★ On Apple and the Intersection of Quality, Usability, and Aesthetic

I am an Apple fanboy. I own an iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro, iPod, iPod Shuffle, and Apple TV. The iTunes Store is my primary media source, and Safari 5 is my primary web browser. When I visited my girlfriend in California last summer, a pilgrimage to Cupertino was a must. I even own an official Apple t-shirt, which is only sold at the company's on-campus Cupertino outlet. I'm sold, I'm all in, because I believe that Apple is the company that hits the spot where quality, usability, and aesthetic intersect.

There are three keys to Apple's success. The first is its unique understanding of the importance of delivery mechanisms over raw technology and features. As an example, let's compare the iPhone 4 to the HTC EVO 4G, the current Best Android Phone Ever. When Apple announced that it was including a front-facing camera in the iPhone 4, some commentators sneered. Louis Gray wrote, "The introduction of multi-tasking and a front-facing camera both are catch up features to the latest Android models, including the aforementioned EVO." The EVO, released only days earlier, does indeed sport a front-facing camera. But the functionality of the camera is not easily integrated into the system's operations. Yes, it can be used to facilitate a form of video-chatting, but the mechanism by which such a chat functions is clumsy at best. Relying entirely on third parties to develop non-standard systems, the EVO's developers clearly didn't have a plan for how they were going to use their front-facing camera or why it would make the experience of using the EVO better. It's just... there.

Where EVO failed is not in the technology, but in the delivery mechanism. Without a standardized, easy-to-use method of making a video call, the feature will be woefully underutilized. Apple, though, has created a simple and intuitive delivery mechanism for its video chat with FaceTime. All a user has to do is make a phone call and push a button. That's it. It is quick and easy; perfectly packaged for the non-tech geek in all of us. Is the actual video chat technology in the iPhone 4 better than that of the EVO? Maybe not. But the delivery mechanism is flawless. And for anyone who was followed Apple over the years, that should come as no shock. This sort of thing is what they do best - they make technology usable. If you owned another MP3 players before you owned an iPod, you understand how important that is.

The second key to Apple's success is product discipline. Prior to the announcement of the iPad, there were calls for the company to jump into the then-thriving netbook market. Apple's computer offerings, some said, were too expensive to compete with netbooks, and the only way for the company to succeed with consumers looking for a low-cost solution to their computing needs would be to produce a $500 MacBook. But Apple didn't want to enter into the market for low-cost, low-quality computers. They wanted to create a new market, and did so with the iPad. Now stories are being published about the iPad destroying netbook sales. The whole netbook market is collapsing before our eyes, with Google's as-yet untested Chrome OS as its only hope of survival. Apple saw a market in netbooks that it didn't want to enter. Instead it focused its attention elsewhere and hit a home run. That kind of discipline is increasingly rare in technology companies.

Contrast that with Google, which wants to be everywhere and compete in every market. That's why it has a phone OS, a desktop OS, a web browser, and web services of almost every kind in addition to its core search and advertising products. But which of those services does Google actually do really well? Android isn't bad, and the Chrome browser (built on top of Apple's Webkit) is pretty good, but they both lack polish and don't fully integrate with the hardware that they run on. Gmail and Maps are good, and search is very good. But what about Picassa? Google Wave? Google Buzz? Google Docs is still gestating, and Google Voice is stagnant. Chrome OS is an unknown. Google has expanded into these markets rapidly in the last year and a half, regardless of whether or not they are capable of producing a truly excellent product. They just go, ignoring half-baked development in an attempt to seize market share. That's a strategy that worked really well for another company once upon a time. What's happening to that company now?

Apart from their core offerings of Office and Windows, Microsoft's products are a haphazard collection of overlapping failures. The Xbox division continues to lose millions of dollars, tablet offerings are nonexistent, and Windows Mobile/Phone is an industry joke. Microsoft even holds the distinction of failing twice simultaneously in the mobile space with its release of the Kin, the phone that no one wanted. Microsoft is trying to compete in industries where it has no business competing, and its core products are suffering as a result. Windows 7 is an improvement on Vista, but its features and usability still lag years being Mac OS X. The Office user experience is virtually identical to what it was a decade ago, opening the door for competitors and alternative products that may over time eat away at it, especially as web integration becomes a bigger factor in the eyes of consumers. Does Google aspire to this?

One of the first things Steve Jobs did when he came back to Apple in 1997 was start killing products that he viewed as superfluous. That included the innovative Newton MessagePad, the Cyberdog internet suite, and OpenDoc. Jobs sliced away everything that wasn't central to the company's mission, and poured his energy into the iMac. When he had established a small but stable foothold in the computer market, he started to think about ways to bring people to the platform. Apple entered the MP3 markets. When it was sufficiently dominant in that space, it entered the mobile phone market. When it was sufficiently dominant in that space, it entered the tablet market. All three of those markets are interconnected with one another, and Apple's offerings progressed logically from one to the next. They also gave users an incentive to return to the platform that started it all - the Mac. Apple only entered into markets that complimented its original goal of bringing people to the Mac platform, and then only did so when it felt that it could produce a high-quality product with a clear purpose and mass appeal. That kind of discipline is rare among both companies and people, and without it, Apple might never have recovered from the Dark Ages that was the 1990s.

The third key is that same principle applied to design. Minimalism is the hallmark of Apple products, and more than anything else, is the reason why those products have found their way into so many hands. In many ways, the Mac vs. Windows, iPhone vs. Android debate boils down to a very simple dichotomy: what do you need to do vs. what can you do. Do you want a machine that performs a lot of tasks in a mediocre way, or do you want a machine that performs fewer tasks but does them exceptionally well? If success is determined by the breadth of available features, then Windows and Android are going to win easily. You can do more with a Windows machine, and you can do more with an Android phone. You can mod it, customize it, tweak it, tinker with it, install anything, run anything, and make it absolutely your own. But how much of what's on your Android phone or your Windows machine do you need? How much of it do you actually use? How much of it is there for a functional purpose? And of what is there that you don't need, how much of that gets in your way? How much of it hinders your experience rather than helps it? With excessive computer customization comes a complication of the user experience, a non-standardized interface, and increased susceptibility to bugs. And the effect of that completely customizable, anything-goes platform is to complicate usability for the eighty percent of the populace that just wants to check its emails and browse the web.

Critics like to knock the iPhone in particular for what they perceive as restrictions - it doesn't do "real" multitasking, it doesn't allow total customization, it has a closed application system - but those restrictions are actually liberators for the majority of people. The fact that there is only one very simple way to do something on the iPhone makes it easier to learn and easier to use. It makes the device drop away, vanish, and leaves only the user experience. And it allows people who aren't comfortable with computers, who dread installing anything new or making any changes for fear of seeing a blue screen, to just go. Apple's guiding philosophy in all of its products is to give the vast majority of people exactly what they need to do exactly what they want to do, and to give nothing else that could possibly complicate or hinder that experience. That's why children can pick up an iPad and know exactly what they're doing. And that philosophy has allowed the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad to become the most successful, innovative, and important products available in their respective markets.

Delivery mechanisms, discipline, and minimalism - these are the keys to Apple's success. More than that, they are the keys to Apple's excellence, which is even more important. Apple produces excellent products, products that are intuitive, reliable, and fulfill user needs. It provides excellent technology delivered in an excellent design and market it with excellent advertising. More than any company in the world today, it has taken excellence as a concept and made it a success.

Can Google or Microsoft say that?