As a startup co-founder or product designer, you spend a lot of time thinking about business strategy and competition. Like during the Apple Event this week, after the reappearance of the “Designed by Apple” video we first saw at WWDC in June.
Tim Cook opened the event by talking about how much he loved that video, because “it does such an incredible job talking about our values.” But Cook wasn’t just pleasing the Apple faithful with some inspiring rhetoric. From what I can tell, this video is a finely crafted, subversive business strategy that Apple needed to execute.
While my own product is in the presentation creation and sharing space, making Apple one of our competitors, I wasn’t terribly concerned with the new Keynote announcements. Apple may have dramatically “revamped” their competing product, but fundamentally they (still) haven’t strayed from its 1990’s way of thinking. As a result, my focus went back to thinking about that video.
Anyone who pays attention to tech blogs and newspaper columns will know that many pundits have long advocated that Android poses a threat to Apple because, sooner or later, Android will be “good enough” that people don’t see much of a difference between Android phones and iPhones anymore, and that, subsequently, Apple will lose market and mind share.
There is a lot of truth to this argument, and thanks in part to an insane marketing spend on Samsung’s part, Android has become a powerhouse of a platform. It may be horribly fragmented, but it’s safe to say that if Android phones were not “good enough” for the mass market, it would not have become this successful. Android did not do well in the market when the difference between it and iPhones was like night and day, whereas now it is mainly a matter of subjective taste and preference. There are tradeoffs for each platform, but for about two years now, Apple finally has the competitor it needed (but not the competitor we deserved).
This is a good thing for consumers, but what does this video have to do with all that? This is where the Good Enough Threshold comes into play. To explain, I’ll draw a parallel to the competitive landscape I am in.
The Good Enough Threshold
SlideShare is a presentation slides dumping site, letting you share your slides (or deck, in presenter parlance) with people online. Despite being stagnant for years and not that great an experience for end users in the first place, SlideShare got by because they were just past the “good enough” threshold. The product did what its users expected it to do, and it didn’t suck at it. It was good enough.
As a result, no one challenged SlideShare for a long time, and they became a de facto destination for dumping your slides. Eventually the market caught up and got more discerning, and as a result, “good enough” is no longer good enough. The threshold had been raised by enough people expecting or wanting more.
This scenario can also play out in the market by multiple diverse solutions arriving on the scene, like we’re seeing with presentation tools themselves. PowerPoint and Keynote have both been a standard in the market since the 1990’s, when PowerPoint first arrived. But neither product has truly evolved beyond its 20th-century roots. They have incrementally improved, adding obvious features such as color, images, video, and animations, but they never took a step back and said, “how else could presentation software work?”
For the longest time, their offerings were good enough for the world. But then the Web arrived, and then mobile arrived, and now we see a lot of healthy competition and innovation in the presentation space. Countless open source tools exist for (web) development-savvy presenters to present without PowerPoint or Keynote. Several Flash-based alternatives have been around for a while, but now that Flash is on the out (and mostly absent on mobile), these products find themselves in the same dusty corner of PPT and Keynote.
When products are good enough, they can succeed in the marketplace and even attain dominant market share. But eventually the market evolves and changes, and those products are forced to adapt. Natural selection for bits and bytes.
Avoiding The Dinosaurs’ Fate
There are two ways to avoid falling prey to these market changes that may threaten your product’s existence.
The first is to keep innovating, and make sure your product is well beyond the Good Enough Threshold. This isn’t enough to safeguard its continued existence on its own — or the success of your business — but it plays an important part. Drop below the threshold long enough and you’ll eventually face the way of the BlackBerry.
The second is far less obvious, and that is to play a part in “elevating the market,” meaning, making your target market(s) more discerning about what products they buy. This is tricky, difficult to accomplish (more so for smaller companies), and typically requires your product to be above the Good Enough Threshold already.
Apple does this pretty well; it comes part of their “skate to where the puck will be” mentality, and involves critical business strategy analysis. Android phones are doing well in the market, making it harder for Apple to differentiate the iPhone as the superior product. They still have the hardware design edge, but from an OS and usability perspective Android has gone well past the Good Enough Threshold.
How do you differentiate when the gap is closing? “Just innovate harder” is not enough, nor particularly actionable advice. Unless a mobile phone vendor comes up with a dramatically significant new use case for these devices, the usage overlap is too large to differentiate using relatively “edge case” features, such as Touch ID. Yes, it’s cool and convenient, but by itself, will it sway many people? Out of all the things we do with our phones today, how many — or how few, rather — can we only do with one platform or the other? And how big a difference is the user experience between them when we can use either platform?
That’s where the Designed by Apple video comes into play. This is why Apple needed to “elevate the market.” It plays into standard business strategies: play up your own strengths, and play up your competitors’ weaknesses. Inform your customers, existing and potential, about the things that help sell them on your product.
In smaller markets or product categories, this is just called marketing and business strategy. But when it comes to powerhouses like Apple and their competitors, and markets as huge as mobile phones, it is a true elevation of the market’s taste for design and user experience when they do this.
Apple’s always done this to some degree, by emphasizing the “what you can do with this product” rather than bland, unimaginative feature lists and tech specs. Saying, “You can do this amazing thing [with an iPhone]“ raises the market (and the bar for competitors) by informing potential customers of your strengths.
But with this latest Designed by Apple video, there are no cutesy “PC and Mac” talking about what you can do, no products on display showing great new possibilities. It is a video all about the refinement of taste; the understanding of, and appreciation for, great design. In other words: it teaches people about the things Apple excels at, and its competitors are comparatively weak at.
Apple remains convinced that their products are well above the Good Enough Threshold, but the pressure from Android compels them to elevate the market and skew it in Apple’s favor. Because Android has long gone beyond being Good Enough, and once-major differentiating factors are rapidly becoming commonplace features. Apple needs to compete, but it won’t compete in a race to the bottom; instead, it aims to shift where “the bottom” is.
How well that’ll play out remains to be seen, but Apple remains a fascinating subject for businesses to observe.