Apple Needs a Nikon

Stephen Fry, whose nascent weblog I linked to just over a month ago, is now writing a weekly technology column for The Guardian. In his splendid introductory column, “Welcome to Dork Talk”, Fry declares his “preferences and predispositions” so as to inform readers of his prejudices. It begins with this regarding Apple, and the importance of design:

So you can guess that I certainly do think design is important. But it doesn’t have to come from Apple. In fact, I wish to goodness it came from everywhere. I hope you’ll believe I’m not an unthinking slave to Cupertino. Apple gets plenty of small things wrong, but one big thing it gets right: when you use a device every day, you cannot help, as a human being, but have an emotional relationship with it. It’s true of cars and cookers, and it’s true of computers. It’s true of office blocks and houses, and it’s true of mobiles and satnavs. A grey box is not good enough, clunky and ugly is not good enough. Sick building syndrome exists, and so does sick hand-held device syndrome. Fiddly buttons, blocky icons, sickeningly stupid nested menus — these are the enemy.

The point being that much of what gets chalked up as devotion to/obsession with Apple is, in fact, devotion to/obsession with great design, and there’s an utter dearth of rival PC or handheld gadget makers that value design as Apple does. The last time I was truly interested in an operating system that wasn’t from Apple was BeOS, and that was over 10 years ago.

Canon’s cameras are better because there’s Nikon — and vice-versa. Canon-vs.-Nikon arguments can get ugly, but in the end, they’re arguments about two companies that make great cameras and great lenses. Apple has no such rival.

With cars, design-focused brands like Acura, Audi, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, and Volvo push each other, and consumers get to choose from well-designed cars with different areas of emphasis. If Apple is BMW, who is the Audi pushing them to be more elegant, or the Acura or Lexus pushing them to be more reliable?

The only technology company I can think of that shares Apple’s emphasis on the emotional design of its hardware and software is Nintendo. It’s not that Apple and Nintendo share the same taste (they don’t), but that they have taste, and express that taste boldly and confidently in nearly everything they produce. Too bad Nintendo and Apple don’t compete against each other.1

The Zune is interesting in that Microsoft seems to be trying to learn from the iPod — which is in stark contrast to other iPod competitors, most of which seem to be designed in some alternate universe where the iPod never existed and the consumer electronics industry remains unchanged from the 1990s, an era when “fiddly buttons, blocky icons, sickeningly stupid nested menus” (as Fry has it) were the best one could do. But the Zune is disappointing, because Microsoft simply copied Apple’s products rather than doing what they should have done — and what all companies hoping to compete against Apple should do — which is copy Apple’s culture and passion for original design.

I get the sense that many of these companies see Apple’s success this decade as an aberration — that the Apple bubble will soon pop and mediocre jumbles will return to the top of the technology heap. But what if it’s the other way around, and the aberration was Apple’s tepid success in the 1990s? It’s not just us — technology-design obsessed consumers — who would benefit from at least one company stepping up and competing against Apple on Apple’s own ground. Apple would too, in that competition would push them to do even better, and act as a preventative against hubris.

  1. A Nintendo mobile phone might kick some iPhone ass. ↩︎