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Some thoughts on Apple and average products for average people

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I’ve had my Mac Mini for 1 day. But seeing it sitting there on my desk next to my PC I thought of something Steve Jobs said in an interview back in the 1990’s when he was CEO of NeXT.

The only problem with Microsoft is that they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste and what that means is – and I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way – in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product… Why is that important?  Proportionately spaced fonts comes from typesetting and beautiful books – that’s where one gets the idea.  If it weren’t for the Mac they [Microsoft] would never have that.  I am saddened not by Microsoft’s success – I have no problem with their success; they have earned their success for the most part. I have a problem with the fact they make really third-rate products. – Steve Jobs

The Mac mini, a single piece of sculpted aluminum 7.7-inches square and 1.4-inches tall, is sitting next to my behemoth PC.  The PC’s case was made by forcing a sheet of cheap steel into a rectangular box.  I remember the NeXT Cube that I had on my desk in the early 1990’s.  The case was a cube of magnesium and inside was the NeXT Step operating system based on the Mach Kernel.  The GUI was clean and crisp based on display postscript.  One cable brought power and video to the monitor from the cube.

What do consumer products really tell you?

I collect old radios.  I recently acquired a Hallicrafters WR600.  It’s a 4 band shortwave receiver.  The WR600’s were produced between 1961 and 1964.   What do these radio’s represent?

On first pass, these radio’s represent something of the history of radio.  The WR600 is a tube radio (fire bottles).  For as long as there are RF radio broadcasts these radios are both collectible and usable every day.

On second pass, and thinking of the quote above from Jobs, take a look at the radio (links below).  Take a look at the cabinet.  This is another example of someone bashing out a piece of sheet metal and forming it into a rectangular box.

The real icing on the cake of the Hallicrafters WR600 is that someone at Hallicrafters decided it would be a good idea to apply a wood grain to the sheet metal cabinet.  So, you have a radio that has an obvious sheet metal case covered with a picture of perfect wood grain.  Is anyone being fooled by this?

Add to this the fact that the Hallicrafters WR600 has no power transformer.  This means that one side of the power cord is soldered to the metal case.  It also has a non-polarized plug.  So, plug the radio in and you might end up with the chassis and case at 110 volts.  Touch the radio and something at ground potential at the same time and you will find the value of cutting corners by not using a power transformer – at your expense.  Shocking!

Take a look around you for mediocre products.  How many pieces of furniture do you see made out of particle board covered with a veneer?

What do consumer products tell you about manufacturers, the buyer, and the culture?

Why are there mediocre products?  Because people want them?  As a producer of products or services do you produce what people want to buy?  On first pass, the simple answer would be yes.  If this is a growth market, and there is revenue to be made above costs at the right margin, and your company is a good fit to produce that product, and your company is in a good competitive position then, why not?

Maybe the answer should be no.  Would Steve Jobs ever allow an Apple product to be designed with a sheet metal cabinet covered with a picture of wood grain like the Hallicrafters WR600?  Never.  But you can see there is an insatiable demand for mediocre products.  When do we say, NO!

Is there a point when a company (what is the nature of that company?) simply says, no – we won’t create a product like that – it is below our standards – we won’t produce it even though there is a demand for it.

It’s about lowering the bar.  Here is a thought from Seth Godin

Mediocrity is very common.  It means being average.  Average people are average.  Mediocrity is for losers.  The reason mediocrity is for losers is given the choice of five places to eat lunch are you going to pick the mediocre  one?  Given the choice of five people to hire are you going to pick the mediocre one?  In fact, in our google-fueled world where  we have a choice of a million things on every  topic who picks average?  Who picks mediocre?  Nobody.  — Seth Godin

Unfortunately, Seth is wrong.  Who picks mediocre?  The majority of people pick mediocre.  Look at the products around you.

What happens when the culture settles for mediocrity – in a big way?  What happens to society and culture?  Specifically, what happens to America in the context of the global economy?  How many nations are set to overtake America as an economic superpower due to America’s acceptance of mediocrity?

Settling for mediocrity even extends to the workplace.  More from Seth

Some people I know work hard to lower the bar at work… Most people seek to meet the bar. They figure out what’s expected, and do that.

A few people, very few, work to relentlessly raise the bar. She’s the one who overdelivers on projects, shows up ahead of schedule, instigates, suggests and pushes.

Raising the bar is exhausting, no doubt about it. I’m not sure the people who engage in this apparently reckless behavior would have it any other way, though. They get to experience a fundamentally different day, a different journey and a different reputation than everyone else.

Lowering the bar seems to be a cultural obsession.  Lets not keep score on high school sports for fear that it would make the losing team feel bad about themselves.  Lets remove grades from school and just make classes pass or fail.  People have come to believe that they are entitled to their jobs; not only that, but they should get an annual raise as a matter or course.  Johnny is dropping out of high school and will never go to college.  That’s Ok.

Seth says that “mediocrity is for losers”.  But being a loser seems no longer to carry any cultural stigma.  Being an average student is perfectly acceptable.  Being on welfare is perfectly acceptable – even a goal to be achieved.  More from Seth.

Why now? What has changed that makes promoting bar gymnastics more than a selfish effort by the boss to get more labor out of the workforce?

Simple. This is the post-industrial era. Success is not about speeding up the assembly line as much as it relies on individuals able to create leaps forward. The person capable of doing that sort of work is in far higher demand than ever before.

Will there be a demand for people who work to raise the bar or will these people be reviled?  Who cares about success? – Nobody, that sounds like hard work and we’re not up to that anymore.

What happens when all the people who want to raise the bar are gone – or overwhelmed by average?  Average products for average people.  When folks like Steve Jobs, Seth Godin, and the rest of the people who “create the leaps” are gone then mediocrity will be gone; mediocre will become average and the bar will be so low there will be no losers.

Imagine a world where there are no losers and everyone is a winner (or at least we say they are).  Suppose we gave out trophies and awards for simply “being” – you don’t even need to show up.  Suppose we didn’t differentiate people on the basis of skills, competencies, or talent.  Suppose no one told you that you could do better – for fear it would hurt your self-esteem.  There are no hero’s and nothing much to aspire to.  Suppose everyone was truly equal in terms of rights and economic outcomes and no one was “better” or to be preferred over someone else.  Sounds like a Utopia.


The Hallicrafters WR600 in its beautiful wood grain sheet metal case – here

Read about former Motorola CEO Ed Zander’s attempt to raise the bar at Motorola – here

Written by frrl

June 1, 2011 at 5:17 am

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