CES 2011: Are Apple Competitors Focusing on the Wrong Target?

01/09/2011 05:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Gil Laroya Award-winning Silicon Valley product designer

For years now, Apple Computer has held a firm grip on the consumer electronics gadget market. With huge hits like the iPod MP3 player, the iPod Touch media player, the iPhone cellular phone device, and lately the iPad, Apple is consistently hitting the consumer nail-on-the-head. So why is it so hard for competitors to keep pace, much less surpass any of Apple's offerings? I believe that Apple's intent (and business model) is to have its competitors shooting at moving targets; targets that Apple itself uses to keep the competition busy shooting at "technological shadow puppets".

Due to the advancements of electronic technologies, the consumer electronics sector has been really busy (and very competitive) in the last 10 years or so. Advancements like lower powered devices, battery life improvements, sharper screens, touch enabled interfaces, and the like, have created a surge in new and innovative gadgets for the masses. So, in what seems like a very cut-and-dry market like electronic devices, why isn't the playing field for device manufacturers more level? Why is Apple the device giant that it is right now?

I believe that, for one thing, Apple has a well-defined understanding of the electronic gadget end user. Apple understands the difference between "happy" and "disappointed", between "easy" and "hard", between "intuitive" and "confusing". Tom Kelley, general manager of the design firm IDEO, wrote in his book The Art of Innovation that end users don't just use a product, but that they also experience the product and even have feelings about the product experience itself. For many companies, this level of product design understanding is difficult to comprehend.

What this comes down to is the idea that Apple's competitors, who lack the intimate understanding of "end user experience", wait for Apple to market a product, then immediately try to copy it in hopes of getting even a small percentage of their market. In effect, Apple has converted its competition into a manic group of "me too" companies, which in the business world automatically limits the success of competitive products.

Every time Apple comes out with a product, all of the world's technological eyes turn towards the details that lie within the product's feature set, hoping to find something that they can leverage in their own product. I see this as a downside to the gadget consumer -- what good is technology if it only gets developed in series, with one company defining the path? Serial product development not only slows the pace of innovation, but it also narrows the mindset of it developers.

Until Apple's competitors realize that "following the wake of one ship prevents them from discovering new waters", the consumer electronics market will continue to suffer from wave after wave of "me too" and "I can do it just like Apple" type products.

Based on the tablet showing at this year's CES, I think its going to be a rather boring year for gadgets.