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?
So what is the answer? Apple's announcement this week gives us a hint.
Apple Wins Some, Loses SomeApple CEO Steve Jobs rolled out "refreshed" iPods, a new Apple TV and a social network called Ping built into iTunes, among other things.
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?
The SecretThe secret to success in consumer technology is to ignore your customers.
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."
Why Selfishness is Better than GreedCompanies exist to make money. But the way to make the most money in consumer technology is to set out to make your own life better. Selfishness (along with vision, skill and perseverance) may be the best way to achieve the goals of greed (to make as much money as possible).
Companies work really hard to invent the next iPod, Facebook or Google Search. But usually, they're doing it wrong.
Companies use focus groups, usability studies, surveys and other methodologies to find out what potential customers want, then try to give it to them.
These methods don't work very well, because the truth is that people don't really know what they want -- at least until they've actually used it in real life.
For example, if Apple had held a focus group and asked users if they wanted an on-screen keyboard or a physical keyboard on their phone, few would have selected the on-screen keyboard.
If Zuckerberg had asked members of the general public if they wanted a new Web site where they could read postings about the minutiae of their family and friends' daily lives, nobody would have raised their hand.
If Twitter founders Biz Stone, Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey asked people in a phone survey if they wanted a new service that's like blogging, but where you're not allowed to exceed 140 characters or post pictures directly, everyone would have said no, they wouldn't want that.
People don't know what they want until they've tried it.
A better way to understand what people really want is a methodology called ethnography. Big companies hire ethnographers to essentially "become" their customers or target audience.
They live with them, work with them and pretend to be them. They learn the language and habits to the point where they have the same thoughts as customers, then they can speak authoritatively about what customers really want.
But good ethnography takes a long time -- months or even years. Silicon Valley just doesn't have that kind of time.
The Trouble with Visionary FoundersWhere the Apple, Facebook and Google approach goes awry is when you're a different kind of person than your customers are.
In the case of my examples above, all these visionaries had the same desires as a great many people. Jobs loved music in just the same way as millions or billions of people do. Zuckerberg craved the same kinds of social interactions as millions of other people. Page and Brin wanted better search results, and so did everyone else.
However, it's also very common for designers to design things that only designers can appreciate and for engineers to engineer things only engineers can love.
That's why most consumer electronics fail in the market -- they're either too ugly and complex (because engineers tend to de-emphasize beauty and simplicity) or too limited in function (because designers often prize aesthetics over power). Or they don't work well because the suits think their customers are stupid and won't know the difference.
Another reason products fail is that once companies succeed with the product of their desire, they expand into businesses they're not really passionate about. I somehow doubt Steve Jobs loves TV as much as he does music. Microsoft culture is really built around the PC, not mobile consumer electronics. Googlers are notorious brainy super geeks who have somehow failed thus far in teaching the world a better way to socialize.
The ideal product creator must be simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. They must be ordinary in their desires, but extraordinary in their ability to deconstruct and understand those desires and maintain product focus while all the designers and engineers try to erode the vision.
But this approach to consumer technology innovation can only be taken so far. At some point, companies need some way to innovate for people who are entirely unlike the people creating the products.
Ultimately, for mature companies, the winning formula evolves into one in which users create their own products -- or at least a formula where you throw enormous numbers of products at users and let the public pick.
This appears to be the Android model, where Google competes with Apple's one iPhone with dozens of partner companies producing hundreds of devices, and with the Apple app store model where development is controlled but pretty easy to do, and a quarter of a million apps vie for supremacy among users.
Still, for startups and product designers, the best approach is to ignore your customers and build the product that you, personally, want to use.
Don't believe me? Just ask Apple customers.