Why does Microsoft do so well in desktop operating systems, but can't translate that winning formula to cell phones?
Why is Google so good at search, yet so clearly miss with Google Orkut?
How did a guy like Mark Zuckerberg create a runaway success like Facebook?
The answer to these questions can determine the winners and losers in the $174 billion per year consumer technology industry.
So what is the answer? Apple's announcement this week gives us a hint.
On the one hand you have music stuff -- iPods and iTunes. On the other, TV. One winner and one loser.
In fact, the music-player business is the one that defines Apple -- by far, the media player market is the market Apple dominates most completely. Numbers vary depending upon how you define a media player and whom you ask, but well over two-thirds of every media player sold in the world is an Apple product. It's like printing money.
Meanwhile, Apple is an irrelevant blip on the TV landscape.
Apple's success in media players and success in general is interesting, given the company's reputation as one that doesn't listen to customers.
Hmmm. See a trend here?
Let me rephrase that. The secret to success in consumer technology is to make the products that you want, not the ones you think your customer wants.
In fact nearly all the great new ground-breaking products were built by people who were solving their own problems and satisfying their own demands, rather than trying to satisfy consumer demand.
In the 80s and 90s, many business people used paper organizers in special binders sold by companies that specialized in white-collar productivity. Electronic organizers existed, mostly in the form of Sharp Wizard type devices, but they weren't very popular.
The guy who created the first-ever successful PDA, which formed the foundation for the smart phones we all love, was Jeff Hawkins. He designed and built the Palm Pilot for himself, using a test case of one.
In the beginning, he carried a small block of wood in his pocket. Each time he had a desire to look up a phone number, check his calendar or jot down a reminder, he pulled the wood from his pocket and pretended to do what he would want to do if it were an electronic organizer rather than a piece of lumber.
After inventing the category and thrilling early users, Palm became a success, and was taken over by the suits. Then they stopped listening to Hawkins and started listening to customers. Eventually they failed in the marketplace and were acquired by HP.
The world's youngest billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg, created Facebook not so much for users "out there" but for himself. He wanted to enhance and improve his social life, and created a platform that enabled him to do it. Turns out 500 million people also happen to want to improve their social lives in the same way, so Facebook is a hit.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google Search as a research project because as avid users of the web, they personally longed for better search results. They had zero interest in design, so the Google Search page was -- and still is -- basically without a real design.
Fortunately for Google stockholders, lots of other people want great search results and don't care about page design.
The best new products almost never start out as something for "them," but always for "me" or "us."
Companies work really hard to invent the next iPod, Facebook or Google Search. But usually, they're doing it wrong.