What it means to be great

What makes a product great? I struggle with this question because being great is not just being better than good. Greatness is to goodness as wisdom is to smarts. Just like getting smarter and smarter may never make you wise, getting better and better does not mean ever becoming great.

Greatness is transcendental. It’s hard to pin down. It inspires debate. It divides as much as it unites. It creates emotions as much as thoughts. It builds legends. It engages and persists. It lives in memory and penetrates culture. It implants itself in our consciousness persistently, to linger and dwell in our minds while we are bombarded with stimuli.

We use words such as “iconic” or “epic” to capture this permanent “mental tattoo” that we get from greatness. As important as this notion is, we struggle to define it. We don’t even have a proper word for it. Perhaps it is what art tries to be, or what drives us to achieve beyond surviving. As vague a notion as it may be, it is one of the most important notions I can think of. Greatness is the cause, perhaps, of our ascent.

In the absence of any measurement of greatness, how do we spot it?
It may just be down to “knowing when we see it”. But not everybody does.[1]

This quandary came to mind when looking at the performance of the latest iPhone, the 6S. Observing it closely, we lose sight of it. We see only minute changes between versions; marginal changes which can’t be weighed. And yet these changes have a more important attribute: they are absorbable. A change that is ignored is not only valueless, it may actually destroy perception of value. It creates clutter and confusion. A change that is absorbable is valuable. It is meaningful.

Looking at new features like 3D Touch, Live Photos, and better cameras, one can observe how easily acceptable and desirable they are to those who first see them. As were Siri, FaceTime, Touch ID and iCloud, making something meaningfully better is a sign of sustaining innovation which does not over-serve.

Paradoxically, the improvements are not usually things that users ask for. Surveys always show that consumers want “better battery life” or a “bigger screen” but delivering something else entirely which nevertheless leads to mass adoption shows an uncanny insight into what really matters. Indeed, those who deliver only what customers ask for end up marginalized and bereft of profit.

To see improvements which lead to ever-increasing success in the marketplace year after year proves that this is not a transient event. This is no flash-in-the pan. This is not a stroke of genius. This is a process, a factory, a machine. The consistency and relentlessness of success is evidence of something at work that is more permanent.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 6.55.09 AM

The definition of greatness for products then becomes easier to frame:

Improvements which are not asked for but which change behavior suggest that the product is valued because it changes the buyer. I believe this is what causes us to pause and appreciate them. We feel we have been improved by the thing we bought though we did not ask to be made better by it. Collectively, multiplying by millions, the improvement we feel compels us to anoint the product as great.

Apple is a company that builds greatness because they built a process to make their customers better. They do it without permission and they do it without offense. But when the buyer perceives the change they feel in debt to the object. Getting payments on that debt of gratitude is how Apple is rewarded.

  1. Language is another indicator. When people attach brands to entire categories we get an indication of ubiquity and permanence. As much as the brand owner fears it, the genericization of a trademark is very probably an indication of greatness in consumer products. Aspirin, iPod, xerox, jell-o and app are examples where brands became words. []
  • Luis Alejandro Masanti

    Excellent post! Thanks!

    Today’s quoth steve says:
    “Apple’s the only company left in this industry that designs the whole widget. Hardware, software, developer relations, marketing. It turns out that that, in my opinion, is Apple’s greatest strategic advantage.”

    Maybe this is the foundation of its greatness.

  • mithlond

    I heard someone once note that there are three overall strata in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In ascending order, they are: survival, success, and transformation. I was reminded of this when I read where you say:

    “The definition of greatness for products then becomes easier to frame:
    Improvements which are not asked for but which change behavior suggest that the product is valued because *it changes the buyer*.”
    (emphasis added)

    • mithlond

      This may also explain why financial analysts have a hard time analyzing Apple. Perhaps the lens they view markets through only goes as high as success. Success that beats prior success, even by a healthy margin, is still only success.

      • art hackett

        They might have a hard time analyzing Apple, but I suspect they’re frustrated that Apple won’t play ball and/or it’s extremely profitable to manipulate the market, especially when your target keeps recovering and you can wash, rinse, repeat.

  • I think you nailed it Horace, now that you have said it the reason of Apple success is obvious.
    I believe that easy of use is an important factor. When your change comes from learning you reward yourself for the fatigue, when you can use a product doing the obvious thing you reward the product.

  • WFA67

    “Greatness is the cause, perhaps, of our ascent.”

    In considering Apple, one habitually thinks of it as creating “technology.” But would it reveal more to think of it as creating “art?”

    An atmosphere of play (albeit highly disciplined), experimentation/tinkering/trial-and-error, ever-finer distinctions and innovations — all designed not so much to ‘fix’ anything as simply to delight, first the creator, then perhaps others. A process yielding the creators, possibly, some measure of “fitness.”

    Steve’s process, I think, sensitized many to their delight in delight, producing a flood of derivative products, packaging, and advertising. Were we changed? Or were we woken up to something dormant within?

    “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Bertolt Brecht

  • David

    A lot of what you described also applied to Google and its suite of products, although I have never heard you mention Google as a great company.

    • Stirlol

      Alphabet, the armed robotic spider dog company do be evil, very evil things and I never hear you mention how fast the cheetah can track down a human target.

      • Stirlol

        *dont be evil, be The evil.

    • kgelner

      In what way does it apply to Google? Very few Google specific technologies gain a lot of traction or really transform users; cast in point is Wallet which had so little traction they had to reform it into a clone of Apple Pay, and even clone the name to Google Pay…. or perhaps they felt the had to change the name since Apple stole Wallet.

      I would argue initialy, yes, Google had that. Search, Maps, Gmail, Google Docs all were things that really changed how people used computers. But there’s been nothing on the mobile timeframe that has had that kind of impact. Even Android itself is just access, not transformation.

      • Juan S. Camargo Visbal

        Every company has it good products and bad products, but dismissing Gmail, Inbox, Now.. Do not dismiss Google that they don’t gain traction or transform users. Their services are more impactful to the world than Apple’s.

      • art hackett

        Search was their only great product, but there was actually no free lunch. The others are variations on the data mining theme that appear to provide a service. As search has been so biased with spam and anti user design, I barely even bother with it any more. Even maps are excruciating, so I put up with the (decreasing) errors in Apple maps and use local apps for public transport. I can hardly wait till The Algorithm is a plugin for Safari or Firefox and we’re not tracked and spied on. I can’t remember the last time I deliberately logged in to a Google service, and I was in the first wave of gmail betas. Online storage measured in gigabytes was mythical. Simpler times……before the curtain was pulled back.

  • Walt French

    “Aspirin, iPod, xerox, jell-o and app are examples where brands became words.”

    I’m sure you left out “iPhone” for a reason, but don’t know what that reason is.

    • mark

      Android guys would declare a fatwa or something.

      nobody cares that I call your tissues “kleenex” – but call any phone an iphone and.. well, best not say it.

      • art hackett

        They’re continually declaring all sorts of things. Probably the same people that buy off-brand knockoffs yet are continually surprised by lack of results and reliability. Somebody shops at Walmart and eBay.

    • airmanchairman

      Not to forget the verb “Hoover”…

  • Childermass

    “Paradoxically, the improvements are not usually things that consumers ask for.”

    Axiomatically, they aren’t. Consumers consume, they do not design. Not a paradox at all.

    • Sacto_Joe

      An even better term is “ironically”.

  • peto1

    Well said, Horace! Inspirational, aspirational …

  • hannahjs

    So then…are the recent complaints about the “S” naming cycle overblown, even trivial? Would a “better” name for the iPhone propel its sales into the ionosphere? Does “leaving money on the table” forfeit your products’s claim to greatness? I’m trying to integrate art, business, and greatness into a single sensible concept.

    • kgelner

      I don’t think a name change would help at all, because there is such a saturation of info about each new model the name would really be a minor feature compared to someone looking for Live Photos, for example… a different name could only serve to mess things up.

    • trivia

      Did you somehow think complaints about the iPhone naming suffix could be anything other than trivial? Do you really think sales would be appreciably higher if it was called the iPhone 7 (or whatever you think the complaints are)?

      • hannahjs

        It were Ken Segall and John Paczkowski got me thinking:

      • trivia

        Whatever they called it, they would still get the same response unless they drastically changed the enclosure design yearly, instead of on a two year cycle.

      • hannahjs

        You assert that the naming of the product wouldn’t affect the response, that only its outward appearance would. Some analysts (notably ksegall) question that.

      • trivia

        I absolutely do, with an unshakeable certainty that some other guy’s assertion could never counter.

      • airmanchairman

        A recent anecdote revealed that the “S” iteration iPhone has always handily outsold its predecessor,

        Thus, it’s probably safe to say that the latter half of the 2-year cycle has turned out to be a clever way to rope in fence-sitters who are loth to be early adopters, as well as those doubting Thomases still holding out for other competitors’ handsets.

        That’s in addition to the other high-level and low-level enhancements that the “S” cycle has already been known to bring to the table. Greatness is a many-faceted splendid thing…

      • art hackett

        Knowing what I think I know now, I’ll continue to go s.

      • art hackett


    • art hackett

      Surprisingly, people buy stuff when they believe they need it. Non nerds don’t base their lives on product cycles and no subtle prompting to wait a month, or even a week, registers. The s naming is probably irrelevant to most customers, you know, the ones not waiting in or on line. The only naming that seems to matter is iPhone, especially after they’ve been disappointed, frustrated or burned by non iPhones.

  • steve

    Great post Horace. Engineering is all about finding a set of compromises that come as close as possible to a set of goals. Choosing the goals is something of an art. At the end of the day you rarely get close to those goals, but great design and vision can create a compromise that goes beyond anything the end user had imaged.

    The great designer knows a product is great when it comes out of the processes that exceeds the goals in some unimagined, perhaps magical, way.

  • That s could be summarized in “what people need vs what people want”

    • The distinction I make is more about unstated vs. stated. The duty of the innovator is to discern an unarticulated need.

      • correct. but often what people need is unstated (simply because people don t know they need it) vs what people want (eg in your article bigger screen or longer battery)

      • charlesarthur

        I think it’s more in the sense of “sustaining innovation”. A bigger screen has clearly been a sustaining innovation – it pushed iPhone sales past where they had been, with room for growth (since not everyone who could took them up). Apple could have chosen a bigger battery instead of a bigger screen. Why didn’t it? Obvious answer: it didn’t think that would be a sustaining innovation. You can add a battery pack to your old phone, but you can’t add a bigger screen to your old phone.

        Equally, in the 6S, why have 3D Touch rather than a bigger battery? Same answer. What people say they want (for instance, a bigger battery or waterproofing or a USB slot or direct file access) turns out not to be the thing they or many others really /want/ when given a choice of something they’ve never specifically requested – such as fingerprint unlocking, NFC payment, or new colours of cases by year. (Rose gold? Must be a new iPhone 6S.)

      • but isn’t this part of the “obvious” cycle people would answer if asked? a bigger screen is probably something users would spontaneously ask for. but 3D touch for example is definitely not obvious

      • To put it more bluntly, what people say they want isn’t what they end up buying.

  • BookWorm

    Although I may agree with the overall notion of this article, there’s a bit of selection bias going on, remembering the things which Apple did which caught on, and conveniently ignoring all the things they added which people never used, never took off, or just sucked. If you’re willing to ignore features introduced which needlessly complicated a user’s life, then sure, it looks like nothing but a brilliant and perfect list of launches.

    But I don’t think the history is so clean. I wouldn’t call Siri’s launch “Beta”, meaningful, I hardly see anyone using Siri except to set timers, and pretty much every I know has an iPhone. Ditto for Facetime. I still haven’t gotten a Facetime call from anyone I know (95% iOS). Many of Apple’s builtin apps go in the junk drawer and third party alternatives get used. Facebook and Google still ship the most popular apps on iOS. iCloud was a disaster on launch, so was Maps. Did consumers really need Apple Music? Is that to improve people’s life over Spotify, or to improve Apple’s control of a needed table stakes market?

    The things which matter, but which are invisible: things which get faster, easier to use, do stuff for you in the background that you don’t even know that make your life better, things that relief you of repeated daily burden, those are the invisible features that people come to use to make decisions, but the ones they often can’t verbally articulate.

    These kinds of screeds often read like hagiography. We learn why the author thinks the company he loves is great, but we don’t learn anything like a complete, realistic picture.

    “Surveys always show that consumers want “better battery life” or a “bigger screen”

    Actually, that’s after the fact. When the Asian manufacturers first started introducing giant phones, industry inertia was being dragged towards smaller and smaller devices by Apple and their followers. The phablet market was completely contrary to what people said they wanted: small and light devices that fit into their pocket/purse. Go back to 2008-9 and ask anyone if they want a 6” device. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

    There are many ways in which Apple has designed products which make life harder when obviously better designs already existed which they could have copied. And the proof that the original design was wrong is evidenced by their followup changes: Notification management in iOS < 9 was horrible, you couldn't even chronologically sort them. The task switcher in iOS9 IMHO is a step back from iOS8 in usability, when I try to dismiss a task, I often swipe the wrong one. Introducing Apple Maps was a step back for consumers because they didn't wait until it was "ready" and a comparable drop in replacement.

    And app screen management is still busted. Seriously, 2015 and you still can't alphabetically sort apps? When Apple forums advice is to Reset Your Home Screen Layout in order to quickly sort to find out what screen a downloaded app appeared on, something is poorly designed.

    So the design is mixed. The good outweighs the bad. Let's be a little more realistic about what's really driving sales at this point: brand and ecosystem, path dependency. No one would have argued Microsoft's success and dominance was solely attributable to the quality of Windows, and at this point, a lot of iPhone buying is simply baked in – users will buy the next version regardless of what features it has.

    We cannot separate purchasing decisions from design wholly, and unless Apple seriously fucks up, this situation will persist until smartphones overall are disrupted by something else. And if the PC is any guide, it'll take at least 20 years for the next big thing.

    • Stirlol

      I’ve never seen the United States of America. Therefore nobody lives there / it does not exist.

    • I disagree with much of what you wrote. I FaceTime and most people I know use Siri to do various basic tasks like call, send iMessages, set alarms and timers and other basic functions. I’m sorry you are worried about Spotify’s existence.

    • kgelner

      You don’t “see” people using FaceTime and Siri because they mostly do that in private. I know a LOT of people who use FaceTime, including my whole family. Siri is used more and more (I use t for alarms, yes, but also texts and reminders) , lots of people use it for quick texting and with the “Hey Siri” along with deep search aspect of the 6s+/iOS9, I’m using Siri for things I didn’t bother to before.

      • BookWorm

        How can “lots of people” already be using deep search on the 6s when the 6s and iOS9 were just released? Pardon me if I don’t believe you.

      • literate

        You might want to re-read the comment you’re replying to.

      • kgelner

        I agree I didn’t phrase it as clearly as I might have, but that’s not what I said – how about “lots of people use it for quick texting. Going forward, with the “Hey Siri” along with deep search aspect of the 6s+/iOS9, I’m using Siri for things I didn’t bother to before.” Though I wouldn’t be surprised if lots of people are using deep search already because it’s easy to use without thinking about it.

    • Good point.

    • kevinkee

      I was thankful for Siri and Facetime features on the iPhone when they first arrived. I am constantly using them until now. I maybe one of the million iPhone users, but for me, the launch of Siri and Facetime are absolutely meaningful. The same with Maps, iCloud, etc. The “disasters” that you mentioned have been hyperbole to the sky from a small minor population with hidden agenda, and people like you take them as facts. I wouldn’t. The things are, these all features are there, provided for us, free to enjoy, crafted with care and kept improved with updates. I hardly can say the same things with the competitors’ products.

      • BookWorm

        No competitors craft their products or services “with care”? Really? It’s hard to inhabit a world where the Emperor’s New Clothes are always fabulous, and nary a peasant can get anyone to see the big picture.

      • kevinkee

        @Ray2015:disqus @disqus_dTjgQ95Hq1:disqus I don’t want to deny your argument, on part of my own bias, but who can claim to be totally perfect objective? Not the Android users, not the Windows users, no one, not even you. So, I do not retract my statement earlier, because personally, an this is from my own experience, and it’s up to you to call it subjective view, say what you want, but yes, no other companies provided better products or services with care as good as Apple. It may be my own fact, and I believe a few millions too, but Apple do something right if so many of us feel the same. Don’t you think? And no, Apple has no ability to brainwash people if that’s your line of argument.

      • Ray

        “provided for us, free to enjoy, crafted with care and kept improved with updates ”
        This applies to many features and products from many other companies. One has to have a very narrow view of the world to find this only in one company.

      • Space Gorilla

        True. I find value in closed, curated, abstracted, simplified products and services from many companies. But who in the tech industry is offering this kind of value, other than Apple? Much of the tech industry believes Apple’s approach is wrong. So where else am I supposed to find the kind of value and user experience I want from tech products? Apple seems to be the only company interested in delivering what I want.

  • Ray

    And yet Apple’s best sales came when they launched a bigger screen (actually, two, large and very large). Too bad reality and data get in the way of theories.

    Siri or iCloud driving sales and maret share? Based on what? There are many good features in an iPhone but those are definitely not according to most people I know who have an iPhone. Would be nice to have supporting data.

    • Small White Car

      It looks to me like a big jump from 5->5S and then a small jump from 5S->6 and then another big jump from 6->6S.

      In other words, of the last 3 years the year when the big screen was introduced ended up being the smallest increase on the chart. Which is kind of the opposite of what you said.

      • Ray

        These are first weekend figures (China and other countries missing also) not total yearly sales. Sales growth was slowing down with iPhone 4 and 5, and it accelerated again with iPhone 6. Same with switching rates from Android, which have increased (logically) when an iOS alternative with bigger screen was available.

        Most consumers prefer bigger screens, that factor drives more sales than many of the features mentioned in the post.

      • hp

        As you said we don’t have data of sales growth year over year for iPhone 6S & 6S+ compared to iPhone 6 & 6S – just first weekend data. So your conclusion about really big screen size mattering seems a bit rushed.

      • Shawn Dehkhodaei

        I doubt that …. Android phones had bigger screens way before they became popular … their sales started picking up, when Android became a near clone of iOS … .and essentially copied iOS on EVERY iteration (hence Samsung lawsuits, etc.). Consumers prefer bigger screens on phones that are USABLE …. iOS happens to be the most usable phone by far …. Android a distant 2nd (and a cheap copy job at that).

        I remember customers also wanted physical keyboards too? Remember the BlackBerry? Where are they now? Do you know? They’re making big screen phones !!!! And recently with Android !!!!

        The only reason the iPhone had a small jump in sales with the big screens, was that consumers found that if you can have a bigger screen with the best experience, why not? So a whole bunch of people dumped their android phones and went to iOS … and that was primary in China, where the phone IS the primary device.

        Otherwise, Nokia and other vendors have been making bigger screen phones with Windows Phone on it for over 5 years now … has that sold in any decent numbers? No !!! Why? It’s got a big screen? Ah yes … no one wants to use Windows Phone !!! right 🙂

      • Tux

        I guess not many remember the 2010 Android 5″ screen Dell Streak.

      • Such a blatant fanboy post it’s not even worth replying tbh. Must be troll?

      • art hackett

        Wow, fanboy, troll and, I assume To Be Honest….in one line. Snap.
        Whenever someone says “to be honest”, well, you know what they say. It’s bad enough actually saying it, but writing it? Funny how we both replied though.

      • Indeed, and now we’re having a conversation about the finer points of internet grammar. Turns out his post was worthwhile after all!

    • Kizedek

      “There are many good features in an iPhone but those are definitely not according to most people I know who have an iPhone. Would be nice to have supporting data.”

      Ironically, your statement only goes to show that Apple users are not merely “iSheep”. We actually have thoughts and criticisms about areas Apple could improve.

      What you are seeing is the desire for Apple (and the belief that it can) prove that its products can be the best in every respect to any competition.

      Right now, there are individual features, which, when compared to a particular best-in-class service could be improved along some metric. Such as, file management in iWork in iCloud being in every respect as good as DropBox, for example (don’t get me started on the issues I have had with Office 365).

      But all in all, iCloud *is* something that makes Apple products great. The backups, app and OS updates, the smooth and unnoticed sync’ing of personal data between devices (that alone is compelling) and photos (I still get surprised when a photo I take on my phone pops up in Photos on my laptop immediately), etc., etc…

      • Ray

        I’m not saying that iCloud is bad, it’s just very similar to competitors’ offers, so almost commoditized at this point. Google cloud services (Drive, Photos, etc.) work flawlessly, even though they have many more users and bigger data volumes, and work across many platforms (Android, iOS, Windows, etc.). Siri is a cool feature but with very limited real utility.
        Bigger screens on the other hand offer a clear value proposition (easier browsing, video consumption, etc.).
        Consumers do know what they want and need, especially in terms of sustaining innovation, and defect to competitors if a supplier does not want to offer it. Apple is getting back many customers who had defected to Android due to the availability of larger screens.

        I don’t remember last time Horace criticized Apple, or praised any of its competitors. If you do feel free to provide the reference.

      • Kizedek

        Actually, I said criticisms of “areas of improvement”, of which I know there are examples from Horace. Apple is to be praised for producing consistently good products and services across the board.

        Google is a “data” company, and while aspects of its cloud services work flawlessly, OS updates, for one, do not.

        Apple is somewhat a victim of high expectations, more so probably than any other company in the history of the world. And that is something that Horace does address.

      • Ray

        There are many products and features launched by Apple that are mediocre at best. Apple TV is a mediocre product (at least previous iterations which I used). iTunes client is a complete mess. Maps is taking years to be a mature product. AirPlay so so. There are plenty of features similar to Live Photos that have been launched in the past by competitors that probably Horace has never heard of. It just seems another gimmick to try to differentiate.
        Again, if you know examples of Horace criticizing Apple or praising any of its competitors please point them out specifically (URL or quote).

      • berult

        “… don’t remember the last time Horace criticized Apple, or praised any of its competitors…” Ray

        No need to pile on. I trust Apple, through product integrity, to be systemically brutal at both.

      • Catlike1

        I agree. Apple was definitely a follower when it came to large phones, and much of the increase in first week sales reflects Apple’s ability to launch in a greater number of countries from the outset (read: China). My main phone is an iPhone 6 but I also have and use Android phones. I never use Siri but find Google Now really useful. And iCloud services are a mess; I prefer using Dropbox because it works well across platforms and how it syncs and where files reside is much easier to understand. Is the iPhone a great product? Sure. Is Apple great at innovation and product refinement? Absolutely. But there are things about Apple, like their obsession with thinness and refusal to sacrifice tiny bit of it for greater battery life, which would benefit everyone, that is so frustrating. And continuing to sell at 16 GB iPhone at the prices they do making is pretty cynical.

      • Ian Ollmann

        Apple’s customers have always held the highest expectations for the company, and Apple is the better for it. iSheep couldn’t be farther from the mark. The customer is as mch a part of Apple’s greatness as Apple is.

        I only wish I could say the same thing about AAPLs investors.

    • everyyear

      Apple’s best iPhone sales come every year. Hard to understand your point here.

      • Ray

        Sales were decelerating before the iPhone 6 and accelerated again after it. Same with switching rates from / to Android.

        I’ll let Apple explain it themselves: ” Consumers want what we don’t have”

      • hp

        When a year from now iPhone 6S & 6S+ show yet again best sales with stronger growth is it still the matter of big screen size? Results for a year from now are speculation but the first weekend sales hint it’s going to be good, and then we’ll see it’s probably not about bigger screen size since it’s the same size screen.

      • Ray

        The smartphone market has a 2.x years replacement cycle, so many customers are up for an upgrade now, not last year. So they are definitely related. Add to that the focus on China (which Apple didn’t have until 2014). Those factor are more meaningful to explain growth than any features Apple has added since 2014.

        And if Apple developed a better battery technology that increased battery life by 50% count on many more switchers to Apple.

        One of the difference between Steve Jobs in the 90s and Jobs in the 2000s is that he listened much more to what his executives said, particularly in business and partnership related matters.

      • everyyear

        Consumers always want what you don’t have. Otherwise they wouldn’t have to want it anymore.

      • Ray

        I take you haven’t read Apple’s slides. What they are saying is consumers want larger phones, and we don’t have them, so sales growth is going to competing Android phones with larger screens. Some iPhone users were even switching. The attraction of a bigger screen was stronger than any “great” Siri or iCloud feature Apple has (which most competitors or OTT providers already had nyway)

        Listening to the market and changing course accordingly is a major component of Apple’s growth over the last year. You can thank the BI team at Apple for providing the right guidance to Tim.

        The Halo effect is too powerful and you will find any theory you want about how feature X and Y is the key to Apple’s success, while many of those features are actually just meaningless for most consumers. A bigger screen matters much more than Siri.

      • everyyear

        “The Halo effect is too powerful and you will find any theory you want about how feature X and Y is the key to Apple’s success”

        Yes, which is why I don’t have any particular reason to believe your particular pet theory.

      • everyyear

        Thank you for refuting yourself so clearly, by the way.

      • Ray

        You don’t have to believe me. The data, strategy and conclusions are from Apple.

      • everyyear

        I only see a statement of a fact, pre-release of larger screen phones, that some people say they want phones with larger screens. Of course, that is undeniable. Unfortunately it’s also unrelated to, and provides no evidence for, your particular theory about the main driver of sales of the iPhone 6, etc. Your making, and strongly stating, conclusions from an experiment that definitionally has no controls, so I don’t have any reason to believe you. And I don’t, particularly. The phone is integrated, hardware and software, and any explanation that tries to trace everything back to a single hardware change, amongst many other changes to hardware, software and the overall market, is extremely suspect.

      • art hackett

        When I decided I needed a bigger screen, I went big (9.7). 5″ or so, no matter what you’ve been told, is not enough.
        “Bigger” is hardly a reason to go Android considering any cost/benefit analysis, but gamblers seem to be under the impression that at some stage they must win big.
        Android’s bigger screens and Moar specs were the only obvious differentiation in a market that had been created and defined by Apple.
        Personally, I’m not sure whether a single screen is sufficient, but it might be enough.

    • Nate Bird

      We only value the things we can measure although a lot of the most valuable things in this life are those we can’t measure. Just because there isn’t data (unmeasurable) doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable or that customers don’t appreciate or that it doesn’t drive market share. Is data important? Yes, but so are the intangibles.

    • Nevermark

      You are confusing two things.

      Of course, Apple needs to deliver basic features that customers want, even if it initially does not recognize them as essential. The large screen became such a feature.

      But when they are in parity with their competition, as they were before large screens became popular and now that they have them, it is the unexpected or unasked for but appreciated issues that are growing their sales share, revenue share (more than anyone else), and profit share (almost the entire industries profits).

    • Sacto_Joe

      This hypothesis of yours that Apple only is succeeding because they finally went with a larger form factor dosn’t fly. If the larger form factor were that big a deal then we’d see OTHER manufacturers that make large form factors holding their own against the onslaught. We don’t.
      There was clearly a market for larger phones, but recall that originally they were built because Android couldn’t get any traction against the iPad. And appealing to those who wanted an iPad-like device but didn’t want to pay for two devices was a smart business decision.
      Apple isn’t obliged to turn a blind eye to a smart business decision, and; in true Apple fashion, when they responded it was with well thought out designs.
      Did Apple wait too long to begin self-cannibalizing its iPad sales? Clearly not, judging by the overwhelming response, as it now is sucking in ex-Android users hand over fist.

  • katherine anderson

    And so should you get payments on our debt of gratitude for a post so beautifully crafted.

  • kgelner

    Even though the whole post was about the iPhone, nothing supports the phrase “Apple is a company that builds greatness because they built a process to make their customers better.” like the Apple Watch. The health stuff in there is really effective, I had zero interest in or plans to use that aspect but I use it all the time, to the betterment of my overall health. Multiply that across all Apple Watch owners and that’s a pretty impressive side effect of what would otherwise be a gadget.

  • David1323

    Thanks for great writing!

    I have to recommend my favorite novel; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM) by Robert Pirsig. I think Apple inc is one of the best instances of greatness.

  • berult

    Privacy is to Security, …as the Liberal Arts construct is to the technology mindset. Thematic cross-permutations being of equal validity.

    In selling this wholesome product…whole, permutations included, one thereby chooses the perennial trade floor to be the inner sanctum of humanity’s greatness.

    …guilty of greatness by association, Your Honor. berult.

  • Walt French

    “We feel we have been improved by the thing we bought though we did not ask to be made better by it. Collectively, multiplying by millions, the improvement we feel compels us to anoint the product as great.”

    Given this ineffable definition, it’s unsurprising many note more misses than hits, and reject Apple’s “greatness.” Since Horace is a rather astute observer I’m happy to give more weight to his views. But the points about Apple’s many misses? Inevitable with the effort at breaking new ground. Perhaps Apple indeed gets carried away with its own “vision” of things like notifications, different for sake of identity or some elusive vision that ends up vanishing on closer approach.

    Nobody looks at a quickly-dashed-off Picasso and declares that he is not a great artist. Likewise, Apple’s frequent failures or missed efforts don’t challenge the idea that Apple is constantly working to shape the future, in concert with its users who may not be doing anything other than responding, “ah, that’s nice.”

  • Walt French

    This blog puts disruptive innovations paramount, which is fine—nobody focuses on those aspects better.

    But a recent post by @CodingHorror (https://com/codinghorror/status/649003155330437120) * highlights how iProducts easily outpace many of the best Android phones. At issue: interpreting the javascript that prettifies sites & empowers ad trackers etc only uses one of the CPU’s cores; popular Android chips get overall power from many, but slower cores, while Apple focuses on fewer, but more capable ones.

    This is basic blocking-and-tackling engineering for functionality. Apple obviously has fine engineers, but the tradeoffs and functionality are widely-known. Besides browsing, single-core speed also determines a lot of apps’ responsiveness as they are largely sequential responses to user requests.

    Why would Samsung or Qualcomm use chips that don’t perform well on the most common usage for a smartphone?

    A year or two back, we saw the claim that Chinese buyers liked the ”MOAR CORES!” designs, and the OEMs responded in kind. I suspect that reason is correct, much more than the idea that QualComm’s engineering labs are filled with doofuses.

    And this gets to the greatness point. Part of it is “it just works” designing, focusing on the end user rather than pandering to us armchair engineers who want more Megahertz, more RAM, more storage and more cores.

    • J Osborne

      Designing a fast single core is hard no matter how many transistors you have to throw at the problem. Adding more cores is easy. Trivial if you don’t care about the memory subsystem.

      So the obvious answer to why does Qualcomm have a bunch of not as fast cores is “that is the best they could do”. (Which BTW is way better then I can do, last I tried I could design a 12Mhz CPU, so QC does literally 1000x better then me…but not as well as Apple)

      The more interesting question is why did Apple decide 2 fast cores is enough. Power? Manufacturing cost? Memory system limitations? Existing iOS apps fan too little benefit?

      • art hackett

        All of the above supposedly. Moar cores, moar resources consumed/required. Pander or engineer.

      • J Osborne

        Sometimes more cores really is a good answer, adding a core can cost less power then making a single core just a little faster. Sadly the number of problems that can be solved more quickly by more cores isn’t as high as you might hope (and Amdahl’s law says for enough cores adding more doesn’t make anything faster)

        Is two cores better then one? Not always, but frequently. Is eight better then two? Sometimes the answer really is “oh yes, almost eight times faster!”, but that is a rare answer (are you simulating air flow over a wing? Jackpot! Get 100s of cores! Did you want to look at a web page? Um, er, I’m going to bet you would be hard pressed to get more then three cores involved in any useful way)

    • art hackett

      Moar references to The Oatmeal? Hilarious. I can visualize the drooling spec monsters already.

  • Brian

    Wow this is like reading a journal of a 12 year old girl.

    • Thank you.

    • Nate Bird

      Hopefully Horace will implement Civil Comments at some point in the future.

    • Vesko Petkov

      For a 12 year old girl, thats a pretty sick chart.

    • airmanchairman

      A 12 year old girl from a much, much more evolved planet than this dump we live in, that’s for sure…

    • art hackett

      How many do you read?

  • Battery life is definitely still an issue, not that Android battery life is any better, specially on the Nexus phones.

    I wonder how many people get the Plus despite the larger screen, just so they can run the phone on a single charge per day. I use my iPad more than my iPhone so I am less affected, but all my heavy iPhone-using friends resort to carrying battery power banks with them. Reducing battery capacity on the S is a step in the wrong direction. The 6/6S should have been designed to be thicker so they could have enhanced battery life and get rid of the lens bump. That’s just one of the many ways Jony Ive is a hack without a Steve Jobs to obsess over the details and keep him on the straight and narrow.

    • berult

      The iPhone is first and foremost, for the present and for the foreseeable future, a flagship camera. Apple is heavily invested in stills, in not so stills, and in moving pictures. Design-wise, I suspect it is crucial for Apple to ‘instill’ this roadmap into its users’ consciousness.

      What better way for people to be constantly reminded of the iPhone as a cutting edge point-and-shoot camera, than to have users’ fingers and eyesight constantly bump into it. After all, SLRs don’t mind overdoing it, ‘clean design’ be damned. The design aberration in the lens apparatus defines, at a glance, the seriousness of the manufacturer’s ambition. And the aberration shines through its flatulence to become, for the beholder, a thing of unimaginable beauty. Such is the power of ‘augmented’ auto-suggestion.

      Jony Ives, as a relative entrant, jumpstarts the photography credibility race in willfully spoiling the cleanliness of his smartphone design. For an entrant especially, design ought to be somehow evocative of the prioritized usefulness of one’s product. The iPhone is the new kid-camera on the block. And it’s got a bump to show for it, …you couldn’t miss it if you tried.

      • Juan S. Camargo Visbal

        If they didn’t remove it from the promotional pictures and renders, i’d say you’re right. But I’m pretty sure you’re wishful thinking.

      • berult

        Promotional stuff have a half-life of ‘forget-me-not’. This ‘Jony Ives’ camera bump has a half-life of ‘forgive-me-not’. The former targets the subconscious, the latter addresses the unconscious.

        The former’s point of origin is well known; the latter excrescence sprung up from pushing with brashness into the unknown. Sort of…the lens playing devil’s advocate here in stating the obvious.

        But…grant you, you may be right. That sixth sense does sometimes play tricks on me. berult.

      • katherine anderson

        So you tell us that this design aberration, this annoying lens bump is meant to “instill” a kind of roadmap into the users’ consciousness, an “‘augmented’ auto-suggestion”… makes perfect sense.

        Now let’s say this “aberration shines through its flatulence” (and that’s a choice of words that will enter the language, and I will remind people it originates with Berult). And it achieves the intended effect of accelerating greater use of the camera, enabling many more people to discover the power of their own creative ability to make great pictures (both still and moving pictures), and to shape them into great stories, fictionalized and real. You would think that out of the millions of new story tellers, there will be at least a few thousand whose stories grow in their elaboration and artistic invention, and captivate us.

        Do you think Apple foresees new genres taking shape? Will oral tradition come back in visual form? … to be transmitted to the world through the apps on AppleTV?

        … what with the treasure house of family albums and personal memories and histories no longer being thrown into the garbage bin of history and erased out of existence. And these stories won’t all be fixed stories, but pathways linked to the internet with no end to their evolution, like the oral traditions, family folktales, epic poetry, ballads and songs of the past.

        … it would seem that the lens, and the lens bump, and all else to do with the new camera are linked to a process and an evolution that may itself turn into something great.

      • berult

        Indeed. A remainder that the iPhone aims to wander around the commons, …as an eye-soar to the human condition.

      • Gerald Owen

        Speaking of epic poetry, near the end of the Iliad, Achilles is given (by the smith god, the god of bronze-age technology) a new shield, which turns out to be a microcosm. It contains all of human activity. So the curvature of the shield makes it resemble a relatively small lens (an SLR with images and configurations that revealing phenomena that could be described as bumps?) that nonetheless reveals everything, both peace and war and all else. That perhaps is an exemplar of the greatness Horace has written about.

        So Homer, too, isn’t only from the “oral tradition” — he’s part of the visual tradition, too — whether or not he was blind.

      • berult

        Eye hears thou. Thee’s eye’s ear, oh Achilles…

      • right

        They didn’t, so, you better say berult is right.

      • Juan S. Camargo Visbal

        Yeah, they did.

      • right

        There were, and are, plenty of promotional pictures that show it. And none that it was removed from. Recant.

      • Juan S. Camargo Visbal
      • right

        Yes, the camera bump is on the opposite side and can’t be seen from there. Hold one of these phones up to your eyes yourself. I guarantee that photo was not altered to remove the camera bump. Have you heard of perspective? Things far away from you get smaller, it’s pretty wild. Here’s a link to get you started


      • Juan S. Camargo Visbal

        Yeah that’s not how it works.
        You’re just picking at straws here. Unless the phone is meters wide, you should be able to see the bump.

    • What are people doing with their iPhones every day that make them not last a full day? I’m a pretty heavy user and I’ve never had to charge more than once a day (lest I go to a festival or something where radios are on the fritz).

      • Raphael Tongoona

        Mine does not last half a day. I do the following:

        1. Average 50 x 1 miniute calls each day.
        2. Perhaps 4 Candy Crush Games (dont judge me)
        3. Youtube (small slots that add up to 30 min per day)
        4. Emails (light use – I mostly rely on my laptop for this)
        5. Other

      • 50 calls a day? Do you work in a call centre?

  • Tim W.

    As to the “We want better battery life” survey results, the real question for a company like Apple is: “If we improve battery life, by HOW MUCH would we need to improve it to add real value?”.

    Right now, Apple advertises “all day battery life” as a convenience across all of its mobile devices (phone, tablet, watch, Macbooks). Having to charge your device every night is a habit that can become muscle memory.

    But let’s assume battery life improves by, say, 50%. Now you’re on the fence: should I charge my device at night, or do I aim for another day with the risk of running out of juice?

    Just to say how giving customers something they want could actually deteriorate the customer experience.

    • Nevermark

      That’s insightful. Given most people’s habits are based on the cycles of days, weeks and months, Apple would have to increase battery life to “All week battery life” to really be much more useful for the vast majority of users who currently do not run out of power in one day.

  • airmanchairman

    They achieve greatness because they took their great leader at his literal word during the period of their great turnaround (marked by the moment of his return as CEO and his address to the troops), and constantly take aim at “insane(ly) greatness”…

  • Mark Shiel

    I love this article and the comments are interesting, great thinking and philosophy and then the comments are full of people arguing about specs. Exactly the reason why many people don’t understand apple.

    Beyond Apple loving/bashing I am very much interested in the idea of “What it means to be great”

    I would very much be intreasted in further discussion=articles that explore this actual process that is mentioned that apple has crafted, but how does that actually work and how can it be reapplied to indiviuals and other organisations?

    • katherine anderson

      Years ago Steve Jobs declared that Apple Computer would exist at the intersection of the humanities and technology. This was as much to declare that Apple would exist where content meets form, with the humanities represented by content and software, and technology represented by the hardware and physical form, all seamlessly integrated.

      It’s as if Jobs’ declaration amounted to a decree that form and content, and the value that could be achieved through their rigorous integration, would no longer be the domain that occupied art alone.

      … it is remarkable that Apple does seem to have a self-awareness like a good work of art … this comes through in the thoughtfulness and care with which its devices have been crafted.

      The new iPad Pro, for example, with its accompanying pencil is seamless in its integration of content and form and at first glance speaks of its endless possible uses … as a pad of drafting paper, it invites the gestures and marks of the hand of an architect, woodworker … a hundred+professions and vocations that are helped by illustrations. At the same time it recalls the clipboards of the past, which are used by just about every type of fieldworker (in healthcare, power industry, and so on …) collecting data in the field …

      When an object like iPad, or an entity like Apple makes so apparent the thoughtfulness and care with which its tools and operations have been conceived and crafted, and makes so apparent the possibilities of its own evolution, you could also say that it has a consciousness, and this has to be one measure of Greatness. (It is perhaps one of the most important measures of art’s greatness.)

  • Gaurav Doshi

    Loved this article. You have a way with words – Each word is so apt and carefully chosen! I think your definition of greatness applies in broader sense, not just to products. Thinking about some of the great leaders we have seen – Gandhi, Mandela… They were great because they made people who believed in them better people.

  • katherine anderson

    Apple builds the tools to enable other tool makers, the results of which in practice inspire yet more tool builders, who enable more uses, in turn enabling more tool building … and on … and on ….

    Horace, can you help me with this question … Where and when in the history of human civilization there has been a tool maker whose tools and operations tend towards infinity?

  • berult

    The Poet. Without prejudice to whom, at whom this magnificent, and rather titillating query was unambiguously directed.

    Words. Be they of mouth, be they graphite, be they ink-dots, be they of blood, …unalterable tea leaves free-falling down the precepts of two-legged time.

    Poetry of today, Poetry of yesterday, Poetry of yesteryear, Poetry of yore. Many, many a Poet, …one time-diffused transcendence; the warp-driving alliteration of yestermorrow’s consonant…

    Apologies to you both. Uninhibited words tend to have a life of their own.

  • Angelo Lopez

    Great words, almost like a preacher, but I can tell you one thing…Apple make their products very difficult to the average person. When they get an apple products on their hands they quickly leve or broke the product. Why? Because is to difficult to learn. There are more reason for why lots of people don’t like apple products. One is that you can only use their products, like safari don’t allow you to use Google Chrome…only have to be apple and that it.

  • ralphtweety

    I’m pretty much with the sentiment here, have been since 1985 (no, not 1984). However, there’s one place Apple did cave – (apologies for my less eloquent verbage) – a BIG phone. And, not just that they did big, but that they left small behind. One of the very few areas that Samsung got Apple to bend. I really do not believe that Apple would have stopped making a “small” phone if the pressure hadn’t been on from iPhone users who were getting slowly, but steadily envious of the big phones. I finally buckled and traded my 5S in for a 6S, not becuase I wanted big, but I needed the power and functionality, and praise be to your Diety of choice, it doesn’t feel as big as it seemed it would, but … it’s definitely bigger, and again, the thing that’s irkesome and disappointing is not that they did BIG, but that they abondon small. In almost every other way I have embarssed the Apple mind-set for personal computing, and, the long forgotten standard of shear quality that used to be a part of the fabric of American manufacturing, and that Apple, almost single handedly, carries on. Dear Apple, size matters, bigger is not always better, and I still love you.

    • Dennis Baker

      I think it’s more fair to say the market made Apple bend, turns out lots of people want bigger phones. Samsung’s shotgun product development model helped them find it first.

      I would love a smaller iPhone too, I hold out hope that there will be a smaller model in their lineup next year (but not too much hope).

  • Hosni

    Very good essay. It echoes the excellent book, “Becoming Steve a Jobs,” which first showed how young Steve Jobs was excited by the process of innovation and quickly moved on to the (hoped-for) next big thing. Meanwhile, Bill Gates and Microsoft stuck to the ‘boring’ business of incremental upgrades that created its moat against competitors. Steve Jobs 2.0 had learned that lesson, so Apple today is laser-focused on its plan to make iPhone better every year. The fruit of that labor is vividly illustrated in the chart above. The book also said that Apple is best viewed as a problem-solving enterprise, able to meet new challenges outside of its field of demonstrated expertise.