Darel Rex Finley in 888

Yes, You Do Have To Be the Best

2013.11.17   prev     next

A  couple months ago, I received an unsolicited e-mail from one Michelle Cox at a Gmail address:

Subject: Learn How Apple Appears to Innovate

Hi Darel,

I’m a researcher for a site that provides education and industry insights to current and prospective MBA students. Included in our collection of resources, is a series of insightful, business-focused videos that have been featured by respected news outlets like The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Businessweek.

I found your site, alienryderflex.com, while researching our most recent video which uses Apple to illustrate how businesses can take an alternative approach to innovation. Given the topic, I thought you might be interested in checking it out.

Please let me know if you’re interested in watching, “3 Ways Apple Actually Innovates,” and I’ll send it your way. I think this is something your readers would appreciate, and I’d love to see it featured on your site.

Thanks,
Michelle Cox

Part of me was very curious to watch the video, but another part of me was suspicious that this was just a form letter, sent out to people who run sites that come up in a Google search for Apple-related topics. There was nothing in the letter to indicate that an actual human had looked at my site and knew anything about it. It also failed to identify the site for which Ms. Cox does research. And another red flag was that the sender was offering to send me a link to the video if I said I wanted to see it — why not just send me the link in the original e-mail?

So before replying, I first did a Google search on the title of the video, and immediately found it on YouTube. I watched the whole thing. It was attractive and well-produced. The video used three Apple products, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, to make the case that you don’t have to be first or best in your product category to become the dominant player; each of these products apparently had succeeded without being first or best. For example, the video had this to say about the success of the iPod:

SaeHan’s MPMan, the first MP3 music player, was released in 1998 in Asia, three years before the iPod came out. The MPMan was actually a bit smaller than the iPod. So why did the iPod win? Because SaeHan and other early innovators spent most of their time and money in court, battling digital music lawsuits, not spending money on advertising campaigns. [picture of silhouette people dancing with iPods and earbuds]

I was unconvinced, and I replied to the sender as follows:

Michelle,

Nice video — I just watched it on YouTube!

However, I think I’m disagreeing with some of its conclusions. For example, the MPMan player had a very poor user interface compared to the iPod’s, and the very-highest-capacity MPMan had 1/40 of the storage capacity of the first iPod. Might those be reasons for iPod to succeed where MPMan didn’t?

The common thread I see with all of the Apple products mentioned in your video is that while indeed the Apple product wasn’t the first in its category, it was far-and-away the best. For example, Microsoft had an 8-10 year head-start on Apple in tablets, but all of Microsoft’s pre-iPad tablets had a horrible user experience compared to even the very first model of iPad. This observation goes directly against your video’s conclusion that innovation isn’t always about being best.

Maybe innovation is about being best. An innovative product is one that is notably better than anything that preceded it — which means (at the time of its market release), it’s the best.

Cheers,
Darel

I quickly received this follow-up:

Hi Darel,

Thanks for getting back to me. I’m not really sure if you got the video that I’m referring to, “3 Ways Apple Actually Innovates” was recently published here: [link] Again, the video uses Apple to illustrate alternative ways businesses can innovate.

Feel free to include a link to the video on your site — I’d love to hear what you and your readers think!

Thanks,

Michelle

This time she had included the link to the video, so I tried it — it was the exact same video I had watched on YouTube.

At this point I was convinced that a real human indeed was corresponding with me, but she seemed strangely unaware that her company’s video is on YouTube, equally unaware of its actual content and message, and overly anxious that I link to it. She had no comment at all about the points I made in my reply.

So I sent nothing further. She e-mailed me a couple more times over the following week, asking again if I’d seen the video and if I would like to link to it from my site.

The Best

But irrespective of ham-handed attempts at getting people to link to their site, I think that this video is symptomatic of a cynical tendency in the technology industry to believe that companies don’t win in the long run by making the best products. Instead, some other company finds a way to beat out the best product and replace it with an inferior but more successful product.

This belief leads some people to predict that Apple will be run out of its successful businesses in the near future. In the case of OnlineMBA, it apparently leads them to believe that Apple somehow found random, fluky ways to beat out the competition with products that were neither first nor best.

The cynical path is tempting; it can make you feel that you’re above common wisdom. But the examples of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad all illustrate that common sense is correct: Your product does need to be best to win. The iPod was greatly superior to the MPMan, and to all other portable digital music players that existed in 2001. In 2007, the just-released iPhone was vastly better than all other existing smartphones. And in 2010, the iPad was an unbelievable joy to use, as compared to any other tablet computer that existed at that time.

Apple is rarely first. But its success over the past fifteen years is almost entirely due to its intense focus on entering a pre-existing market with a product that is indeed the very best product you can buy in that market.

 

Update 2015.01.18 — Daniel Eran Dilger in AppleInsider:

Conversely, in areas where Apple has been beaten to market by rivals (in many cases by multiple years, such as with 4G LTE, large screen phones, mini tablets and NFC payments), it has immediately crushed its competitors once it did catch up, stealing away the lion’s share of potential profits in each arena.

To cite just one of Dilger’s examples: Apple Pay, integrated with Touch ID (far and away the best fingerprint reader for any consumer device), makes a dramatically better end-user experience than any previous mobile-device-based retail payment system. To win, Apple Pay doesn’t need to be anywhere close to first — but it must be best.

 

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