3 Ways Apple Sets Itself Apart from the Competition

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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.

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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.

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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.