Which company are you: the Refiner

In an ongoing series of posts on the differences between large tech companies, I look at the different models they take (refine,tinkerpushattach) and who their spiritual children may be. In this entry, it’s all about the refiner.

The Refiner: Apple

It’s always been fascinating to see the fight between geeks over the role of Apple as an innovator in the tech field. On one hand, people will argue that Apple pushes the envelope by introducing revolutionary new products; on the other hand, people can point out that what Apple does is just implement a different version of what already existed.

For example, there were MP3 players before the iPod, smartphones before the iPhone, and tablet computers before the iPad (in the same vein, there has been ways to get the internet on your TV from a variety of devices before the AppleTV). But in each cases, Apple came out with products that changed the public perception of those categories, leaving the mainstream feeling that Apple was introducing revolutionary products.

The truth is a little more complicated: both side of the argument are valid because what Apple does is not so much introduce new product categories as it simplifies them. One could argue that the model of Apple ought to be “innovation through improvements.” Whereas other companies look to throw new technology at a problem, Apple tends to look at solving the problem through reduction: less is more.

An example: Dialing on iPhone and Android phones

An example of this is the iPhone vs. Android discussion. As the owner of both types of devices, I can easily say that the iPhone is a more polished product.

A simple example is how either phones handles the quick dial feature on the phone. When presented with a list of callers you selected, you click on the name of the person and the phone dials. By contrast, on my Samsung Vibrant, a short click on the image of the person brings up a list of actions I can do (call, text message, send a picture, etc…), a short click on the name or start brings up the whole detailed information of the person. A long click brings another set of options. However, I’ve yet to find a single click that will dial the person.

It’s a simple distinction but it is hundreds of such little distinctions that make the iPhone a tighter experience. I know Android fans will tell me that I can customize the phone in a much better way and that is great if you’re a geek like me but, to the general public, such customization is an impediment, not a feature.

Don’t innovate, improve

So the offerings of companies that most look like Apple are not revolutionary in the sense of breaking new grounds but rather are following an ethic of improvement. Their focus is less on brand new features that have never been seen before and more on improving the user experience around a pre-existing approach.

Seen through that lens, Tumblr, Posterous, and Twitter can be seen as an evolution of the blogging models set previously by SixApart, Automattic, and Blogger.

It’s a really important model to follow if you want to reach a mass market and are attacking a marketplace with some established players.

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