I have to admit to a strong bias up front: I love Apple. I think they’re responsible for some of the best technology products our industry has produced in the past 25 years, and I have been a fan of the company since the Lisa (which I consider a prototype for the Mac). I view Steve Jobs as one of the best product managers of all time.

Recently the Apple iPhone made its debut, and once again they have redefined the industry. But when I talk to people about that product, and Apple in general, I’m struck by how many different opinions there are as to what accounts for their success.

I strongly disagree with those that attribute their success to marketing prowess (although I think they’re quite good at marketing).

To explain, I thought I’d talk about the iPhone. Not so much about the specifics of it, but why I think Apple is able to consistently redefine major consumer markets – whether it’s personal computers, digital music players, or cell phones.

There is a great deal to learn from Apple, but to me there are four higher-order lessons:

1. The Hardware Serves the Software

Unlike virtually every other hardware company, Apple understands that the role of the hardware is to serve the software, and not the other way around. The software needs to know what the user wants the phone to do, so hardware technologies like multi-touch displays, and accelerometer and proximity sensors are invented to enable this. Every technology is there for a purpose. That said, while the hardware and software technology are truly impressive, Apple understands that once you get beyond the early adopters, that’s not what people care about. Which leads to the next point…

2. The Software Serves the User Experience

Almost every consumer company out there today gives lip service to the user experience, but Apple means it. Usability, interaction design, visual design, industrial design, are all front and center in the the priorities and it shows. It may have taken two a half years to come up with the iPhone, but the team knew that it was all about the user experience, and they knew they had to move mountains to make the experience great. In addition, they have the talent and persistence at all levels of the company to make this happen. Contrast this with the now famous example of Microsoft’s effort to make even a very minor and long overdue user experience improvement in Vista. However, as fundamental as the user experience is, Apple understands that…

3. The User Experience Serves the Emotion

If Apple has a secret sauce as a technology company, I believe it’s this: They understand better than anyone else the role that emotion plays in getting consumers to crave, buy, and love a product. They know how to create products that speak to these emotions in consumers. People are craving the iPhone. $500 for a phone? No problem at all, because consumers aren’t comparing the iPhone to a Razr or a Treo; it’s in an entirely different league. Take a look around an airport lounge; people treat their PC like a rental car, but they flaunt their MacBook like it’s their dream car. And, if you’re brave enough, just try to take a teen’s iPod away from him.

4. The Product Serves a Real Need

Apple products are rarely first to market, but they always speak to a real, unmet need. There are well over a hundred different cell phones available, but it’s hard to find people that actually love their phone. They get frustrated dealing with voice mail systems that haven’t improved in decades, incompatible address books, unusable web browsers, and e-mail hacks. Apple comes along with a product that speaks directly to these unmet needs. The same thing happened with digital music players.

It’s amazing to me how few companies get these points. Even the many companies that are just trying to copy, only think to copy the functionality, and don’t copy what’s really important.

Not to pick on Microsoft, but their recently released Zune product is just too big of a target to pass up. But even if they had done a better job copying the user experience and design, it would have still been dead on arrival. That’s because while Microsoft was busy trying to copy the iPod, Apple was busy reinventing the iPod. As good as the iPod is, the iPhone’s music and video capabilities make it look like ancient history, and frankly make the Zune just look plain silly.

But don’t think this point is just about Apple and Microsoft. I find many of the same parallels with TiVo and their competitors. I would argue that the TiVo team personifies these same virtues, and similarly, while their competitors scramble to copy the functionality, they are missing the attributes that make TiVo the product success that it is.

Whether the iPhone turns out to have the industry impact I’m anticipating still remains to be seen, but in any case, I admire what Apple has created, and the courage and talents of their company to consistently produce the types of products that attracted me to this industry in the first place.

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