I read a blog post a while back called Reaction to the iPhone reveals how the electronics industry failed to beat the iPod. He talks about how the electronics industry is so obsessed with features that it forgets about user experience. Since then I've had a Design lecture from someone, who also looks a lot like an Apple fanboy, and talked about the same kind of things.
But the point they bring up about user experience is an important one. Much of the electronics industry can not understand why Apple products are so successful, they're overpriced and are easily matched by cheaper products with the same or even better raw functionality.
Engineers are unusual customers
I don't own an iPod, I do own an Apple laptop, but only because I know I can install other operating systems on it if I choose to. I'm extremely impressed with the iPhone, but I'm very unlikely to buy one. That's because I'm an engineer at heart and the opportunity for hacking on such closed systems is a lot less than for others. Apple is as proprietary as you can get. I'd rather own something I can hack on, even if that means sacrificing form for function. As an engineer I'm one of the worst placed people to judge the usability of a product.
This is a problem with the electronics industry, because the products are made by engineers like me. That's my first point, but there's a more important one.
The reason I believe Apple's products are so successful is because of the integrated user experience you get. The reason everything is so well integrated is because of the vertical market Apple have created. They provide the equipment, the peripherals, packaging and sales of their equipment, the operating system, the applications, the bundling and selection of content and there a links with the content creation itself.
When the button on your iPod is made by the same company you buy your music from, user experience is easy. I don't mean to trivialise the work that Apple put in to make this happen because they do an amazing job, I merely mean to point out that in a horizontal market it's going to be even harder.
A paper I read years ago by Milton L. Mueller talks about the economic consequences of digital convergence. He describes the transition from vertical market (like Apple) to a horizontal one where equipment, software, carriage, packaging and content will be distinct sectors of the market, run by different companies.
It's all the more interesting then that the company which just reached milestone in the convergence of computing, telecommunications and media did so with a vertical approach.
A horizontal market like the one described in that paper is my ideal for a converged market. It's good engineering and it's good for the consumer because it encourages a more competitive market. I think it's the market the Open Source community is heading for, which probably explains why they are notoriously bad at user experience.
So how do we achieve this level of user experience in a horizontal market where all of these functions are run by different companies? People who know me might guess that this is the part where I bring in my “open standards” mantra.
The only way we can hope to achieve this level of integration is by using open standards for the links between each level. Open hardware, open software, open networks and open formats for media.
If you want to converge different markets (which I believe is inevitable), those markets need to establish common languages to communicate with. If we achieve that ideal, everyone wins.