Spoutin' Off: Apple Bears Fruit
By Michael E. Rau
March 7, 2005
Let's play the old word association game... If I say Apple, what's the first word that comes to your mind?
That's becoming a harder question to answer these days. According to a recent global survey conducted by Brandchannel, Apple, the ubiquitous computer/consumer electronics company, is the most recognizable brand in the world. Thus it's likely your answer would be Mac, or iPod, or iMusic.
What's driving this recognition? Conventional wisdom would indicate that it's the utterly explosive sales of the iPod portable digital music player. Since its introduction in 2002, the iPod, in all its various forms, has permeated every corner of our culture.
But I don't believe the iPod would have achieved this success without the underlying mystique which surrounds the Apple name.
Ever since the brand entered America's consciousness in 1978, consumers have always had a sense of awe about Apple products. Even in the most desperate of times, following many truly dumb business decisions, Apple maintained that reputation.
They earned it fair and square with their revolutionary creations, including the first mass-marketed PC (the Apple II), he first publicly marketed computer with a graphic user interface (the Macintosh), the first portable digital assistant (the Newton), some of the most innovative PC designs ever (the iMac in all three generations of its ever-evolving form factors, not to mention the Cube) and the first notebook computer in contemporary form (the PowerBook 100, recently named the #1 gadget of all time by Mobile PC magazine for its role in popularizing mobile computing).
On top of this, regardless of being reduced in terms of sales figures into a family of niche products, the brand itself has always been known for its strong engineering, industrial design, and sense of style. At some subconscious level, Apple products have always been considered among the best, even by those who wouldn't necessarily buy them because of the price or lack of interoperability.
The stage is set... Enter the players.
In 2000, a couple of years into his second coming at Apple, Steve Jobs admits that his focus on revamping the Mac line and operating system had caused him to ignore the proliferation of online digital music. Computer users in huge numbers were ripping CDs into MP3s, downloading digital audio files, and burning their own CDs.
Also, a couple of years before, a relatively small company called Diamond Multimedia had created a Walkman-like device called the Rio, onto which users could download MP3 music files, and play them back through earphones or powered speakers.
Now playing catchup, Jobs assembled an A-team of engineers. They needed an application for the Mac to facilitate the creation and management of digital music files, a program known as a jukebox.
Jobs learned that a former Apple software designer had written a slick, adaptable jukebox program called SoundJam. Jobs bought the company and convinced the designer, Jeff Robbin, to come back to Apple to lead the project. The result was iTunes, Apple's killer music file management system.
Now they needed a method for listeners to be able to carry the music with them. Robbin created the software and the Mac engineering team created the hardware., which combined constitute the iPod. Although pricey, consumers loved it. It was gorgeously designed, easy to use, and superbly engineered.
The team then determined that they needed to painlessly legitimize the availability of online music. Others had tried; Apple succeeded with the iTunes Music Store, now at over 250 million downloads at 99 cents a pop, and going strong. They did this by finally enticing the major music companies to jump on the digital music bandwagon; something constituting an historic shift in the music industry.
And finally, in a move unique in the history of Apple, they decided to embrace non-Mac users and ported the entire iMusic system to Windows.
That accounts for iPod and iTunes, but let's not forget a fundamental point. After many ups and downs, the Macintosh has evolved into what many people, including some of the most impactive in the history of personal computing, consider the best hardware/software system ever.
OS X is amazingly safe and stable. Apple's applications are easy to use, highly intuitive, and quite powerful. Third-party applications are much more readily available than most non-Mac users seem to be aware. And let's face it... In all its various forms, the Mac is just downright cool. Name one other computer that's as instantly identifiable just by its brand name.
Apple products have always been unabashedly expensive, and that's only one of many reasons why Macintosh isn't the dominant personal computer system in the world today. But by moving strategically over the last few years to embrace the things associated with personal computing which mean the most to consumers, Apple has carved a new niche for itself... again.
Apple's core strength is to bring very high technology to mere mortals in a way that surprises and delights them and that they can figure out how to use. Steve Jobs said in a recent interview in Forbes.
Based on Apple's astonishing growth in sales, worth, and profits over the last year, I'd say they're succeeding.
Mike Rau is a mass communications consultant in Virginia Beach. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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