3 Ways Apple Sets Itself Apart from the Competition

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A pedestrian walks by an Apple Store on April 24, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every Monday on Techland.

I have been covering Apple for 31 years now, and I have a pretty good feel for how Apple works. Of course, how the Apple works has changed over the years depending on who the CEO has been at the time, but there have been a few guiding principles that have driven the company.

I was sitting in the third row of De Anza College’s Flint Center when Steve Jobs unveiled the Mac in 1984. My first reaction upon seeing it was that it didn’t look like any computer I had ever seen. But as he famously got the Mac to say “hello” to us and started showing us how it worked, I began to realize that Apple did not think like the PC vendors I knew at the time.

(MORE: Steve Jobs or Bill Gates: Who Will Be Remembered 50 Years from Now?)

In 1984, all computers were square boxes and most of them were painted battleship grey. And when it came to ergonomics, not much thought was given to design. Although Compaq’s first PC, which looked like a Singer sewing machine, did break the mold of past PCs, it was not long before Compaq started making PCs in square box designs that basically copied what IBM and others were doing with their PC designs.

But the Mac broke all conventional wisdom of what a PC should look like. In my notes from the event, I wrote that Apple clearly thought differently than the other PC vendors at the time. Little did I know that this “Think Different” theme would eventually become a major marketing campaign for Apple as it worked to set itself apart from the rest of the PC vendors.

“Think Different”

So the first way Apple sets itself apart from the crowd is to “think different” and not let what others do impact the products or services Apple creates and brings to market. This has to be a very freeing feeling for Apple executives as they continue to put themselves in the driver’s seat by creating new products — and new categories of products — that have driven innovation in MP3 players, smartphones, tablets and computers over the years.

Management Style

There is another important way that Apple sets itself apart from its competitors; the way the company is run and controlled. I have worked with a multitude of companies over the years and so many of their decisions are made by committees and by having to get approvals from one or more of their silo businesses before they can move ahead with something.

But Apple has one central executive committee that works together seamlessly to design products and make decisions about how the company moves forward. Apple also own its own hardware, operating system, applications and services, all tied together rather neatly with its new Cloud architecture. There are no silos inside Apple and all decisions are made by this single executive committee. That is why everything Apple does works together so seamlessly. This difference in the way Apple runs its company compared to competitors can’t be emphasized enough. It gives Apple a big edge over the competition.

Design DNA

The third thing that sets Apple apart from its competitors is design. At FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen recently, former Apple executive Tony Fadell summed it up pretty well, telling the audience that “great design principles are pervasive in the Apple DNA.”

In Steve Job’s Stanford commencement speech, he talked about his love for calligraphy and how this influenced his thinking about design and drove him to be a perfectionist. You can see this design DNA in everything Apple brings to market now. Although Steve Jobs is not with us any more, Jonathan Ive is now tasked with embedding this design DNA in all of Apple’s products and teach it to new employees as the company grows.

Over the last few years I have often been asked how to compete with Apple. At the moment, if you look at pretty much all of the smartphones, new Ultrabook laptops, and tablets, they all are mostly copying Apple’s iPhone, MacBook Air, and iPad designs.

So when I’m asked about how to compete with Apple, I tell companies that if they really want to be competitive, they need to start innovating on their own and stop copying Apple. These folks often shrug when I tell them this and point out that Apple’s products sell, so they just follow Apple’s lead. But what they’re really saying is that they have companies that are run very differently than Apple, that they have little design skill and that they must lean on their ODMs (original design manufacturers) to drive innovation.

The good news is that at least a few ODMs are getting their own internal design teams. I’m starting to see some really new and interesting products, especially coming out of Taiwan and Beijing. But even with that, the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are slow to react,  continuing to let Apple lead while they follow.

The bottom line is that unless these competitors start innovating on their own, Apple will continue to have at least a two year lead on them. Thanks to Apple’s ability to “think different,” its management style and its design DNA, the company will keep its competitors following it instead of truly leading the market forward themselves.

MORE: 6 Reasons Apple Is So Successful

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every Monday on Techland.

16 comments
Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

What's interesting is that if Apple manages to blunt the success of Google's Android through legal recourse, cellphone manufacturers do have an alternative: Windows Phone 8.0, which is designed specifically to take advantage of the latest cellphone hardware (multicore CPU's, larger screens, 3GPP LTE, and even NFC mobile payments). Expect very soon the first cellphones that run Windows Phone 8.0 in a few months, possibly based on proven designs like the HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy SIII models (but with functionality specific to Windows Phone 8.0)

Cameron Strickland
Cameron Strickland

I would like a Windows 8 phone. I'm happy with my SIII at the moment but when I upgrade I will likely consider Windows 8 phone if they have similar hardware (current Windows phones are disappointing in that arena)

mr215
mr215

as a recent Macbook Pro buyer I add;

for a little over a thousand dollars there is no PC laptop that comes close even at twice the price. the screen, the touchpad and the basic OS are better!

Win OS are good but they lack style.  I still like a 5 button mouse.

Win 8 as a PC may be a loser. Mt Lion will gain converts.

Sam Trutna
Sam Trutna

"for a little over a thousand dollars there is no PC laptop that comes close even at twice the price."

Wait, you actually think that don't you? Oh my...

macboy74
macboy74

Ha I do. Go to a Apple store and mess around with a MacBook Pro and MacBook Air for an hour. Then go to Best Buy and mess around with a comparable Windows machine and let me know if you see any difference.

Sam Trutna
Sam Trutna

I have and I do. $2200 (starting price for a MBP) can buy a Sager notebook that wipes the floor with any of Apple's current mobile offerings. As for Air vs Ultrabook, I could go to Best Buy right now and pick up a Toshiba that's nearly identical, but has a larger screen and a larger SSD, for $100 less than the Air. Give me some time and I could find a much better deal than that.

camkids
camkids

Customer service, customer service, customer service! 3 Reasons Apple is way ahead of the competition! I bought my iPad yesterday and I was up and running within 30 min and was greeted the minute I walked in the store; friendly, knowledgeable and patient staff. 

Sam Trutna
Sam Trutna

 Mac Geniuses are knowledgeable? News to me...

macboy74
macboy74

Apple geniuses don't greet you and help you with the product your purchasing. Have you even walked into an Apple store? From your comment it doesn't seem like it. Haters are gonna hate.

dpnx
dpnx

Every time I read a Bajarin (T or B) article, I think, yes this is true...but then, I struggle to accept that they're getting paid to write such obvious content and be so highly esteemed in Time. Is it just me, or do they always seem like they're trying to come off as wise and experienced, when the points they make are so well known by anyone remotely interested in the tech industry (I'm not in the industry, I just like reading about it).

Yes, I'm sure some people might find this new and inspiring, but these opinion pieces by the Bajarins seem so often to be "light" in content and either/both intended to: a) appease Apple admirers; b)  generate more indepth discussion in the comments (I usually find the comments have more analytical and indepth observations than what Bajarin says...and the comment authors aren't even getting paid); c) rouse up people like me who now only read Bajarin articles to see how predictable they are.

Most Bajarin pieces at some refer to how they provide consultation and what they advise. I'm assuming they provide more substance in their consultation, because I personally wouldn't pay someone to hear the points they make in their articles.

Ultimately, I would just like Time to have more tech related pieces with real substance. Most of the time, the articles are great. I just find some of them seem tobe lacking, and they happen to usually be Bajarin articles. I hope the Bajarin's read this as feedback from a reader.

Daner Doodle
Daner Doodle

Besides the fact that reinvigorating a market isn't reinventing a market, they sold other people's services on the first iPhone and that's they only reason people bought it. Google search, YouTube, Google Maps. They were the first to really capitalize on the touch-screen experience, and that's the gist of it.

AhmadZainiChia
AhmadZainiChia

That's exactly it, isn't it? Nearly everything u can do on an apple device, say, a mac, you technically can do on a competing device, say, a windows pc. Take the iPhoto, iMovie suite as an example. I'm sure there are apps you could get that could be just as useful on windows. The thing is, on windows PC's, no one takes the trouble to really integrate all these stuff. Sure, all the stuff u can do on a mac can be done on a pc, but its just harder to find, etc. Whereas apple really takes the initiative to integrate all the services, like those you mentioned, into an easy-to-use experience. That's the difference between a Mac and a PC, and the differences between other apple devices and their counterparts are similar.

Basically, as the late Steve Jobs said, apple takes the effort to be the 'system integrator', so that the consumer doesn't have to. Sure, some people might not like it, some people want to control everything themselves, but most people, non-tech people just wanna do stuff. And Apple helps them do that. So yeah, i think this is one reason that is missed by tim bajarin, which i think is a great strength of Apple.

Maritza McLaughli
Maritza McLaughli

Thanks to Apple’s ability to “think different,” its management style and its design DNA,...MomentDifference.blogspot.com

sip
sip

So, what about the iPad?