In the Shadow of the iPad: Why Apple is Succeeding Where Microsoft Fails

I was at the EMC World cloud computing conference last week, and once again I observed a number of people who otherwise would have been using notebooks, using iPads instead. The number is small, but telling, because initially when Microsoft announced the tablet computer, I observed similar behavior, but missing the critical part. It wasn’t what people were using, but how they were using it that was important. The difference may highlight why a company like Apple can launch a product that drastically departs from what people are currently using, and why a company like Microsoft has to follow the paths that companies like Apple forge.

Just because your product creates a market, that creation doesn’t mean you’ll own what results. The Apple II created the PC market, but initially Commodore benefitted the most, and eventually Microsoft. On the other hand, Apple defined the MP3 market with the iPod and remained the biggest beneficiary, had arguably the same success with the iPhone, and is on track to repeat with the iPad, so betting they won’t succeed with this last platform may be a fool’s bet.

Why can’t Microsoft drive change, while Apple can do it consistently? I think it comes down to one core skill that Apple has that is unique, not just to technology, but to business in general: understanding how to win over the hearts of consumers.

Is Manipulation a Bad Thing?

When we call someone “manipulative,” it is generally considered an insult. The most famous manipulator was likely PT Barnum, and it didn’t help that his most memorable saying was “there’s sucker born every minute.” He was incredibly successful and thought of himself as a showman. Like Steve Jobs, he had some tough times, but emerged from them stronger than when he went in, and actually went on to be a politician for a time. I maintain that Steve Jobs is our generation’s PT Barnum, and given that Barnum died in 1891, folks with his unique talent who rise to power in business are a very rare breed.

It is interesting to note that unlike Jobs, Barnum did apply his skills to philanthropy, and was the initiator of a philosophy that Google “invented,” called profitable philanthropy. I believe Jobs could embrace this concept as well, but I’ve drifted off topic.

Manipulation, like any other tool, isn’t in itself good or bad. But it is incredibly powerful, and if used for good, the results are more powerful and farther reaching. If used for evil, it results in pyramid schemes and confidence scams, and can do just as much damage. Folks that excel at this skill tend to think rules no longer apply to them, and their falls from grace are both certain and catastrophic. Both Jobs and Barnum had a number of close calls, but are generally regarded in a positive light.

Microsoft vs. Apple’s Great Magician

Steve Jobs seems to inherently understand that products requiring people to do things differently have to have some magic to them, and that this magic is largely an artificial construct created by the initial presentation and marketing of the product.

If you look at the iPad, it really isn’t that special in terms of hardware. To an engineer, it’s a hobbled netbook without a keyboard, a crippled interface (compared to a Mac), and an inability to multitask or run Flash. I’m sure plenty of engineers at Apple competitors think the iPad is crap.

But the iPad is incredibly simple, physically beautiful, and promotes behavior that folks currently aren’t demonstrating on their PCs or phones often. In other words, regardless of its shortcomings, it is designed to be in a story, and the result is magic.

Magic is about illusion, but it is nonetheless wonderful, and we actually love magical things. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if fairies actually did create the iPad?

Microsoft doesn’t get the need for “magic” in getting people to do things differently – and I would say this is true of 99.9 percent of companies in the world. The most popular Windows tablets came in clamshell designs that people effectively used as heavier, smaller, more expensive laptops. That’s not magical, that’s stupid. There was no magic, and the people I saw using Windows tablets years ago were using them just as if they were laptops, and they generally weren’t smiling like the iPad users are.

If you look at Microsoft projects like Origami, Mira, and the new Kin phones, you see a distinct lack of magic, yet each were attempts to change how people were currently doing things. It wasn’t that these offerings didn’t have potential, but that the folks creating them didn’t understand how to create magic, so none of them prioritized the magical parts, or presented the products in a way that captured our imaginations.

Microsoft’s most successful and magical product launch was Windows 95. It was magical, and the company has never repeated it. It is almost as if Microsoft execs said, “Oh crap, this was ‘too good,’ let’s not do that again.” Meanwhile, Apple relearned magic formula again with the return of Steve Jobs, and effectively used it to help make the iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air, and Steve Jobs became CEO of the last decade.

People in Microsoft with magical inclinations, like Kathleen Hall, aren’t in a position to do more than add glamour to an existing offering. Her team was at the core of why Windows 7 has been vastly more successful than earlier Windows offerings. But imagine what could happen if Windows 8 or any other Microsoft product was designed to be special like Apple’s offerings.

The Power of Manipulation and Magic

Most people live miles from where they are born, have beliefs that aren’t that much different than their parents, drive the same make of cars year after year, and still use computers mostly like typewriters on steroids. We mostly eat at the same places and rarely try new things. To get us to move to something different requires a cattle-prod-like skill, and whether you call the wielder of such a skill a manipulator or a magician, it is critical to making products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad successful.

I think it is a skill that more companies should develop, a skill that likely will be lost once Steve Jobs leaves Apple (it was a long time from PT Barnum) and a skill that provides too much enjoyment to lose. It is also the skill that explains why Apple can be successful with the iPad, but Microsoft wasn’t successful with its tablets. There should be a little PT Barnum or Steve Jobs in every CEO. Wrapped with a strong ethical core, the end result would be more magical products like the iPad, more successful companies like Apple, and more truly special products we could enjoy.

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