What Apple gets right

I seem to have acquired a reputation as an Apple hater. This, I contend, is a gross mischaracterisation.

Admittedly, I do hate the playpen philosophy that seems to underpin their products. And it drives me nuts the way their consumer devices are so limited they feel like shareware. (“This iPhone can only be synchronised with one PC and only supports one video codec. Register now to remove these restrictions and get support for MMS, copy and paste, custom message alerts and more!”)

But I’m also frequently struck by just how much the company gets right – by the signature strokes of inspiration that set Apple devices apart from the competition. I’ve been mulling this over since I was called upon to stick up for the MacBook Pro in a recent podcast; and I’ve come up with five core strengths that define Apple, and which I wish other manufacturers would emulate.

1. Aesthetics

The Apple brand is synonymous with stylish design, turning heads for more than a decade with striking artefacts such as the futuristic G4 Cube, the jaunty anglepoise iMac and the industrial Mac Pro. It’s hard to think of even one equally iconic design that’s come out of the PC world in that same period.

All right, some of their ideas are a matter of taste – I thought the original clamshell iBook and the blue and white Power Macintosh G3 looked like cheap toys. And shiny chrome is never a guarantee of a smooth ride. But ceteris paribus would you prefer to have a generic PC on your desk or a design classic?

2. Consistency

Consistency is a basic tenet of usability, but in the tech world it’s in short supply. Microsoft has historically proved allergic to leaving well alone, with almost every new version of Windows bringing arbitrary changes to trip up innocent users. Linux, in the absence of a single controlling body, is worse.

But since the big switch to Mac OS X, Apple has done a remarkable job of maintaining a consistent set of simple controls across the user interface, and even to a considerable extent between versions. This helps the user quickly come to feel “in control” of the computer, and alleviates the fear of trying to do new things with it.

There’s consistency across devices, too: themed colour schemes, typefaces, icons and so forth bring disparate devices such as the Mac, iPod, iPhone and Apple TV into a family, and give Apple users confidence to invest in further Apple products.

And as a bonus, this strong lead filters down to developers. Windows applications habitually ride rough-shod over Microsoft’s interface guidelines, but for third-party OS X developers it’s a point of pride when their applications fit seamlessly into the Apple environment.

3. Naming

Last month in PC Pro we reviewed the Sony VAIO VGC-RT1SU, the Advent 5511 and the Dell Latitude E6400. What sort of computers are these? Who are they suitable for? It’s impossible to say without diving into the technical details, as their obscure names tell you almost nothing about the hardware.

Whereas with Apple computers you know just what to expect. By strictly defining and branding its categories, Apple boils the bewildering array of options down to a simple, easily-understood choice. You know which Mac is the right one for you.

4. Innovation

Despite its emphasis on consistency, Apple hates to rest on its laurels: with almost every product it débuts some unique new feature. An obvious example is the click-wheel on the iPod, which deserves a large portion of the credit for the device’s success. Others include the Time Machine backup system in OS X 10.5 and the “swipe to scroll” system used in the iPhone and the iPod touch.

It all adds up to a range of devices with genuinely distinctive personalities – a breath of fresh air after the ranks of identikit PCs that parade daily through our labs.

5. Surprises

Coming up with new ideas is great, but it’s also important how you handle them. When Apple has something new to show off, it doesn’t dribble out news for a year in advance until we’re bored of the product before we even see it. It holds its corporate tongue until units are all but rolling off the production line; and then, and only then, does Steve Jobs get up on stage and surprise us with a fait accompli.

As a result, when Steve opens his mouth, we hang on his every word because we never know how big the announcement’s going to be. It might just be a footling iTunes update, but it could equally be a revolutionary new device. The sheer anticipation gets us excited about even the most humdrum developments, and magnifies genuine surprises into epochal events. It makes us care about Apple products.

Steve knows it’s sleight of hand, of course, and so do I; yet I still fall for it. He gets away with it because every so often he does unveil something genuinely exciting – often enough to keep us coming back for more, no matter how much we supposedly hate Apple.

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