Apple, a tech company with good designers

Apple's design philosophy sets the standard for product design across all industries. The integrity of its approach emanates from company co-founder, Steve Jobs.

That focus on the user experience is critical at every level of the company's offering, and we're going to see the next-generation of user focused interfaces next week when the company shows us a little of what it has planned at a special event in Cupertino.

Smart money says Apple will also introduce new MacBooks, most likely the MacBook Air refresh, alongside offering up new versions of iLife and iWork (one recent tip suggested the iBookstore may make the Mac next week, also). All these products will betray the same user-focused design philosophy that you'll find across all the company's past, present and future products, including the ever important Mac.

Cult Of Mac has published a fascinating account of just how deeply-embedded within Apple's DNA its user-focused design philosophy is, all within an interview with former CEO, John Sculley.

[This story is from Computerworld's Apple Holic blog. Follow on Twitter or subscribe via RSS to make sure you don't miss a beat.]

It explains how Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, has always fostered a product design culture that models itself in spirit on an artist's atelier, imagining what doesn't exist, trimming back its features and then giving good designers the chance to create products around the space in which ideas sit.

For example, Jobs on focus groups:

"Steve said: 'How can I possibly ask somebody what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphic based computer is? No one has ever seen one before.' He believed that showing someone a calculator, for example, would not give them any indication as to where the computer was going to go because it was just too big a leap."

On the relationship between Sculley and Jobs:

"Steve from the moment I met him always loved beautiful products, especially hardware. He came to my house and he was fascinated because I had special hinges and locks designed for doors. I had studied as an industrial designer and the thing that connected Steve and me was industrial design. It wasnÂ’t computing."

But the clincher for me is a story Sculley tells in which he contrasts a meeting at Apple with one at Microsoft. At Microsoft's meeting all the technical people talk, reach decisions and then send a memo to the design department, at an Apple meeting, the tech people are there, but everyone goes silent when the designers enter the room.

"Everyone knows the designers speak for Steve because they have direct reporting to him. It is only at Apple where design reports directly to the CEO."

Reading the article caused me to reflect on two of the big challenges Apple faces at the moment, one being Android in smartphones, the other being Android in tablets.

All the hocus-pocus regarding Android's growing slice of the smartphone market always seems to be reported as if a percentage point for Android is a percentage point stolen from Apple. It is not. Both systems are growing.

Android's secret is it isn't built for anybody. It doesn't answer any specific need, other than Google's desire to seize part of the mobile device market.

It does this by working with multiple partners, each of whom make decisions as to which Android features will exist in each device, and what the devices will do and look like. The end result is a generic OS that is inside a slew of different devices all of which are competing for attention with each other.

Think back to Microsoft's experience with its OS and the difficulties it faced when chopping out legacy code as it migrated to new versions, and you're looking at the future of Android.

When it comes to usability, you will not see consistency between devices. Ergo, when it comes to device upgrades, device features and price you'll also see no clear consistent approach.

That's because Android is made for nobody. That's not to say it is a bad OS. There's no way you can make such a claim, just look at the positive reviews. It even runs Flash (as well as a mobile OS can run Flash).

Android is made by engineers. It adopts a Microsoft approach to the smartphone conundrum. Apple's iOS is made by designers. This is why it will be most interesting seeing future comparative satisfaction ratings between iOS and Android smartphone users.

ChangeWave offered up some of this in June. This showed Apple satisfaction led the pack with 77 percent, pursued by Motorola and HTC with their Android-based offerings.

More recent data from JD Power confirms Apple's lead -- though the survey period ends in June 2010, just prior to the chequered introduction of the iPhone 4.

When it comes to design, Apple's in a position to continue to deliver design-led solutions integrating powerful technologies within a user-centred model.

Its competitors offer technologically-powerful devices aimed at third party manufacturers in which features can be enabled (or not) at the behest of whichever manufacturing partner or carrier is offering the device.

That fragmented model will win marketshare. But Apple will continue to win design awards, and most users will remain deeply loyal on account of the experience they have using the products.

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