"Skating to where the puck is going to be" is an old Wayne Gretzky saying that Steve Jobs once quoted, and so it gets rehashed a lot when discussing Apple's strategy for moving into new markets. Typically that's with hardware like iPhone, iPad, or potential hardware like the rumored iWatch, or with features like iTunes, AirPlay or Passbook. It's also an apt way to describe Apple's commercial strategy.
Time was, if you wanted to buy an Apple product, you had to search out one of the few, though often incredibly enthusiastic authorized resellers, or scour the dusty back shelves of a department retailer. Then Apple started building Apple Stores. They gave customers a place to go, and provided them with a great experience when they got there. But it wasn't enough. Even with stores in the hundreds, not everyone had one conveniently nearby. Apple Online could ship almost anywhere, but getting real products in real stores would take more. Apple knew that, so they built-out "stores within stores" at big boxes. And they kept going, getting their consumer devices on the shelves of popular electronics stores, megamarts, and this year, office depots.
They even made an Apple Store app because a growing segment of the market doesn't even go to the web anymore. They go to apps.
Apple's early retail strategy was unfocused and ineffective. They stepped back, regrouped, carefully built out something that could not only scale, but adapt, and then they began to deploy.
Time was, if you wanted to see Apple's ads you had to catch them on TV, hunt through Apple.com, or search out a bootleg online. Transformative campaigns like Think Different, Get a Mac, and App for That either required you to seek them out in unfriendly, hard-to-share formats, or suffer through a version uploaded at low quality, often with ancillary ads, commentary or agendas. Now Apple has a YouTube channel where they upload not only their own ads, but promotional videos and keynotes as well, in good quality, often the same day they air on TV or at events.
Even though it's owned by one of Apple's biggest competitors, Google, it's also the second biggest search engine in the world, enjoys massive mainstream awareness, and is almost a community unto itself.
Time was, if you wanted media and apps from Apple you had to go to iTunes and the App Store. Now iTunes is on Facebook, and Apple has multiple Twitter accounts for everything from movie trailers to podcasts, music to apps. They've even begun featuring iBooks inside the popular social reader, Flipboard.
Apple figured out that people coming to their stores were likely already customers, and already predisposed to buy. Putting their wares on social networks allowed them to push beyond the boundaries of their web site and devices, to where potential customers could be found. A like or a re-tweet here, and chance flip there, and someone who may not have even thought about visting an Apple Store or buying something suddenly sees a link, and maybe, curiously, clicks or taps on it.
Some have criticized Apple for these moves, accused them of devaluing their brand or tarnishing the premium aura of their products. By like Daring Fireball's John Gruber has often said, Apple is all about mainstream luxury. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad, and everything that rounds out the product line, has never been about snooty exclusivity but about exceptionally well made accessibility.
People used to joke, sometimes disparagingly, about seeing Apple products at the local quicky mart. That's not a joke. It's just constrained to gift cards. For now.
Apple is skating hard, not just to where their customers are, but to where they're customers are going to be.
Note to devs: I said YouTube instead of video because not putting your app videos on YouTube is like making your website exclusive to Bing. Apple's on YouTube for a reason. You should be too.