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Articles: Why I Thought of Apple While Hanging Christmas Lights

In some ways, Apple and Christmas make strange bedfellows. First of all, Christmas is a time of giving, and Apple’s culture is about as averse to philanthropy as Brittney Spears is to parenthood (hey, cheap shots to go all ‘round!).

However, while hanging Christmas lights on our house, it reminded me why Apple is successful (I tried to keep these stray thoughts limited to the times I wasn’t tilting one-legged on an overextended, shaky ladder while trying to reach that last hook).

Anyone who has hung outdoor Christmas lights has experienced the frustration of having a full string of lights become about as functional as inch-wide dental floss just because of one mysterious little light somewhere on the chain that’s burnt out or broken. You either have to pull each little bulb out and replace them one at a time (and God forbid there’s more than one bad bulb), hoping that at any moment the whole thing will light up, or you just throw it away and buy another strand.

The point of all this is that it’s just one of many examples where the American consumer has settled for products that are problematic at best. I have a hunch, when historians look back on this era, they’ll make note of the fact that China dominated most of the manufacturing and even design of many of the products Americans purchased, often to our collective detriment.

Besides Christmas lights, other examples include VCR and DVD remotes. If you look at twenty different remotes, you’ll get twenty different styles, none of which actually have been designed with user ease of use in mind. Which buttons are used the most? How easy is it to change channels? Why does there always seem to be about ten buttons that have no practical use whatsoever? It almost seems as if the Chinese themselves just enjoy the fun and excitement of searching for the proper buttons… and the more, the merrier. Many of them look like airline cockpits; we can only hope flying a plane is easier.

MP3 players and cell phones also suffered from this lack of design concept… until Apple came along and turned those industries on its ear. How? Simply by looking at the way people use things, and making sure that was the focal point of the product.

Why more American companies aren’t following Apple’s lead and taking design in-house instead of leaving it up to overseas manufacturers who have a vastly different culture than our own is sometimes frustrating. I believe we’re still in the midst of a price-is-everything mentality that began with the proliferation of the internet. Many retailers have consolidated and/or lowered overall costs by creating warehouse-sized retail stores so you can get whatever you want (as long as it’s cheap and probably made in China) at the lowest possible price. The internet has given the consumer the power to shop the entire country for the best prices. Design, quality and service be damned… let’s get the lowest price! Smaller, service-oriented retailers are the first casualty… quality ownership of quality products is the second casualty.

Historically, we can often look back and take note of those who swam against the tide, and as a result, were very successful and/or changed the landscape of their industry. Apple is one of those companies, but not always for the reasons you might think. I think their mark in history will be bigger than just cool products. Because it feels to me as if American consumers willingly accept cheap and mediocre for most of their products without any thought, unless someone like Apple comes along, and is so far and away better, that everyone takes notice. I’m hoping more American companies will take notice of Apple’s success, and we’ll see a trend toward more thoughtful products, with manufacturers spending as much time on design and quality as they do trying to drive costs down.

In other words, currently no one really complains about their remotes or their Christmas lights or the cheap toys that fall apart and so on. We just throw ‘em away and buy another one (which often, when you really think about it, creates another sales success for the Chinese manufacturer). With more companies like Apple, we might see the “dominance of cheap” gradually turn to a more thoughtful economy. By the way, don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against China. Heck, a ton of Apple’s products are made there. It’s just that many American companies accept what those factories offer instead of working with them on design and quality aspects.

At its best, Apple is a company that bucks the prevailing consumer mindset. And they’re profiting like never before. But the funny thing is, they’ve been doing that all along with the personal computer, but the public at large didn’t seem to really take notice until Apple put a well-designed MP3 player in their ear.

Most of the Windows side of the industry scraps and fights to offer the most economical product possible. For me personally, Windows is a mediocre product that symbolizes what we’re willing to put up with because it’s easy to buy, cheap and ubiquitous.

In fact, if we ever had to live in a world where Windows was the only real option for personal computers... well, let’s just say I can live with those cheap Christmas lights for a few weeks out of the year, but if I had to deal with them all the time, I’d turn into a real grinch.
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