Apple, Innovation, and Me

I am what you might call a closet Mac fan. I use a Mac every day, for everything that I do, but I don’t evangelize it like many Mac users do. I don’t write about it much in my blog, and I don’t ever get into conversations with people about how much I enjoy using […]

I am what you might call a closet Mac fan. I use a Mac every day, for everything that I do, but I don’t evangelize it like many Mac users do. I don’t write about it much in my blog, and I don’t ever get into conversations with people about how much I enjoy using it. Once in a while I’ll see someone with a Mac laptop and I’ll say I’ve got a Titanium Powerbook and an iPod and they’ll smile back. Enough said.

A common reason given for Macs being so well-beloved by their users is that they “just work”. You don’t have to think about it: they just simply do what you want them to do. Problems are rare. In fact, I’ve had to restart my machine only 6 times in 2 plus years. (when your computer suddenly becomes rock solid you notice). Only 2 of those times have come since I upgraded to Panther last year.

The usability field, in an effort to understand companies like Apple and their super-devoted niche, tend to focus on the role of usability and testing within the design team there. Does Apple even do usability testing? If so, what kind? How many employees do they have devoted to usability? After a fashion they wonder, is it the usability of their products that make people so devoted, or could it be the amazing marketing campaigns that consistently win awards? Or is it the provocative, yet simple, hardware?

Being in the usability field myself, I find these questions highly interesting. I would very much like to know how Apple does it. However, instead of trying to figure that out, I’m writing today – bending my own rules a bit – to tell you why I’m devoted to the Mac.

The most innovative design is the design that exerts the least amount of force on us. It allows us to be ourselves – to return to the original activities that we’re on the planet for: those activities which make life interesting, sharable, and fun. Simple things like talking, reading, listening, and writing. For example, when people use software to “chat” they’re really doing a very basic communicative activity. Innovation is not about doing new things, it’s about new ways of doing old things.

Innovation is a interesting phenomenon. On the one hand we have rapidly changing technology driven by capitalism, ever pushing forward like a teenager in heat. On the other hand we have relatively static activities driven by humanism, like an adult who is set in their ways. The paradigm here is that our lives change much more than people change and so we welcome new technology as simply part of that life change. In other words, we’re doing the same things people have been doing for millennia and calling it new because it’s new to us.

The other day I asked myself: what is it that I really do on my Mac? After thinking about it for a few minutes I realized that I couldn’t get far beyond the basic human activities I mentioned above. The main things I do on my Mac, taking up the vast majority of my time, are reading and writing. For these things I use Safari and TextEdit. I also have a few activities that I do less: I use iChat to chat, I use iPhoto to share photos, I use Mail to email, I use Terminal to communicate with web servers, I use iCal to scheduling, and I use iTunes to listen to music. The only non-Apple applications that I use consistently are Shrook for getting up-to-date news, Macromedia Dreamweaver and Firefox for web publishing, and Microsoft Office v.X for sharing files with co-workers (who use Windows Office).

The only things I’m doing here that are in any way uncommon are the tools I use for my job as a researcher and web publisher.

So Apple has all the basic bases covered. There really isn’t a common activity that they don’t have an answer for. Of course, though, these applications have analogous brethren on other operating systems. They are not unique in any way except that they have only very basic features with few, if any, advanced features. It would be easy to set up a Windows or Linux machine with similar applications and use them there.

So why the Mac, then? Why not simply set up a non-Mac to do all these things?

My answer is that Apple is focusing their attention on basic human activities instead of basic corporate activities; they’re innovating on a human scale at an order of magnitude higher than Microsoft or Linux companies. Simplicity is the key here. While corporations – for better or worse – create complex business rules for everything they do, humans stay relatively simple in their needs. Apple seems to realize that, as their bundled applications make clear.

So for corporate software, consider Microsoft Office. I did, and I have very good integration with the files of my co-workers. Do not let my argument mislead you into thinking that I don’t think there is great software on Windows or Linux. I most certainly do. But the thing is that, though it’s really good software, I don’t care a whit about it. It’s not what helps make me, well, me. For those things that are part of my human experience, I find myself appreciating the Mac at every turn.

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, was recently asked how he manages for innovation. He replied:

“We hire people who want to make the best things in the world. You’d be surprised how hard people work around here. They work nights and weekends, sometimes not seeing their families for a while. Sometimes people work through Christmas to make sure the tooling is just right at some factory in some corner of the world so our product comes out the best it can be. People care so much, and it shows.”

He was also asked about Mac users’ loyalty:

“It’s because when you buy our products, and three months later you get stuck on something, you quickly figure out [how to get past it]. And you think, “Wow, someone over there at Apple actually thought of this!” And then three months later you try to do something you hadn’t tried before, and it works, and you think “Hey, they thought of that, too.” And then six months later it happens again. There’s almost no product in the world that you have that experience with, but you have it with a Mac. And you have it with an iPod.”

People designing for people. It does show, and I appreciate that.

Published: December 3rd, 2004