Did Microsoft outperform Apple because they understood the user?

This post begins several in a series focused upon the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) field. The 20 year struggle between Microsoft and Apple serves as a central narrative for the field.
Image shows Microsoft dominated market 1995-2005 and an Apple dominated Market 2005-2012.

Don Norman is also an incredibly influential and often prescient voice within the field of Human-Computer Interaction and User-Centred/User Experience Design. The field of HCI came out of several different disciplines, including Human Factors Engineering and Industrial Engineering. As an expert in both of these fields, Norman has advocated turning the traditional technological development process upside-down. In the book Invisible Computer Norman details what he calls information appliances and discusses the history of innovative technology. Written in 1998 at the time of the first digital cameras and several quirky personal Palm pilot devices, this book offers the authors' prediction as to what the future of the small, personal electronic device would offer. The results, Norman is surprisingly accurate in his depiction of personal phones capable of doing everything from checking e-mail to performing daily tasks. Even more striking is his depiction of the social and cultural challenges that these new devices would create.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clark in Profiles of the Future (1962).

Authors such as Clark and Norman have proven to be a prophetic in guiding our thinking towards new technologies. The question I kept asking myself as I read through this book from a decade ago is: How could Norman predict with such success and what are the key take-away for industry? The answer comes from several key principles that I feel are communicated within the field of HCI.

  1. Information appliances are not just products, they are also services and processes
  2. A new technology is not always something you can hold in your hands. Sometimes a new technology exists below the surface and is only intermediately accessible by the user. For example, Apple’s Siri is an advanced technology that offers increased usability and capability yet is non-tangible. Take this further- sometimes a technology is actually a process. For instance, Amazon’s two-day shipping guarantee is an advanced technology that a customer can only experience through the use of Amazon’s products and cannot physically or directly access.

  3. The impact of an innovative technology is felt more socially and culturally than it is technologically or mechanically.
  4. Quite a few new products tout some great new technological accomplishment. But often times the market is either not ready for this new technology or there just is not a need for this new technology. This is why the most sophisticated technology on the market if often times not the most successful technology on the market. The reason for this relates to the life cycle of a technology. While early innovators are sometimes interested in the latest gadget that has an impressive new use of technology, the majority of users are interested in something that meets their basic needs AND is easy to use.

  5. Technology, Marketing, and Usability are practically inseparable yet in practice they are often separated
  6. In order to create a successful product, these fields must work in conjunction with each other. Norman suggests that these three fields are like three legs of a stool. This analogy suggests that in order for a stool to support a successful business that all three legs must stand together. Norman explains that this also relates to the life cycle of technology. If a company focuses too heavily upon any of these three pillars, it will cause the creation of an imbalanced product. As mentioned, an advanced technology may be attractive to some users, but the majority of a market is interested in a useful technology.

  7. Industry is very different from research and from engineering
  8. It's often times more important to be first than it is to be innovative or than it is to be the best. This is really only because the life-cycle of development allows for technology that is first to market to capture the early-adopters. As a technology develops, it will become easier to use and this ease of use is what will drive long-term interest by users (I'll talk more about this in my next post).
    Norman discusses the rise of the Apple computer and how it quickly began to dominate the market in which IBM had enjoyed a near hegemonic foothold. Apple was successful because over IBM because they understood that the typical at-home consumer was interested in a device that conveniently allowed the user to accomplish basic tasks. Apple knew that the average consumer didn’t need an enterprise-class computing system; the average consumer didn’t need the state of the art computer, they just needed a computer they could use to balance their budget and to write letters.

Nonetheless Norman calls out that IBM, perhaps due to their namesake (International Business Machines), continued to prosper within the B2B market. The reason that Norman gives is that the early adopters in this market demand a higher basic level of functionality than do consumers in the household market. For this reason, Apple is perfectly suited for the household market since it satisfies the basic functional requirements of the household market and it is also more usable. This increase in usability makes Apple a stronger contender to capture the early and late majority markets. Since these markets constitute most of a consumer base, it is important to carefully consider how to maneuver an information appliance into this space.

Norman continues this parable with the store of Apple v. Microsoft. While Apple enjoyed an early foothold in the household consumer market, Microsoft quickly caught-up and began to overshadow Apple following the release and subsequent 1995 and 1998 versions of their DOS-based Windows Operating System. To the bemusement of the modern reader, this comparison details why Apple was overshadowed by Microsoft and given our modern hindsight, we can appreciate the irony that Apple is now twice the size of Microsoft.

The key take away here is that nothing is set in stone, but change takes time and requires social, cultural, and market alignment. The very same techniques that Norman espouses in his book that were used by Apple to overcome IBM were used by Microsoft to overcome Apple. And, as recent history shows us, Apple has used these concepts to again overcome Microsoft. Will Microsoft be able to again turn this tide in their favor? Perhaps they already have.

Join the conversation:

How can we use these ideas to develop better technolgies?