and fulfilled a significant partnership (Nike) to deliver a customer experience that was far better than the one that leveraged the superior technology. As I always say, customers don't feel a technology--they feel an experience.  That experience is often powered by a technology. The data analysis application rocks, the cool touches such as hearing voices during your run to monitor time and distance, picking a "power song" to play when you need that extra boost ("Everlong" by the Foo Fighters, in my case)., and getting a price point that is affordable (~$100 shoes and $30 device vs. $300+ for the GPS system without shoes).  I say did it again because this was a similar formula with the IPod.  Then, Nike ditched flash memory for hard drives (remember how MP3 players bragged about no moving parts--apparently customers didn't care THAT much) and partnered with the major recording labels to integrate well with their new product.  Then, they just heaped on the value (high capacity to put entire collections of music on one device, better design, easier connections to the PC, and iTunes as the primary user interface).  They didn't quite the pricing right, but people don't seem to care.  Apple know consumers and their wants.  They are the new Sony. 

But with that said, I do find one thing very fascinating about Apple.  People have implored that Microsoft be more open with the way we operate.  So, almost to a fault, we share every detail possible about what we're building, when it'll be out, etc.  Transparency is the name of the game around these parts and we're trying to be the open company that operates off customer feedback of our ideas.  Whether it's Origami, Zune, or Vista and Visual Studio, we're always sharing, sharing, sharing.  However, Apple isn't held to this same standard.  Apple is all about the unveiling.  No one knew the Nike+ was coming out until the day of its arrival.    One story suggests Motorola didn't even know about the video iPod when it was released, even though it was coming out the same day as the ROKR phone and would clearly create a conflict in battling for attention.  When someone does leak the information, Apple goes nuts and brings litigation against them (I wonder if Apple was as villified for suing the Harvard student as Microsoft was for suing Mike Rowe, the kid that came up with mikerowesoft idea).  Microsoft could never get away with that approach.  Why is that?  Is it because of market share (in which case, they should starting sharing info on the iPod, which is becoming the standard)?  Is it because of the case with the DOJ?  I'm not saying I dislike transparency (though I wish we'd tone it down, sometimes).  I just want to understand how customer expectations have built it so that we are on the hook for so much more than Apple or even Google.   Feel free to post any thoughts that are constructive (ie, don't rant about Microsoft being evil--that is so tired)...

Comments (7)
  1. Garry Trinder says:

    I actually prefer the transparent approach in the majority of cases. It’s a double-edged sword for both MS and the consumer — having a feedback loop between MS and customers is a definite benefit, but it can frustrate both parties if roadmaps change, are misinterpreted, or if it takes a long time to realise the benefits. Apple goes for the instant (or almost instant — usually within 6 months of announcement depending on product and supply) gratification launch most of the time.

    Overall, I think MS’ openness obligation vs. Apple’s closed nature is the result of differences in their respective primary customers. MS’ primary customers are developers, businesses, and governments, entities that have historically demanded roadmaps and longer product cycles. Apple’s customers are primarily home users and the portion of the creative market that still thinks the PC offers no equivilant to their Mac software. Generally these users don’t mind the secrecy/surprise cycle, unless the surprise comes shortly after they’ve purchased a product related to/obsolesced by that surprise. Then they wish they waited on their purchase and that Apple had been more forthcoming. This kind of cycle doesn’t work well with businesses, OEMs, ISVs, IHVs, etc., wanting to plan ahead and/or being dependent on your support, APIs, etc., either.

    MS also has a lot of there future work available via open research of MSR, government monitoring, and an increasing reliance on existing standards and standardizing their own technologies. Standardization adds significant time to release cycles and by its nature is an open process. This is clearly great all around, but it does cost MS in agility. MS also usually has more leaks despite efforts to prevent them (see Zune). Not really sure how that can be avoided with so many people (employees and partners) involved though.

    The above factors don’t keep MS from surprising people, but they do usually keep the surprise to the initial announcement/demo at a conference/event, and rarely is there instant gratification following the announcement except in mostly home user products/technologies (hardware, XBOX/XNA, Live, others). Of course, CTPs have helped the instant gratification aspect for the business case.

    As stated earlier, in most cases I value the openess over instant gratification (especially for larger products with many dependencies like Windows) as the customer actually gets to help shape the product rather than just being given what the company thinks they want. MS just has to be careful to make it known that plans can change so some customers and the press don’t think things are set in stone.

  2. Pinto says:

    I concur that the distinction between business and home consumer audiences is significant.  Businesses want predictability, openly assessable cost/benefit information and a generally stable atmosphere.  MS clearly caters to those desires.  Patches released on a schedule.  Slow (years… like Debian slow) release cycles.  Emphasis on backwards compatibility over new features (IE7 still supports IE6 quirks mode; is still weak in terms of CSS and XHTML).  And so on.

    Apple and Google tend to target a consumer audience.  Consumers have a totally different mindset and need entirely different things.  My mother doesn’t plan her business processes around the software update schedule of her computer.  She also likes surprises.  For folks like her, an Apple media event is like a few more Christmases each year.  You never know what you’re going to get, but there’s a decent chance that it’ll be cool.  This might not be a good environment in which to run a business, but my mother doesn’t run a business.  She runs a mac mini under her desk that  handles her photo uploads, email and web browsing.

    As for the DOJ and MS is evil business, that’s probably a factor.  Apple might have earned some ill will with their lawsuits against loose lips, but MS is still leagues behind in terms of public image.  At best, MS is seen as a stodgy, somewhat soul-less corporate goliath.  They’re the guys that make the software that you have to use at work.  The OS interface is utilitarian and generally grey.  At worst, folks remember how MS has wronged them.  Viruses, spyware, WGA and all of that aren’t an issue for Apple or Google.  As a web developer, I’ll readily admit that the abuse I suffer at the hands of IE6 leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  I understand that MS is a big company, but it’s hard not to apply my feelings about the IE fiasco to other departments and to the company as a whole.

    Really, Apple and Google despite some PR hiccups tend to get the benefit of the doubt.  MS, once the darling of the tech world, has had a few too many missteps in the PR wars over the past 5-6 years.  I wouldn’t call it evil exactly, but I certainly wouldn’t say that the average consumer considers MS to be a friendly corp.

  3. Why yes, I did. In the words of Jim Newkirk, I "drank the Kool-Aid" and picked one up. Rarely have I

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