Remarkable Products

November 3, 2014

A while ago I had a debate (for the millionth time) with a friend of mine about the merits of using Apple products. This iPhone-vs-Android debate is about as meaningful as any debate where people take sides and stick with them like their lives depend on it. But sometimes, with the right people, you can discuss even these subjects intelligently and with reason, and when that happens, it's a perfect time for some introspection and thought about why you think what you think.

While talking to him, I was trying to get to the core of why I like Apple's products more than anyone else's instead of focusing on a particular aspect of a particular product. At some point, I said: "The reason why a lot of people buy Apple often can have less to do with the products and more to do with the company's philosophy."

But I couldn't really articulate what that philosophy was as well I liked to. I think I can do a better job of that now.

Most companies with large resources put products out in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion. Samsung has released numerous smartphones that more or less do the same thing. Each one has a different gimmick: one has a concave screen, one is waterproof, another has a screen that curves around the sides. Samsung calls most of these "experimental" or "concept" products. In addition, like PC-makers before them, Android phone makers fill up their phones with bloatware from various parties they might have contracts with, such that the first thing any savvy user does when he/she gets the phone is to wipe it clean and reinstall just the basic OS.

What is wrong with having experimental products (with or without bloatware)? My criteria for judging a tech product is what kind of experience my parents would have if they wanted to buy and use it. My parents are tech-savvy for their generation. But if they wanted to buy some Android phone, then first, they'd have to sift through all the different brands and all the different models. Most likely, they'd be at the mercy of salesmen who are getting extra commissions to sell more of the models that would sell less on their own merit.

If I wanted to buy an Android phone, the situation would be different. I would not be at the mercy of any salesmen, but for that I'd have to spend a lot of time researching different manufacturers and models. Once I've done that, I have to spend time wiping all the bloatware off it.

I don't have to do any of that with Apple. I can count on Apple to not release "experimental" phones. Although recently their product line up has been getting more populated than the past several years, a lot of thought has gone into each product (and every product line started with a single product before having any variations). Apple keeps its experiments in-house, and they vet those experiments based on their values of what makes a good product and what doesn't. Nobody knows exactly what Apple's criteria are for judging good and bad products, but as an observer, I can hazard a guess that Apple likes products that strike a balance between functionality and extreme simplicity - even for people who are not tech savvy.

That is the Apple philosophy.

Do they have spectacular failures in executing? Absolutely. MobileMe and first version of Apple Maps are perfect examples, and the rollout of their latest OS updates has been far short of a smooth process. Are they constrained by market forces? Totally. To quote a Japanese proverb: "Even monkeys fall from trees."

But they try really, really hard to make things better for their customers from the moment you enter their store. When a company puts out experimental products, they can't claim to have the same philosophy. In fact, looking at the actions of most of Apple's competitors (and recently the retailers who want to block Apple Pay in favour of their own digital payment solution), it's very clear that customers do not factor very much into their planning. Instead of going out of their way to build killer products or services, they put their own needs first and flood the market with as many products as they can, and they try to sell them by appealing to consumers' short-sightedness. It's interesting that Apple is often accused of fooling the masses into buying their products. What most of their competitors do is to put out products that often are not so easy to use, and they advertise single features that they think can sell those products. Some unwitting consumer might but a phone because he/she thinks waterproof phones are cool, but what good is that when the product is not pleasant or even easy to use outside of water in the long term?

Now if all these manufacturers put out products that I, the tech-savvy user, can buy for a lot cheaper and use in the same way as my iPhone with just a little bit of effort, why would I care about any of this?

I care because I think when people put that kind of effort into what they do, the world becomes a little better place. Everyone enjoys dealing with craftsmen who are passionate and caring about what they do. It may be Apple, or it may be a devoted grocer who goes to great lengths to find the best produce and create beautiful displays of them for his customers. It could be Dyson - a company that can get you excited about home appliances or hand dryers. Think about it! If you go to a public washroom, wash your hands, use a typical hand dryer whose air you can barely feel, and walk out with somewhat moist hands, is it really the end of the world? It isn't, yet a bunch of people at Dyson toiled over this incremental improvement through numerous prototypes until they finally had an environmentally-friendly hand dryer that actually worked - the Dyson AirBlade. How outstanding is it that they've made me learn the name of a hand dryer!? In a world where the "poor, starving artist" is a familiar stereotype and where most craftsmen, who care about the quality and every excruciating detail of their work, live and die in obscurity, it is satisfying to see a few people and companies that can strike a balance between craftsmanship and commercial success.

It's so easy to get by with mediocrity. I can buy cheap groceries (cheap anything, really) at WalMart. I can eat for less at McDonald's. I can buy Hoover vacuums that lose suction with time and are hard to use. And there is no shortage of dirt-cheap computers that I can buy and use everyday.

Yet, in all these cases, if I know of a seller or manufacturer, big or small, that I see goes an extra distance to make my (their customer's) life better, I will pick those every time, and if necessary, I will pay extra for their product or services. That's something that I value, and passionate craftsmen are people I look up to with admiration and the eye of a student who tries to learn from his teacher. Whether the teacher is the famous Steve Jobs or the unknown grocer in my local market is immaterial.