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May 12, 2008


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Doesn't exactly explain System 6 and Windows 3.0

Maybe it explains System 7 and Windows 95.

Alternately, Apple's lead in design masks just how under-maximized design is. In other words, as good as Apple's products are, they aren't anywhere near the point at which customers are "over-satisfied" with their designs. It's not that the Innovator's Dilemma doesn't apply to design, it's that the "good enough" sweet spot isn't ripe for the picking.

The thing with design is that it isn't objective. The number of features, and how fast those features are are both objective things. They can be compared on charts relatively easily. Design is very subjective, a matter of taste. Apple focuses on design, user experience etc. These are things that are very hard to compare as whether they are good depends on the person, and this is Apple's key. They don't try to target everyone by having the best objective points, they try to target a certain section who like the subjective points.

No, the problem with most companies once they become larger is

a) they become more bureaucratic
b) everyone starts to protect their own territory
c) marketing takes over or they ignore marketing

Steve Jobs & Apple's brillance is not to be contrained by "good enough," and deciding what consumers really want. Sure, if you ask most consumers, they would rather have a 5MP camera versus a 2MP but if you look at 95% of photos taken with cameraphones - you think people really care? people use a cameraphone to take a snap of the Pope visit - they clearly are not all that hung up on a few MP's especially since it's NOT the MP's but also the lens and optical zoom - you can't cram everything in regards to weight and battery life ... wouldn't consumers prefer more 'magic' in being able to pinch, zoom and flick from photo to photo? Isn't THAT why people really want a cameraphone - instant gratification and to show off the kids?

Or that my previous phones had zoom and other features BUT were they obvious to use? NO. By the time I remembered how to activate that feature, the MOMENT WAS GONE. With the iPhone, I take one fixed photo and can zoom with MY FINGERS ... it's a subtle thing that 99% of comapnies don't get and still don't get. Look at the press releases of the latest phones - we have touch, we have wifi, we're 3G but if they're poorly implemented? Why was mobile web usage so low prior? Because people didn't want the web on the street? No. It was too hard to use and too expensive - ONLY Apple thinks that far ahead and not only designs a real mobile web but forced AT&T to offer unlimited in the package ... versus $60 to $100 before for LIMITED bandwidth!

Other companies don't do that because VP's are afriad of Directors who are afriad of managers, etc, etc ... usurping them and making them look stupid so they jst say no to most everything or interject their own opinions into a project (why don't we have a photo border feature, we should add that).

The end result is a heaping pile of features - especially because research said people want them. People want low fat cheese and exercise equipment - do they really use or buy them? No, consumers either say nothing or not enough - ask them 2 years ago if they wanted a phone touchscreen ... what would they have said? They can't really envision until they see it in action. Ask them 10 years if they wanted energy sodas?

You're falling into the EXACT SAM

Martin, I have to disagree... the number of features may be objective, but the number of *useful* or *usable* features is highly subjective. Of the umpteen thousand 'features' of Word, how many does the average user actually use? Of what use, or value, are the remaining features to them?

Quality of implementation matters, and that's a point that has been lost on most of the industry. Companies that figure this out, and create products that epitomize this lesson, tend to do very, very well. Consumers realize fairly quickly that their 'usual' products were painful to use, only when given a competitor that isn't painful to use... but then oh my, how they respond.

Quality of implementation is design, but at a fundamental, pervasive level. Products that have this zen quality elicit a strong response in *most* people, or at least those that can leave behind using length of feature list as a primary determinant of quality. (Hint: most consumers don't think like that - just us nerds do.)

Design isn't nearly as subjective as you make it out to be... unless you're solely looking at the surface. In which case, you're not the market Apple is going for. In that, you are quite correct.

Apple has not found a loophole in the dilemma. They look at the dilemma and face it head on. Companies look at their product, say a music player, and ask "How can we make it better than our competitors?"

Competitors equate "make it better" with "make more features." Apple looks at the problems and creates new solutions. While everyone else is busy trying to make an iPod, Apple makes a convergent device that makes the customer happier. Now everyone is making a touch screen phone/music player/e-mail device. If Apple is going to continue to succeed, they need to create the next device that makes things better, not add features to the iPhone.

Apple faces the dilemma by repeatedly creating the next dilemma.

I have to agree with jbelkin on this issue. Apple doesn't just succeed by making 'prettier' things with good enough technology. They succeed by scraping away all of the crud and feature creep of a product and only implementing a few of the most important technology features. Those they do implement though, tend to be much more useful and well thought-out than the equivalent features on other products.

Also, Apple generally has a much more narrow market focus than most other companies. They don't try to be everything to everyone. Instead, they just focus on one small market subset (usually the high end), and make sure to implement features that that subset cares about.

I think it is also important to make clear what kind of design we're talking about. There is a huge difference between designing aesthetics (how it looks) and designing functionality (how it works). In my opinion, Apple does both very well. I do not however think that Apple would be very successful if they focused only on making their products pretty while slighting the functionality. There are lots of pretty products that are not nearly as successful as iPods and iPhones.

Steve W brings up an interesting point about being over-satisfied with design which makes me wonder if it's possibe. Of course something can be over-designed, but that is not the same thing. Also, the things Apple consistently gets high marks for like intuitive user inferfaces and attention to detail are other things I can't ever imagine being over-satisfied with. You often get 'feature-bloat' in mature products but never 'attention to detail bloat.'

Oops, my bad. I meant to say that I agree with Jason McC. Smith on this post.

Steve Jobs consistently tells everyone that asks what the "secret" is:

"We make products we want to use."

what good are all the bells and whistles if your UI is too complicated/cumbersome to use them?

The Innovator's Dilemma assumes that companies actually allow upstarts to start challenging them. The key difference between Apple (or more to the point: Steve Jobs) and others (and their respective management) is that Apple is happy to play the role of the upstart for their own products.

Apple II is a hit? Kill that with the Mac. The iMac is a hit - constantly kill it with new designs. The iPod? Death by new versions (or iPhones!)

When the target changes and competition is three steps behind, it doesn't matter if its good enough or better - that product category has been changed by Apple, and it is difficult for any upstart (or large competitor to challenge).

Specifically with the iPhone, I am sure somewhere in Apple's lab, there is an upstart waiting to kill it - I wish I knew what it is!

I don't see a loophole. It seems to me that the Innovator's Dilemma, as you describe it, is just wrong. Competing by "continually adding ... new features" isn't the definition of innovation.

innovate |ˈɪnəveɪt|
make changes in something established, esp. by introducing new methods, ideas, or products

"new methods, ideas" can just as easily mean omitting something as it can adding something, in order to create a better sum of the parts.

this is only semi-relevant, but a nice quote:

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove." – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

something Apple seems to understand.

I think this part last part is misleading in interpreting Christensen's main point :
>providing an opportunity for upstart competitors
>to provide a lower-cost "good enough" solution.

The specificity of Christensen's work is far more advanced. It's not that the radical innovators provide something "good enough" in itself, it's specifically that they provide something that is far better on a number of features that incumbents (therfore the market itself and reciprocally) never seemed to value, while being "good enough" on historical values.
It's this change in what creates the value (let's say the word : paradigm), that is the corner stone of Christensen's work,
New products (I mean radical innovations), in Christensen's view don't win because they're good enough, they win because they're far better in a dimension that incumbents did not value.

Christensen's example include the early hard drive industry. It's not how many bytes you put on the drive and how fast you can access them, it's how cheap and how small you can make one, because a 10 000$ fast 20 MB drive in the 80s would never have permitted the creation of the PC industry. While a 600$ slow 5 MB could. It was good enough for a PC, that is a sine qua none condition, but it allowed something "better drives" (faster, bigger ones) could not, and that was their value proposition.

Another easy example of his comes with insulin. Once insulin is at least 99.9% pure, it's not how much more pure you can make it, it's how easy to inject you make it for sick people who need shots.

The iPhone is the upstart innovation here. It's a good enough phone, a good enough camera and a good enough SMS terminal. But it's a brilliant XXX, YYY, ZZZ, that nobody ever achieved to put on a mobile phone, and everybody knows how to build a phone, while nobody else can do a XXX.

So while this state of thing lasts, Apple isn't side stepping the innovator's dilemma, they're playing it. They are the radical innovator disrupting value perception of the mobile phone market by introducing new value propositions.
The time may come when a competitor builds a good enough alternative for the iPhone, but as long as they try to feature match it, it won't be a classical radical innovation scheme of incumbent failure. For that to be the case, competitors would have to redefine value in the mobile phone market as apple did, and not only provide a "good enough" alternative.

You know you've got "good" when you've made something you want to use, but you've got "great" when you create something your spouse wants to use. No matter how much they love you, they simply don't care as much about it as you do, so if they get enthusiastic about a design, you've got a winner.

I think that there's no one answer ... teens buy iPods because their peers have them. People buy iPhones because it's the latest gadget. People buy Macs for three reasons though: Brand loyalty, bandwagoning, preference over Windows and Linux operating systems.

I'm not sure what you mean by "iPhone has a substandard 2 megapixel camera with no flash, no video recording capabilities". What's substandard about it?

I checked BlackBerry's page, and they also have 2MP cameras on their phones. They do have 4 models (out of 20+) that do video, but I can't see how something that the top <20% of a competitor's products offer is in any way standard.

MonkeyT has it exactly wrong. Those are the assumptions of those who have no clue why Apple is successful.

While Apple designs things they themselves want to use, and Steve Jobs defines design as not only how something looks, but how it works; the crux of the issue is what other companies do.

And what is that? It's illustrated by the old saying: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee."

The Innovator's Dilemma afflicts companies that try to avoid disrupting their business models.

Apple is constantly disrupting their business model.

It amazes me that 24 years after the introduction of the Macintosh, most computer/technology companies still don't know how to create a decent user interface. That's probably because they've all been hoping in vain that Microsoft would provide one for them. It's also why Apple can see poorly served customers like those in cell phone market and confidently march in with a game changer.

It looks like Apple is about to do it again, and there's no doubt that some other market will be thrown into turmoil. I look forward to seeing their shock at former customer's awe.

I think Rus has it wrong. I don't buy iPods because everyone has them and I don't buy Macs just out of brand loyalty. I buy them because they are better in ways that I care about. At least with iPods that seems to be true for most people - they do something right that no-one else does.

I would actually focus on a different Christensen book; namely, the The Innovator's Solution, where he specifically looks at innovation from a jobs, outcomes and constraints perspective.

In essence, your customer "hires" your product or service to get a specific job done relative to their outcome goals and the constraints that they face.

The iPhone is all about excuse-free mobile internet and rich, integrated media functions without dealing with the limits of tiny keypads (thanks to a touch and tilt based UI).

While a phenomenal OUTPUT device, the constraint is that this makes it a poor INPUT device relative to a BlackBerry but for the present, Apple is willing to live with this limitation because they are solving a different problem, and not paying the tax of trying to be all things to all people, and a hero to none

Apple is very good at identifying these jobs and outcomes, and embracing the constraints that go with it. Microsoft, by contrast, as with most tech companies, tends be very attribute focused, and thus equate more with being better.

Clarity of your target user and their purpose, as well as how design, user experience and workflow supports same, is very different than simply saying "sexy design" or "good enough" functionality.

It's all about getting the details of the actual recipe just right versus just focusing on the ingredients that makes Apple Apple.

I have blogged on how this skillset has translated into an "unfair advantage" for Apple in the marketplace, in a post called, "Holy Sh-t! Apple's Halo Effect."

Here is the URL: http://thenetworkgarden.com/weblog/2008/04/holy-shit-apple.html

Check it out if interested.


I buy Apple product because they are simple designs that are easy to keep clean. The iMac with the glass that sits level with the surrounding aluminium frame. The Macbook with no gimmick buttons to catch dirt and hair.

They come out of the box looking good, and they're easy to keep looking good, so I keep wanting to use them.

I think Steve Jobs said it best with this quote:

"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

Apple treats design as the whole experience. Most other companies treat design simply as how it looks, or how a specific feature is implemented. Not the whole experience.

As someone else pointed out Apple are more than happy to stomp all over their previous products. They don't care if iPod sales are cannibalized, just so long as it's an iPhone doing it and not something that Creative/Sandisk/Other produced.

I have to agree with MonkeyT on one point specifically; I now buy Apple products due to brand loyalty. The critical point that he missed, however, is how Jobs & Co. engendered that loyalty in the first place.

When I bought my first Apple computer in 2000, it wasn't to join "the crowd;" it was because my father had looked into the alternatives for setting up a home wireless network and found Apple's Airport technology to be the easiest to use. He purchased a Mac and I used it and thought, "these are people who get it." Now, having worked for five years in IT where I get to compare Macs vs. PCs on a near daily basis, I'm reminded every day how Apple "gets it" and how most computer manufacturers/software companies do not. I won't parse those reasons out now, but Apple will have me as a loyal customer for some time to come.

Like a lot of people I'm going to restate The Innovator's Dilemma, and like them I'm going to say that I'm the one who got it right. :)

The Dilemma is that your best customers, the ones who are most profitable, are the ones with the most demanding use. And it is servicing these best customers that keeps the incumbent from developing the disruptive technology, because when that technology appears it is absolutely not good enough for those best customers.

So why doesn't this apply to Apple? I think the main reason is that there is no disruptive technology to apply here. Yes, solid state storage (shuffle) is very different from hd storage (iPod classic), but mostly for the storage provider, not so much from the gadget manufacturer.

To relate to the companies in the book, when all those generations of drive manufacturers came and went, it was the storage makers who faced the upheaval, not the box makers.

A little meta commenting: this post is so refreshing to read, not just the article itself but *all* comments are insightful to some extent. Which is rare when it comes to the "why is Apple so awesome" type discussion. Amazing.

Try imagining a "creativity" index to innovation, where, at one end of the scale there's just making something a little faster, purer, cheaper, smaller. At the other end there's the type of change that makes everyone go "WTF!!111" (in other words, the paradigm shift). I am convinced that innovation can be a lot more creative than the iPhone, still, it's what's propelling Apple at the moment. The simple fact that most or all of their competition haven't really comprehended what Apple's advantage is yet - it's ascribed to design as in "pretty", strong brand as in "luxury" and customer loyalty as in "Apple users are fools". This cluelessness has given Apple a head start unlike a common technology arms race, and frankly there's no sign that their competitors are about to "get it".

This may sound like great news for anyone who enjoys Apple products, but there is a backside. Because, if you've grown accustomed to the "zen-ish" quality of details in Apple products, and do some shopping around you will find that they don't really have any competition when viewed at this angle.

At the moment, Apple aren't being pushed farther ahead by anyone than themselves. There is no competition.


I agree--I've been blown away by the quality of the comments to this post. I hope to find some time to write a post that responds to them and keeps this conversation going. Thanks to everyone who's contributed. And keep it coming!


I think that looking at the iPhone through the lens of the "Innovator's Dilemma/Solution" won't give you an accurate idea of what is really going on with the iPhone. The Innovator's Dilemma/Solution looks at new market entrants conquering market leaders through a specific process of both technology and business innovation. The framework doesn't really work here.

A better framework in this case is the "Blue Ocean Strategy" as described by Chen and Mauborgne. The Blue Ocean Strategy basically stipulates that you create a product that has no direct competitors. That certainly seems to be the case with the iPhone. I talk more about it here:


The real problem is that everyone seems to be attempting to analyze the wrong things here: you've been taught to think and behave about business and economics, and to perceive people as tools.

The real answer is in the people themselves, and this is something that the Apple crew seems to 'get'.

It is all about experience.

Apple's design is essential to what its products are. You've missed a crucial point. It isn't features OR design. It's features that are WELL designed.

I've had phones with more features than iPhone has. The phones were big, clunky, and difficult to use. The features required a manual to operate – every time I operated them.

The iPhone may not have a 3+ megapixel camera, but I can take pictures without consulting a book. No voice dialing? Okay. So I have to touch the screen on the name of the person I want to call.

Apple gets "useability." A feature isn't worth used toilet paper if you can't make it work.


You're absolutely right. Apple does features and technology really well--they're not Louis Vitton; they're Porsche. I hope to include that point in a future post.



Apple is KISS

Bill Gates is tech for tech sake

Apple just works the way people do ... MS forces you to work the way they do

Apple are like the Japanese on steroids ie they dont really invent much, but they do innovate, and the steroids part is that Apple have the foresight and the will to give people the appropriate technology to achieve tasks - before people even realise what it is they really need. And to nail it home, Apple provide a solution in a simple and obvious and fussless way.

That approach is hard for the competition to cope with because most leaders nowadays are just ordinary corporate people who follow the lead of the clueless herd yelling for complexity and more more more. Apple cant fail in this crass homogenous world we live in.

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