Imagine you have just opened a new restaurant. You have good food and a lot of great buzz. People really want to try your new restaurant out. You then tell people, they can come eat there but only if they arrive driving a BMW. In fact the purpose of the restaurant is to sell more BMWs because you also own a BMW dealership. Would that make any sense?
I think a lot of people draw the wrong conclusions about Apple’s success. I will agree that they design good hardware but they still have some failures. For example, they completely fail at any kind of social media (Ping anyone?). Apple TV hasn’t really sold like they want. Even so, a lot of educators were posting yesterday that Apple’s eTextbook announcement was a “game changer”. In my opinion those people are wrong and here’s why.
Apple’s success is not based entirely on their product designs. It has also been based on good timing and being able to foresee emerging markets. Let’s look at a few of their successes.
iPod – Portable music players were just becoming technologically possible so there wasn’t an established market yet. While it was technically a good device, it was the ease of use that made it dominant. Once you have iTunes, it just worked. The key things here is consumers didn’t have any previous product loyalty and the rest of the computer industry let Apple have the market for a long time. It’s easy to win a war if the other side doesn’t show up and fight.
iPhone - There were existing phones and even some smart phones but phone makers looked at their devices as phones that also could access a special “mobile” Internet. Apple looked at their device as a small portable computer that also could make calls. That basically created a new type of product. It took years before anyone else was able to challenge Apple. Again they were able to get a big headstart before anyone else could respond.
iPad - There were existing tablets out there but Apple took the iPhone model and just scaled it up. Plug it into the existing iPhone ecosystem and you have another winner. Make no mistake though, the iPad would not have been as big of a success without the iPhone coming before it. The ecosystem already existed.
What is interesting about this list is it is all hardware centric. Steve Jobs always said his company made hardware. Software existed to get you to buy the hardware. So, if you look at Apple’s eTextbook announcement in that context, they are trying to use the eTextbooks to force schools to buy iPads. If you think about it though, Apple isn’t dominant in any software besides iTunes (and that is because it’s tied to the devices). Apple in fact has flopped on some recent software releases. Final Cut X changed many things about the way it works. It was so hated when it came out, Apple had to put their older version back for sale. Even so, many companies are switching to Avid. You can only use Keynote if you have a Mac. Same for iLife. I would buy iPhoto ’09 for the PC but you can’t get it.
Restricting their software to their own devices artificially limits their success and adoption. Companies like Amazon.com are pure software companies and have no such limitations. Apple is going to go to these schools and tell them, you can buy all these eTextbooks but you have to also buy iPads. Oh, and the eTextbooks won’t work on your existing PCs. Sorry about that. A software company like Amazon.com can come along and say they can sell you eTextbooks that will work on anything you have including iPads.
If Apple was a software company they would release a reader for their eTextbooks for any platform. They would also let eTextbooks made with iBook Author able to be published anywhere. They have a lead again, but restricting their software to their own platforms will hurt them badly. This is their Achilles Heel.