Follow-Up to "Secret Ingredient"

It turns out Secret Ingredient generated a lot of feedback. There were a smattering of comments about Mac OS X versus Windows, but I didn't really have any interest in going down that road. The post wasn't about what Microsoft was doing wrong, it was about what Apple is doing right. In any case, it's just computers.

A comment from "Mr. Crane" says that clarity of leadership is what makes Apple work. I think this is linked to intuition. When you know something is right and have the conviction to trust it, the fear and noise blur out and amazing things happen.

"VTMuslim" said this:

But the achievements you cite [...] are certainly not successes because a company has intuition and is willing to take risk!

[...]this is achieved by no less than hard-science practices such as following strict engineering practices, thorough qualification techniques, excellent management decisions, thorough market research and understanding, etc. 

"Fearlessness", "intuition" are fuzzy concepts that are worthless unless well executed and delivered... good shot, but no cigar...

My experience is that strict and mechanical engineering processes do have a role, but I don't think this is the differentiating factor for Apple. As for fearlessness and intuition being fuzzy concepts, that really is my point. Fuzzy concepts are harder to get a handle on so they're harder to replicate.

"JennyZ" said that Microsoft's size is the key factor:

they are a niche computer company selling a solid product to a small but dedicated audience with more than a gram of marketing flair.

The reason why windows cannot replicate the vast [and good!] changes from Apple computer is that they are too large. Microsoft have a *much* larger audience than Apple and are limited with what they can do to their systems. Apple's users will simply adjust to whatever changes come out of Cupertino.

I think we're past the point of thinking of Apple as a niche anything.

Anyway, I've heard this "Apple is small so change is easy" thing before, but I can't come up with a concrete example of where this applies to the current state of Mac OS X and Windows. If anyone can, let me know.

Also Google has a larger user base than even Microsoft. Web services are different than a desktop operating system, but Google does roll out big changes all the time.

The two most insightful comments, in my opinion, came from Dan Price and Blain:

Here's what Dan had to say:

Apple is a product company - they design largely for the end user. But MS is a platform company and they design so that 3rd parties and their partners can take their products and add to them, creating an 'ecosystem'. Cramming they're 'base' products (example, Analysis Services 2k5) with functionality increases the likelihood that some other company will come along and build their specialized product on top.

MS make their millions through licensing this technology to 3rd parties. It's a large and complex market that dwarfs Apple and it's developers and as such, it's slow to innovate and take risks. This above all else is the reason MS have such a hard time 'keep up' with Apple and Google.

Blain's contribution:

Look at Apple past and present, and you'll see not only that, but artists and researchers. Atkinson. Kare. Kay. Raskin. Ive. Tevanian.

True, I know more Apple than MS in terms of people, but there is an artistic element, signs of varied backgrounds and viewpoints.

Design Element
Follow-Up to "Secret Ingredient"
Posted Sep 5, 2006 — 12 comments below


coelomic — Sep 05, 06 1742

A good read.

anna katzner — Sep 05, 06 1743

What I shall never understand about Ms Kare is the esthetic difference between her early work for Apple and the abominations she created for Windows 3.0.

On one hand: the pixel-goddess herself, pure, precise and ground-breaking. On the other hand someone struggling with 16 colours.

I'd surmise malice, but actually I believe she peaked early, tried her best afterwards and couldn't follow up.

I'll still (and always will) admire her for this and those, but definitely not for that (and whatever came after it).

Or maybe it was just Windows, so tainted even from it's inception, that it took down everyone who even toched it.

(My little joke, of course)

Dan Price — Sep 05, 06 1744

Cheers for the kind words Scott! I can't emphasize enough just how different these product/platform business models are.

Microsoft's strategy is aggressively target the enterprise market. To the individual, products like SQL Server 2005, TeamServices, .Net 3.0, ISS etc seem bloated and unpolished, crammed with features that no-one customer could ever make full use of. iLife they are not. But to a 3rd party, these 'middle tier' products represent the foundation of potential business applications, the scalability of which Apple is unlikely to ever match on it's own.

There is a 'follow-my-lead' attitude among some MS partners who attempt to emulate this strategy and this can stifle innovation; it's hard to walk far from the path Microsoft has itself set. The reality is this business model can only really work for one company; Microsoft. Playing in the Microsoft sandpit can be dangerous for this reason - successful 3rd party products have a tendency to become Microsoft products.

It's also a mistake to compare Apple with Microsoft in this sense. MS could never 'start from scratch' as Apple effectively did in 2001 and the same goes for their ability to innovate and take risks; they have to support these middle tier products and the ecosystems they sustain. Apple really has no such equivalents, at least not in the enterprise market (except may xGrid, and xSan).

It's not all about the OS wars! And for as long as OSX runs only on Apple-branded systems, they could hardly be called competitors either. Next to all this, Zune, Origami, even Vista are all peripheral. But those are the products we as individual consumers care about - It's a whole different ball game for big business.

Scott Stevenson — Sep 05, 06 1745 Scotty the Leopard

MS could never 'start from scratch' as Apple effectively did in 2001

I'm a bit conflicted on this. Yes, Apple did replace the operating system architecture, but they had to bring the old APIs forward to support Photoshop, Illustrator, Office, Internet Explorer, and so on. That's where Core Foundation came from. It wasn't easy.

I understand the spirit of your comment, but if Apple truly wanted to start from scratch they would have just stuck with Rhapsody.

Trevor Fancher — Sep 06, 06 1747

Sort of off-topic, but:

Don't you love it when you can use your own code so effectively? (Talking about your new hard-link-to-comments code :) I think it really makes your site much more readable.

Keith Duncan — Sep 06, 06 1748

Anyway, I've heard this "Apple is small so change is easy" thing before, but I can't come up with a concrete example of where this applies to the current state of Mac OS X and Windows. If anyone can, let me know.

I don't know if this would prove it or not but I think if we were to look into the distribution trend of each sucsessive OS X release, jobs did this in a web cast once and showed that around 50% of users were on Tiger.

MJ — Sep 06, 06 1749

The "Apple is small, Microsoft is large" argument is kinda bogus. smaller companies are more agile but they're talking about SMALL companies and not the behemoth that is Apple which is still a substantial number of people.

The biggest difference between Apple and Microsoft is VISION.

Apple have a core team of people who know where they are taking the product. It isn't a singular Jobsian vision - but they are well versed in communication and responsible for their own areas.

In comparison, Microsoft is run by the engineering committee. Product groups are proud of their itty-bitty features and a considerable amount of effort goes into the INTERNAL marketing of an idea to get it accepted by the management and also the other product groups who need to support it. (spend time on Scoble's blog before he left Microsoft and you see this)

If a product group doesn't like the idea or, egad, has an idea of their own that conflicts then there is an internal war waged. Then you see features being cut or dongraded, departments refusing to build in support for certain features and the "product" becomes a "compromise". To get unbridled support you need to have a charismatic leader....

Nortel had difficulty in the late 90s transitioning from a "telephony" company to a "network" company. It culminated in the very expensive purchase of Bay Networks which was described by the CEO at the time as a "right angle turn". He had spent years trying to get his managers to accept the idea that "IP" was going to be important and there was considerable political resistance from entrenched management. So....they went out and bought expertise.

Microsoft is betting the farm on Ray Ozzie having seen how such a disjointed approach to building a "product" has left them in disarray. But at this stage it's too little, too late. They should have done this in 2003, not mid 2006 and mere months before release.

Apple and Google have vision.
Microsoft, Yahoo, not.

Dan Price — Sep 06, 06 1750

I'm a bit conflicted on this. Yes, Apple did replace the operating system architecture, but they had to bring the old APIs forward to support Photoshop, Illustrator, Office, Internet Explorer, and so on. That's where Core Foundation came from. It wasn't easy.

Yes, but that's the point. When OSX was released, Apple portrayed the old Carbon APIs as merely a bridge to Cocoa. But to keep their existing developers sweet, Apple had to keep updating Carbon to bring it in line with Cocoa.

Now you imagine this same scenerio x 100, plus the cost of dropping support for 6-year old operating systems in the enterprise market. Technologies like the COM model, the Registry and VB. That's where you have Microsoft. Afterall, it's not like MS have a huge amount of competition. Why risk it all with 'innovation'? :)

MJ makes a good point of the design-by-committee culture at MS. There have been many calls to 'downsize' MS in recent years. Ironically, had they been forced to do this with the anti-trust case, they might be in a better position now.

Raphael Sebbe — Sep 06, 06 1751

Interesting stuff here... I am jumping in!

Yes they have the vision, and they are committed to it.

No Fear: Speaking of the Secret Ingredient, I would go on adding that Apple doesn't fear to start over when it needs to. Apple doesn't care of what people will think or say, they just act as if there were no tomorrow. Apple is able to drop cumbersome heritage in favor of innovation. This could be observed in the Intel transition, I don't know of any other company that would have taken that kind of a risk, yet I strongly believe this really was the best move Apple could have done.

Culture of Perfection: Another point is their close attention to details and design, trying to achieve perfection everywhere. That is observed in all of their products, hardware, software, even in API (thinking of Cocoa, Quartz, etc.).

User Experience: Lastly, their focus is mostly on bringing advanced capabilities to regular users. I am thinking of making superb DVD menus in 2 mouse-clicks, movies, audio creation, text processing... I would say this trend of "template-based applications", where impressive results can be obtained with a very limited learning curve, is what consumers (as opposed to pros) expect nowadays, at least on Mac, and Apple is quite good at this. PC users, I would say, are just not yet fully aware of this.

Their strengths are in so many other things, such as the Apple culture and the likes, that just cannot be summarized anyway... All of these are aspects of Steve's temperament that he is able to bring into his employees, products and in turn down to every single bit that comes out of the company.

Chris — Sep 06, 06 1752

"Apple is small so change is easy"

This is sort of true, but not in the way it's used by the right-wing authoritarians. A more accurate formulation in the context of the OS:

"Apple is nimble, and can get away with more."

For mostly historical reasons, Apple does have an easier job developing the OS than does MS. (These are the very same historical reasons that gave MS the PC OS monopoly in the first place.) Apple doesn't have to provide a completely robust driver architecture; it doesn't have to support every bit of crufty old hardware in the known universe (installed a third-party video driver for OS X lately?). Apple has always had control over the hardware.

By the same token, Apple has exponentially fewer resources than MS does, so they'd better spend their R&D money well.

A word about Tevanian, the jarring note in that list of 'researchers and artists': talk to some Apple engineers. He was not helpful. It's good that he left. We would have had some of Tiger sooner.

Blain — Sep 06, 06 1753

I'm honored! Mentioned, even!

The key difference, Anna is not that the people are there. Microsoft is stuffed to the gills with brilliant and creative people. And they use the talents of Kare et al. The difference is that they're not part of the leadership, either explicitly or defacto. Why Win3.1 is so different from System 1.0? I'd wager it was because Kare was part of the Macintosh team, and an influence. But most likely, she was only a paid consultant for Microsoft.

You've seen the Microsoft iPod video? That actually was made by MS's own branding/packaging team, a self-parody, in frustration at how they cannot do what they want, and bring simplicity and ease to the boxes.

As MJ pointed out, look at Scoble to see it in action at the macroscopic group level. Look at Mini-Microsoft to see it in action in the trenches. There is vision at Microsoft. Only, it's being ignored.

Apple had this problem during the dark days of the mid 90s. Internal battles, leadership by marketing and not by the whole, chaos and confusion, these are the signs of what Apple's secret ingredient removed. Remember that Ive joined in 92. So he was around during the days of the PowerMac 4400.

I do have to agree about the trouble of supporting hardware. I remember Apple showing off NextStep when they released the PowerMac 9600, and the sound card was not working with their implementation of Quicktime, much to their frustration. Two engineers with 30 years experience between them, both expressing relief that they'd be designing for a known system soon.

I do have to nod to Chris, in that I hesitated when putting Tevanian in the list. I'm already aware of his rep from Dareflaming Fireball, and being one from the classic mac side, I still miss some niceties of 8.6 that were pooh-poohed on. But being disagreeable does not make one uncreative, as Jobs is no saint himself at times.

One final note, is that Microsoft does have one major competitor, one that might be its undoing: Microsoft from the past. I'm out of time to look for it, but Jobs does often show the market share of MacOSX, in terms of how many are using 10.4 as opposed to 10.3 as opposed to 10.2. Especially given how recent even the older releases is, this is very telling, when the conversion is quite significant. Then look at browser stats, and you'll see that even as recent as Jan 2004, Win2K + Win98 had a greater market share than XP.

Jussi — Sep 06, 06 1755

...if Apple truly wanted to start from scratch they would have just stuck with Rhapsody.

If my memory serves me well Apple truly wanted. The third party developers, including Microsoft and Adobe, did not want that. In 1998 Apple was not in a position to shove NeXTStep API in their face and was kind of forced to change plans and add Carbon as a "truly native API".


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