Commodification means we’re leaving the era of technology and entering the era of design and style
Apple’s $3 billion acquisition of Beats is an event that highlights technology’s march through consumer products, creative content and now, fashionable style. More importantly, the deal demonstrates the ascendence of design over technology, form over function, style over features. People don’t buy Apple products because they do anything unique, but because they do them better, more intuitively and as the late Steve Jobs might say, more beautifully than the competition. Likewise, Beats didn’t come to dominate the headphone market because of demonstrably superior sound. Far from it. Reviewers regularly condemn Beats’ audio quality and cheap construction. No, Beats are popular because they’re stylish, fashionable and hip; an unmistakeable accessory for celebrities at high profile events.
In the era of semiconductor foundries, mega contract manufacturers, cloud software and a global logistics ecosystem, technology is seldom a product differentiator. Technology is now something anyone can buy, from the lowliest Kickstarter entrepreneur with a dream to the largest technology conglomerate with an R&D overhead problem. Technology is rapidly commodified and the gap between lead edge and last generation has narrowed to the point of being functi
onally meaningless. Most people don’t care, or even know, that their year-old smartphone only has a 720p display while the hot new phones quadruple the resolution. Never mind if you can tell the difference. Bigger is, or used to be better. But technology specs are increasingly a distinction without a difference.
Technology and Specs Aren’t Enough
Technology of all stripes is now a commodity, not something companies like Sony (long, lost Sony) can build a business upon by layering feature upon feature to differentiate from competitors. No lo
nger can a company differentiate itself and its products by leapfrogging the competition’s specs and adding bells and whistles. Creeping featuritis, a disease endemic to technology products, has long been a liability, not an asset. A truism in the tech industry is that 90% of the buyers use 10% of the features.
Indeed, even when a company develops a demonstrably superior interface with better UI metaphors and more intuitive access to well-defined features, key bits and pieces, if not the entire package, are rapidly mimicked by competitors. The epic legal battle between Apple and Samsung is a testament to the futility of protecting genuinely useful software and design innovations from imitation.
This is the era of technology superabundance. The hard problems don’t involve how to do seemingly impossible things. We already have the technology to do that, whether it’s translate a message from one language to another, give precise directions from your current location to any destination or have a video chat with your family while on a business trip. Instead, the real challenge is how to make devices that allow average people, not just technophiles and engineers, to actually use these seemingly impossible features; to make them so intuitive as to be easily incorporated into everyday life. Forget about building a better mousetrap. Instead, build a more intuitive, useful and stylish mousetrap. A mousetrap that makes people wonder why they tolerated something that could snap their fingers off and looked like a doorstop.
Apple the master of design; Beats the master of style
Having perfected design and usability, the next problem for a consumer technology company is getting buyers to not only embrace and evangelize its products, but to transform them from utilitarian solution into cultural fashion statement. Apple excels at the former — slick designs and user-friendly features – while Beats has mastered the latter: turning a mundane product into a reflection of one’s values and identity.
Founding Beats investor and musician will.i.am aptly characterizes the transition in product strategies and design as emphasizing cultural relevance over utilitarian functionality. He nails it in a recent interview:
You can go into any consumer electronics store and you’re going to see tons and tons of things on the shelf and the things that you are pulled to are the ones … that skew to culture. And there’s there’s a very thin line between the ones that did it right and the ones that just sit on the shelf. The ones that sit on the shelf are the ones that have no connection to culture and the pulse of things: pop, popular culture.
Facing row upon row of feature-laden products, whether smartphones and tablets or headphones and TVs, consumers are smashing into the paradox of choice. In an era of technological bounty, small is beautiful, less is more, style differentiates and cultural significance is the holy grail. By hiring Burberry’s CEO and acquiring Beats, Apple seems ready to change the rules for judging technology companies by further blurring the line between product and user identity.