If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.
Whether Ford actually ever said them or not, those are wise words, and they apply to a great many things beyond cars. The gist of it is that consumers largely judge new products by comparing them to their existing competitors. That’s how we instinctively know if something is better. However, what happens when an entirely new product comes along? What happens when there are no real competitors?
When there’s no reference, there’s no objective way to quantify how good —or bad— a product is. As a last resort, people will still try to compare it to the closest thing they can think of, even if the comparison doesn’t really work. That can be a dangerous thing, but it can also be an opportunity.
The main lesson behind Ford’s words is that, if you aim to create a revolution, you must be willing to part with the existing preconceptions that are holding your competitors back. Only then will you be able to take a meaningful leap forward. That will surely attract some criticism in the beginning, but once the product manages to stand on its own, people will see it for what it really is.
The tech world is largely governed by that rule. It’s what we now call disruption. Apple, in particular, is famous for anticipating what people need before they even know it, disrupting entire markets. That’s arguably the main reason behind their massive success during the past decade.
In retrospect, Apple products are often seen as revolutionary, but only after they’ve gained a foothold in the market and more importantly, in our collective consciousness. Only then, people start seeing them for the revolutionary devices they always were. At the time of their announcement, though, they tend to face strong criticism from people that don’t really understand them. Apple products are usually not terribly concerned with conforming to the status quo and in fact, more often than not they’re actively trying to disrupt it. And that drives some people nuts.
It happened with the iPod:
No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.
It happened with the iPhone.
That is the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine…
It also happened with the iPad.
It’s just a big iPod touch.
There’s another example that’s particularly telling. During the last episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber and Ben Thompson reminded me of the public criticism that the original iPhone faced when Apple announced it. Much of that criticism was focused on its non-removable battery, a first in the mobile phone industry at the time. Back then, many people were used to carrying a spare battery in case their phone happened to die mid-day. Once the iPhone arrived and people couldn’t swap batteries anymore, they became angry. The iPhone didn’t conform to what they already knew, and they didn’t like it.
But the iPhone was never a horse.
7 years later, swappable batteries are no longer a thing, and nobody remembers them anymore. Some people may think of it as nice-to-have, and some others prefer to carry an extra battery pack, but for the most part, battery-swappability is not a factor driving smartphone sales.
Was it ever really a big deal?
Of course not. Swappable batteries were never a feature, they were merely a way to deal with the technological shortcomings of the time. Apple knew that if they managed to get a full day’s worth of use out of the iPhone’s battery, there wouldn’t be a need for it to be removable anymore, and they trusted people to eventually understand and accept that. It was a gamble, but history has shown that they were right.
The same thing happened with MacBooks a few years ago, but by then, Apple’s solution had already proven to be the right one. Indeed, it seems a bit silly to complain about a non-removable battery when your laptop gets 12 hours of battery life.
And yet, no matter how many times Apple has been right in the past, people keep finding reasons to complain about their new products. The Apple Watch, of course, is no different:
Apple Watch is ugly and boring (and Steve Jobs would have agreed).
It’s not even a finished product, and some people are already slamming it. And it’s only going to get worse.
People don’t like what they don’t understand and so far, nobody understands the Apple Watch. I’m not even sure anybody can; we just don’t know enough about it at this point. In the absence of a valid reference, many are sure to dismiss it as either irrelevant or flawed, simply because it doesn’t conform to their own existing preconceptions. Because, like the iPhone, the Apple Watch is not a horse either.
That’s a very human response, deeply rooted in our nature. It’s actually uncontrollable, to a degree. We’ve been evolutionary conditioned to be wary of the unknown, because there was a time not so long ago, when our very survival depended on it. However, given that we’re not fighting smilodons for food anymore, perhaps we should at least try to keep an open mind about things. Especially shiny things that cost hundreds —or thousands— of dollars and have the potential to disrupt our entire lives and redefine the way we communicate with each other.
I’m not saying that you should like the Apple Watch. I’m certainly not saying you should buy one. I’m just saying, it can’t hurt to give it the benefit of the doubt. There’s so much to gain and so little to lose.
The Apple Watch is not a faster horse but who knows? It just may end up being your favorite thing.