Advantage Apple

John Gruber:

It’s the Jobs side of the equation that Apple’s rivals — phone, tablet, laptop, whatever — are able to copy. Thus the patents and the lawsuits. Design is copyable. But the Cook side of things — Apple’s economy of scale advantage — cannot be copied by any company with a complex product lineup. How could Dell, for example, possibly copy Apple’s operations when they currently classify “Design & Performance” and “Thin & Powerful” as separate laptop categories?

I don’t see the value in separating and comparing two, of many, Apple advantages over its competition: design to economy of scale. What Gruber fails to consider in this must-read article is the fact that design isn’t limited to external industrial design (ID) or the user interface (UI). Design encompasses ID, certainly, but also manufacturing design as in the aluminum unibody production process, and linked to the internal design of products is the procurement execution and management of those components which in turn are dictated by ID, the manufacturing process, and so on. In the case of the unibody aluminum MacBooks the unique manufacturing design allowed Apple to reduce the number of steps in the manufacturing process, maintain robustness without having to add supporting structure in the chassis, minimize the number of components, simplify the design of the components themselves, resulting in a dramatic reduction in defects and bill of materials. Design in the case of Apple is integrative. Apple itself is the ultimate culmination of integrative design.

ID and UI are indeed copyable. Just look at all of the me-too smartphones and tablets on the market today, but the economy of scale advantage can be copied too. The Cook side of Apple can be copied by simplifying the product lineup. If you are Dell how can you simplify a mind-numbingly complex product lineup? You can’t; not if you lack the design ethos, the integrative design ethos, of someone like Steve Jobs.

This realization sort of snuck up on me. I’ve always been interested in Apple’s products because of their superior design; the business side of the company was never of as much interest. But at this point, it seems clear to me that however superior Apple’s design is, it’s their business and operations strength — the Cook side of the equation — that is furthest ahead of their competition, and the more sustainable advantage. It cannot be copied without going through the same sort of decade-long process that Apple went through.

Again, it might be easy to to start thinking that Apple’s design can in some way be separated from the business side of things. I don’t think you can. The separation is merely theoretical and cannot be done in the case of Apple because the company itself is the result of integrative design, which includes the company’s superior design, business and operations strength, among other things. As long as whoever is in charge realizes Apple is integrative design, the company will continue to have a sustainable advantage over its competition.