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Skating to where the puck will be

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Wayne Gretzky is often credited as being the single greatest hockey player of all time. It is said that his father, Walter Gretzky, taught him the most important thing to learn in hockey:

“Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

This quote in particular is one that Steve Jobs has brought up on numerous occasions, and is far more revealing about Apple’s internal culture than I think most of us realize. It is certainly the most salient explanation for Apple’s intense focus at the intersection of technology and liberal arts.


Over the past couple of years, I’ve started paying an increasing amount of attention to Apple and it’s competition — mostly in the mobile space. Before 2008 when I bought my first iPhone, I really couldn’t have cared less about mobile. I’d had a couple of feature phones, then moved up to a BlackBerry Pearl in 2006. When Steve Jobs got up on stage at the Moscone Center in January 2007 and introduced “[…] an iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator… these are NOT three separate devices!” I was stunned. I’d heard the rumors about an alleged phone from Apple, but this thing was simply astounding! Over the next 6 months, the blogosphere worked itself into an absolute frenzy over the iPhone. Ultimately, the iPhone has gone on to be a raging success — raking in two-thirds of all of the profits in the entire mobile industry.

Hardware and software

Since Apple makes both the hardware and the software for all of their products, when you buy an iPhone (or iPod, or iPad, or Mac) you know that the hardware and software work together seamlessly. With the exception of HP/Palm ([up until recently](https://duckduckgo.com/?q=touchpad discontinued) and RIM, Apple is the only company that does this. Even Google’s Nexus line of phones is actually made by third-party handset makers (HTC for the Nexus One and Samsung for the Nexus S). In order to properly establish a baseline showing how Apple completely rocked the mobile industry in 2007, we need to break the competition down into hardware and software categories.


Here’s what the competition shipped in late–2006/early–2007.


Here’s what the competition shipped in late–2006/early–2007.

Palm OS 5


Windows Mobile 6


Symbian OS




Queue the industry scramble

People in the mobile industry knew this was going to be big, huge, EPIC. Phone makers began scrambling to create products that could be the next iPhone-killer. Motorola, HTC, LG, Palm, Microsoft, Nokia and others were knocked completely sideways by the iPhone. It was so far ahead of anything at the time that nobody knew where to begin. As the first touchphones started hitting the market, they all failed. Utter, complete failure. But why? Their phones had all of the same features, so why weren’t they selling? Arguably, the exact same discussions are happening now — especially since tablets are joining phones in the mobile space.

There is no tablet market — only an iPad market

Verne G. Kopytoff and Ian Austen of The New York Times note:

“Computer makers are expected to ship only about 4 percent more PCs this year than last year, according to IDC, a research firm. Tablets, in contrast, are flying off store shelves. Global sales are expected to more than double this year to 24.1 million, according to Forrester Research. More than two-thirds of those tablets, however, are sold by Apple. Sales of its iPad pulled in $9 billion in just the first half of the year, or 30 percent more than all of Dell’s consumer PC business in the same period. The joke in Silicon Valley is that there is no tablet market, only an iPad market. (That was also true of Apple and the iPod market.) The other observation that is no joke: Apple is the only maker with strong PC growth. Spending on desktops and laptops grew 16 percent in the latest quarter, while Dell’s consumer product sales increased 1 percent.”

Here’s what John Gruber from Daring Fireball had to say:

“I’m not trying to cherry-pick data. I’m simply observing, based on Apple’s sales data and Google’s activation data, that the tablet market doesn’t today look anything like the smartphone market ever did. The iPad didn’t enter the tablet market. It created the tablet market. The iPad’s role in the tablet market much more closely resembles the iPod’s role in the digital music player market a decade ago than it does the iPhone’s role in the 2008 phone market.”

And Marco Arment:

“There’s an iPad market, and the iPad could be classified as a tablet, from a hardware-centric viewpoint. But the market for non-iPad tablets is about as big today as it was before the iPad, which isn’t nothing, but it’s close enough to nothing that Apple doesn’t need to worry about it. How many people do you know who wanted or received an iPad for Christmas? Alright, same question, but this time, for the Samsung Galaxy Tab or any other tablet that’s not the iPad. (Kindles are not tablets. The new Nook Color might be. You can count it if you’re arguing with me.) Now, from both groups, exclude those who know what RSS is, because we don’t represent the bulk of the market. How big is that second group now?”

Others are saying the same thing. But why? Companies like Samsung, Acer, Motorola and others have been making consumer electronics for years. Microsoft has been kicking around the idea of the tablet computer since at least 2000. Why is the iPad (which debuted in the spring of 2010) eating everyone else’s lunch? The reason is something so blindingly simple that you’re going to feel stupid for missing it. Ready?

It’s the ecosystem, stupid!

The fatal flaw of Android phones, TouchPads, XOOMs, Playbooks, Galaxy Tabs, and pretty much everything else on the market today is the lack of a cohesive ecosystem around the product. These handset and tablet makers — for all intents and purposes — seem to think that the experience stops at the phone or the tablet. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I bought an HP TouchPad during their firesale. When reviewing the product, I compared it to my iPad. I’d purchased it for my kids so that they’d have something to play with so they’d leave my iPad alone.

What happened? They decided that they didn’t like the TouchPad. They wanted the games, the books, the movies, the music and everything else that my iPad has. Now sure, the TouchPad can technically do those things… but its not a cohesive experience. It’s not simple. It’s not easy. When you buy an Apple product — whether it be a Mac, an iPod, an iPhone, an iPad or an Apple TV — you get all of Apple’s ecosystem working together in harmony along beside you.

  • Syncing your digital media from iTunes to your iPod, iPhone, iPad or first-generation Apple TV (which uses syncing; Apple TV 2 streams instead of syncs), it all happens very seamlessly with very little effort on your part.

  • Industry-standard audio and video (MPEG–4/H.264/AAC) is fully supported at the hardware level for each of Apple’s devices which means that videos play smoother and battery life is much better than competing devices which don’t support these standards at the hardware level.

  • The iTunes Store has over 18 million songs; thousands of movies, TV shows, videos, podcasts, and books; and over 100,000 virus-free apps — all of which are available in just a few clicks/taps. You can also rip your own CDs and DVDs, as well as convert your favorite content into ebooks if you want.

  • iTunes Home Sharing allows you to share all of your content between all of your devices either by syncing or streaming.

  • AirPlay (née AirTunes) allows you to stream your music to any speakers that are either connected to an AirPort Express or support the AirPlay protocol.

  • You can stream your movies, YouTube videos and other video content to any TV connected to an Apple TV also using AirPlay.

  • You can control what’s playing in iTunes or Apple TV using your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad as a remote control.

  • Apple’s third-party cottage industry is second-to-none with tons of integration options for home audio, car stereos, device cases, sex toys, knick-knacks, doo-dads and the like.

  • Apple devices are supported with updates for a very long time. It wasn’t until iOS 4.0 that the original iPhone was dropped, and the iPhone 3G wasn’t dropped until iOS 4.3. Everything that supports iOS 4.3 will also get iOS 5.

  • Apps are targeted at OS versions, and sometimes by device (iPhone/iPod touch vs. iPad). iPads can run all iPhone apps (although non-optimized apps run at the iPhone’s resolution). For example, Netflix runs on all iOS devices running iOS 4.0 or newer (everything except the original iPhone and first-generation iPod touch).

Compare all of this to, say, Android.

  • First of all, there is no Android-based equivalent to the iPod. Smaller form factors are (so far) all phones. Larger form factors are (so far) all tablets. There’s nothing small and cheap that you can plug headphones into and jam with it in your pocket.

  • Some Android devices have hardware decoders for audio/video playback, some don’t. Burn battery, burn!

  • There is no equivalent to the iTunes Store for Android devices. Yes, Google has Google Music, but it’s brand-new, untested, and it’s not a store where you can easily purchase whatever your heart desires in just a few taps.

  • Android viruses, malware and fly-by-night operations are on the rise: “Android Malware Explodes, iOS Remains Safe”, “Android-targeted malware jumps 76% in Q2, McAfee says”, “Why Android Viruses Are Growing, and How To Stop Them”, and “Warning: Fake games in the Market today”.

  • There is no equivalent to iTunes Home Sharing for Android devices. You have to sync everything from one device to the next. Can’t store your entire media collection? Too bad.

  • There is no equivalent to AirPlay for Android devices. You can burn a CD and put it in your home CD player, or take your ripped movie and put it on your PS3 or Xbox 360 for playback, but that can be an awful lot of work.

  • There is no equivalent for remote controlling playback of your media content for Android devices.

  • What Android cottage industry?

  • Updates? Good luck with that. Maybe the manufacturer will release an update, maybe they won’t. Who knows?

  • Apps are targeted at whatever the easiest-to-support devices are. For example, Netflix only runs on a small subset of devices based entirely on that device’s capabilities.

Apple’s Strategy

Apple’s ecosystem strategy didn’t come out of nowhere. Apple didn’t just wake up one day and decide to make the iPhone or the iPad. These products have been several years in the making. In fact, Apple talking about the digital hub dates back to at least 2000 with the iMac and their Rip, Mix, Burn campaign. iTunes was just coming out for Mac OS 9, Mac OS X hadn’t launched yet and the iPod was still a couple of years away. Over time they launched:

  1. iTunes (2001)
  2. Mac OS X (2001)
  3. Apple Retail Stores (allowing people to walk in, play with stuff, ask questions and get help; 2001)
  4. iPod (2001)
  5. Bonjour (née Rendezvous; 2002)
  6. iTunes Music Store (2003)
  7. AirPort Express (2004)
  8. iLife (2004)
  9. Added video capabilities to iPods and added video to the iTunes Store (2005)
  10. Apple TV (2007)
  11. iPhone (2007)
  12. iPhone Music Store (2007)
  13. iPhone App Store (2008)
  14. iPad (2010)
  15. iCloud (2011)

All of these products work together in concert to provide a seamless experience across the board. It’s this ongoing seamlessness and support that has allowed Apple to earn my trust as a consumer — something that Samsung, Motorola, RIM or Google hasn’t yet earned.

Skating to where the puck has been

Right now, everyone in the entire industry is chasing Apple. Everyone.

  • Microsoft was chasing Apple with Windows Vista and Windows 7 (although with Windows 8, they’ve decided to go to crazy-town).

  • Google, RIM and Nokia are chasing Apple with Android, BlackBerry OS and Meego, respectively.

  • Google, Acer, Samsung, Sony, Lenovo and others are chasing Apple in ultra-portable notebooks.

  • Motorola, RIM, HP, Samsung and others are chasing Apple in tablets.

As technophiliacs, it’s easy for us to go down a rat hole about this tech or that tech (see: iOS v. Android flame wars). Aside from Apple (and arguably HP/Palm), vendors have a bad habit of shipping second-rate products in a variety of (mostly incompatible) configurations using a marketing strategy that is equivalent to throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. For example, Samsung now offers 2.8, 3.2, 3.5, 3.7, 4, 4.3, 4.5, 5, 7, 7.7, 8.9, and 10.1-inch Android devices. Really Samsung? In “Dear tablet makers: You’re doing it wrong”, Zach Epstein writes:

“Repeated cold and lukewarm launches will either push vendors out of the tablet space or open their eyes. Consumers don’t need oversized smartphones. I’ll type these all-too important words a second time: slapping Android on a slate and shoving it out to market simply isn’t an effective strategy. The real problem might be that OEMs are looking at Android wrong. What might happen if vendors stop rushing duds out to market and actually concentrate on using Android as a platform rather than a complete solution?”

These products are soulless knock-offs of the original. Apple put its heart and soul into the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and it shows.

Skating to where the puck is going to be

Robert S. Andersen recently tweeted:

Apple has invested in constantly growing and constantly improving its ecosystem of products so that they all work together in concert. The experience is delightful. It’s not that Google, Samsung, Motorola, RIM and others aren’t competing — it’s that they’re not even playing Apple’s game. Apple’s game is one of putting the user’s experience first, eliminating as much frustration from the process as possible.

If you put the customer first, the sales will come. If you put making the sale (or grabbing at market share) ahead of the customer experience, you’re no better than a used car salesman. How many used car salesmen are you excited to buy from again? I’m going to end with a quote from one of my favorite shows, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:

Harriet: I got a laugh at the table read when I asked for the butter in the dinner sketch. I didn’t get it at the dress. What did I do wrong?

Matt: That’s one laugh out of thirty you’re going to get tonight.

Harriet: What did I do wrong?

Matt: You asked for the laugh.

Harriet: What did I do at the table read?

Matt: You asked for the butter.

If you’re a tech company, let me give you a piece of advice: Stop trying to be Apple. Nobody is Apple but Apple. Be yourself. If you suck, if you’re boring, then don’t expect your date to like you. The only way to even come close to competing with Apple is to start working on your overall ecosystem of products. Make them seamless. Make them compatible. Make them Just Work™. Building knock-off hardware and slapping a second-rate OS on it won’t help you compete.

Yes, you might have enough checkboxes in the feature list to pick up a sale. Congratulations. But they’re not buying your product for you — they’re buying it because it’s close enough to an Apple product for what they need. Think about that for a second and tell me how sad that makes you feel about yourself.

Update: HP Envy ( )

If I forgot to add them before, let’s go ahead and add HP to the list of Apple wannabes. They just released the new HP Envy.

I feel like I’ve seen this somewhere before

Update: Fun with numbers! ( )

In his piece entitled “Fun With Numbers”, John Gruber from Daring Fireball analyzes an NPD Group report about tablet sell-through numbers (i.e., real sales numbers to consumers, not the fake we-shipped-zillions-to-stores-but-don’t-know-who-actually-bought-them numbers).

That’s one way to put it. Another way is that 92 percent of U.S. tablet buyers considered an iPad, and 89 percent bought an iPad, which means 97 percent of tablet buyers who merely considered an iPad bought an iPad, and if not for the 8 percent of tablet buyers who for whatever reason did not consider an iPad, none of these companies would have sold even 100,000 tablets over the first nine months of 2011. […] PC manufacturers are not dominant in the tablet space. Companies that provide a complete ecosystem — hardware, software, app stores, movies, TV shows, books and periodicals — are. PC manufacturers are utterly failing in the tablet market.

He finishes off his analysis with the following food for thought.

The only thing you can learn from NPD’s report is that tablet market share numbers sure do look different when you don’t count any of the tablets that people are actually buying.

Ryan Parman

is an engineering manager with over 20 years of experience across software development, site reliability engineering, and security. He is the creator of SimplePie and AWS SDK for PHP, patented multifactor-authentication-as-a-service at WePay, defined much of the CI/CD and SRE disciplines at McGraw-Hill Education, and came up with the idea of “serverless, event-driven, responsive functions in the cloud” while at Amazon Web Services in 2010. Ryan's aptly-named blog, , is where he writes about ideas longer than . Ambivert. Curious. Not a coffee drinker.