"In 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future we were going to be the "Model T," and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked: 'Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.' I cannot say that any one agreed with me."
- Henry Ford, automotive badass
When it comes to mobile telephony I am, by all accounts, a Luddite. And so it is only after great delay and prolonged mockery by my peers that I am finally looking into buying a smartphone. But which one? An iPhone, a Blackberry, an Android phone, or one of the myriad of other options? Decisions, decisions.
While it may be that, worldwide, Android phones have the largest (and growing) market share, in North America and certainly among my friends and colleagues it is the iPhone that is dominant. Which is precisely my problem with the clever little device: everyone's bloody got one. The contrarian in me does not want to join the priesthood of the Mac. Besides, they are all exactly the same!
It is this last point which got me thinking about the Model T analogy. In 1913 Ford was nearly half of the car industry, while about 300 firms made up the other half. As we all now know, most of those other firms disappeared very quickly thereafter. Ford managed its dominance by creating a single product - the Model T - that was high quality and cheap. It managed the latter by completely integrating the production process, including the standardization of precision parts to a point where they were interchangeable - a novelty in the industry at the time.
In much the same way, Apple has managed to dominate selected tech markets by focusing on creating a single product that is far superior to its rivals. The most obvious example is the iPod, which has blown all other mp3 players out of the water. Have you tried looking for rival mp3 players in the recent past? New models from rival companies simply don't exist. Everyone else gave up long ago. Much like Ford's integrated manufacturing process, Apple has dominated the market by creating an integrated in-house user experience by linking the iPod device to its iTunes media player and online store. They have built upon and expanded this business model with their iPhone and now iPad.
The iModel-T approach seems to be working. In early August Apple briefly surpassed Exxon as the largest firm in the world, measured by market capitalization. In addition, the computer giant HP recently announced it was abandoning smartphones and tablet computing, effectively ceding the battle to Apple and choosing to focus on other business ventures with a more promising future.
In a world where consumers are paralyzed by the paradox of choice, Apple makes life so much easier by riding to the rescue with a single, easy to use product. There are, however, key differences between the iPhone and Ford's flagship automobile of the early 1900s. For starters, the iPhone doesn't just come in black, but white as well(!) Secondly, unlike the Model T, the iPhone is very, very sexy. For Will Wilkinson, this beauty alone justifies the fact that Steve Jobs and the Apple team have become filthy, stinking, swimming-pool-full-of-Benjamins rich:
"The average American's life is not overfull with gracefully sleek design, to say the least, and in many ways our standards of living have not improved upon that of our parents. But Apple under Mr Jobs has offered the mass market dazzling technical progress with the sort of tastefully luxurious sheen usually reserved for the seriously well-to-do. For this many of us are grateful."
Will's quote illustrates another key difference between the iPhone and the Model T: whereas Henry Ford gambled that consumers would forgive the Model T's ugliness in exchange for paying less for a single, reliable product, Apple has succeeded in convincing consumers to shell out a premium for a beautiful one.
Unfortunately for Apple, in my case it is precisely this cost premium that motivates my stubborn search for a more reasonably priced, Android-powered alternative.