I read a post on techvibes that purports to show how Apple became more than a “computer company”. They attempt to draw a straight line from Mac to iPod to iPhone and iPad, and imply that Apple was simply borrowing on their customer brand experience to move from being primarily a computer company to a producer of mobile technology. They do rightly point out the importance of iTunes, but miss the point about what Apple the company is, and has been since about 1983, and in my mind get the sequence of events wrong.
The day the Macintosh was released, Apple demonstrated that it was a design company that builds computers. While technologically impressive in some ways, the Mac was also technologically limited in others. It changed the way people view computers, how they work and how they could be used. But it was more a lesson in design. When Steve left Apple, the company lost its way, run by executives that seemed to view Apple as a computer company first. At first, they made token attempts to retain design, but treated it as something that was sprinkled on or slapped on later.
Steve’s return meant a return to design first. Part of that mantra included the design of the user experience. To assume that Apple’s customer experience drove iPod sales overlooks that fact that most iPod buyers, starting in 2004, weren’t Macintosh users and hadn’t used an Apple product. They were only marginally aware of Apple the company, other than some knew they built computers of some kind. Few, if any of them, had ever set foot in an Apple Store. The iPod actually became a gateway to the Mac for some people, and the rebirth of the Mac (and the subsequent rise in sales and marketshare) can be tracked to this time. Apple was able to succeed with the iPod partly because of the design, and partly because of the ecosystem that is iTunes. It wasn’t just a box where you either had to rip your own CD’s (although you could), or try to track down music from other locations, legal or otherwise. It was a machine that you could use with music you bought quickly and cheaply via the iTunes Store.
The iPod happened because Steve and Apple focused their skills in design, not because they leveraged an existing customer brand experience built on the Mac. Almost no one had experience with Apple prior to the iPod. Mac sales represented less than 5% of all PC sales when the iPod took off in 2004, 3 years after its introduction. The focus on the design, as well as focus on the ecosystem in the form of iTunes, propelled the iPod to an overwhelmingly dominant position in the portable media player market, and as a result, raised Apple’s brand awareness and reputation (both good and bad). Had they been a computer company first, and design second (e.g. Apple under Sculley, Spindler, Amelio, etc), then the iPod would have likely ended like their other attempts at consumer products: the Newton, digital cameras, portable CD players and TV appliances. Apple had a great customer brand experience back then, too, but those products were commercial disasters. And this was a time when Apple was possibly better known, since they hadn’t approached their nadir of computer market share yet.
Apple was able to build off of the iPod brand and bring in the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Their success with iPod also helped their Mac sales. Their experience with the Mac didn’t. Even with the designs of the Macs improved, sales were still largely stagnant because they also lacked an ecosystem. The iPod helped give the Mac a reason to exist in more and more households, and with that came more software and an improved ecosystem. But Apple did not leverage the Mac, at least not directly, to bring out the iPod.
So, what if Apple had started life in 2001 with the release of the iPod, and had never built the Mac or other technology prior to that? I still think the iPod would have been a huge hit. The iPhone and iPad may have also been released and have succeeded in their current form. To be fair, it is Apple’s experience in computers that helped the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad be what they are. While an Apple minus the Mac would probably have had a hit with the iPod, it may never have released the iPhone and follow-on devices in the form we know today. Being a company that made computers help make the iPhone and iPad what they are today, but it was the iPod that got people to sit up and notice Apple as a producer of consumer products, and it was the design and the ecosystem that made the iPod as successful as it was.