The Spectre of competition comes after Apple.... again

At the end of 2002, I started looking at personal technology as an industry analyst — a rarity at that time — and one of the first products I looked at was Apple's iPod. iPod fascinated me, in part because the lukewarm reception it received at its launch was befuddling. Yes, Apple wasn't the first to the MP3 player space, and the company had never been known for its portable accessories or music chops.

But after I used iPod for a day, it was clear to me that it was going to be a breakout hit.

Quantification of solace

I wanted to quantify what I intuitively knew: That Apple understood there were three equal drivers consumers would be looking for in a device like iPod.

  • The first: Users wanted moving content to their devices to be easy. Apple solved this by creating FireWire for the first iPod, making transfer of content quick and simple.

  • The second: Understanding the sweet spot for capacity. Very few users at that time had more than 1000 songs in their music collections, and iPod's initial 5GB capacity matched that perfectly. 1000 songs "in your pocket" was the perfect reality for a world where consumers prized form and function.

  • The third: Battery life, which was and continues to be exceedingly important to users. Apple's iPod balanced a pocketable size with enough battery life to get people through a critical time period — a cross-country flight. 1000 songs at your fingertips was a lifesaver when you needed to make it through a coach flight in a middle seat.

Competition royale

Competition in the MP3 player space at the time was one-dimensional. Some companies offered devices with up to 20GB of storage, ignoring the practical size of most customers' music collections, and hampered their devices with slow USB 1.0 transfers. (I think I still have one of those devices connected somewhere, still trying to finish its first 5GB transfer...) Others focused on form factor over capacity. They were cool, small devices, but they were hampered by tiny Flash memory capacities that couldn't hold enough music to be genuinely useful. And then there were the devices that offered lengthy battery life, but missed the mark on every other metric.

I bring this up today because HP has announced an expansion of their Spectre line of PCs, largely aiming to steal the mantle of great product design from Apple.

How will they do this? Because the newest edition of the Spectre line set to claim the mantle of the "thinnest" laptop in the world, of course — as if thinness alone is the measure of greatness. It's exactly the type of one-dimensional thinking that so many competitors have used when positioning products against Apple over the last decade. They all share only one other thing in common — it's never worked.


Does Apple have designers and engineers that intuitively understand the factors that drive product success, or does the company's meticulous research and development keep it ahead of the game? I won't offer an opinion except to say that it doesn't matter as long as the company is able to keep doing it.

Competing with Apple by focusing on one aspect of a product or strategy, like thinness, is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. It's as if competing with the Apple retail experience requires only the installation of a better glass staircase in a store, or slick wooden tables for your merchandise.

There's more than one dimension to any successful Apple product. If you're looking to compete, you'd better be thinking in at least three dimensions, if not four.