Is Apple's success the result of luck or skill?

The Mac maker's growing success in the computing market, claiming 10.6 percent of the U.S. laptop market, can be attributed to both smart positioning and lucky positioning.

According to Forrester, Apple has finally reached the single milestone that could change the dynamic of the computing business for good: its U.S. laptop market share has reached 10.6 percent during the second quarter of 2008. Just one year ago, it captured just 6.6 percent of the same market.

Globally, Apple's market share is reportedly hovering at just about 3.3 percent--a far cry from its success in the United States--according to one report, but Net Applications places it closer to 5.5 percent. Which estimate is correct? You decide.

Either way, it illustrates an important point: Apple is successful, and its popularity is growing each day. Years ago, no one thought that Apple would survive another year, let alone capture 10 percent of any market. But today, it's sitting atop the technology industry, and companies in every major market are looking up.

But how did this happen? Is Apple's success in the computing market a by-product of Steve Jobs' insight and uncanny knowledge of what people want? Or is it pure luck, thanks to questionable moves by competitors and being in the right place at the right time?

Apple zealots would undoubtedly contend that Apple's success has nothing to do with luck, while Microsoft fanboys would argue against that point. In reality, Apple's success in the computing market is the by-product of both skillful positioning and a healthy dose of luck.

Here's why:

Skill
There's no debating the fact that Steve Jobs knows what he's doing. With each passing "Stevenote," I become more aware of just how sound his business sense is. I also get a sense of his uncanny ability to give customers what they want before any other company can.

When Jobs returned to Apple in the late '90s, he changed the company's focus to hardware and used software as the key driving factor behind selling that hardware. He made sure that Apple didn't license its operating system and abandoned its plans of copying competitors.

He realized that the industry was filled with derivative products that failed to address consumer desire. Armed with that knowledge, Jobs set out to improve Apple's operating system and create a different experience that would make people take notice. And because the company was so inconsequential at the time, Jobs knew all too well that few competitors would pay attention--a fortuitous by-product of failure.

From there, Steve Jobs led his company out of the doldrums to the position it's in right now. He understood and used hype as a means of promoting a product and reintroduced a shroud of secrecy that kept the press licking its chops.

In other words, Steve Jobs pressed all the right buttons and made everyone happy: shareholders, customers, the press, and his employees.

He also understood the power of convergence and branched out into other areas to make Apple more than a computer company, while still maintaining its drive to sell computers. After all, if people liked other Apple products like the iPod, wouldn't they want to own a Mac?

It was a well-calculated risk that paid off.

Luck
But all the credit can't be given to Steve Jobs. It should also be given to the poor management at Microsoft, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and others. Those companies were complacent, focused on the wrong markets, and generally failed to realize that Apple was starting a movement that wasn't waiting for them to catch up.

Microsoft's biggest downfall since the return of Apple is Windows and its willingness to let it slip into the mud. Sure, it faced problems with XP, and eventually people came around, but do you really think that Vista would have been such a disaster a decade ago?

I don't. Bill Gates would have never let that happen back then.

In Microsoft, I see a company that's deathly afraid of Google and even more scared of being cornered out of the online space. And so in its desire to capture more search market share and gain a foothold in the advertising market, it forgot about Windows. It also forgot about Apple.

Meanwhile, Apple kept plugging away at creating a better experience and captured significant market share under Microsoft's nose. Yeah, I know, 3 percent to 5 percent isn't huge, but let's face it: given the number of computers in the wild, and considering Microsoft's dominance over vendors and retailers alike, gaining that much share is no small feat.

But Hewlett-Packard and Dell are just as guilty. Both companies were under the impression that Windows would be the savior, no matter what, and that computer design didn't matter. Sure, that may have been true years ago, when laptops were a pie-in-the-sky idea, but today, laptops are quickly becoming the toast of the town, and people are looking for devices that say something about them. And for quite some time, those consumers have been looking for beauty.

Apple has always understood that and does its best to make its computers more elegant than its competitors. HP and Dell are just waking up to that fact.

Worse, HP is just waking up to another fact: tying a business model to Windows isn't always the best move. In fact, the company is reportedly trying to get in on the operating-system business by developing a Linux-based system to offer its customers an alternative to Windows.

Thanks for waking up, HP. Where have you been for the past five years?

But a discussion about luck wouldn't be anything without mentioning the media. Go to any conference--major or otherwise--and count the number of Macs being used compared to the number of Windows-based machines. I'm willing to bet that 90 percent of journalists are using Macs.

Granted, computer choice shouldn't have an impact on coverage, but if the vast majority of press members are using Macs, doesn't that work in Apple's favor? Of course, some would surely say the only reason they use Macs is because "Apple computers are better for what they do," but I don't tend to agree. I can do this on my Asus Eee PC 1000H without a problem.

But because the press has fallen in love with Macs, everything is easier for Apple. It's a strange phenomenon, but people that start using Apple products have a sense of loyalty to them unlike any other computer brand. And it's that phenomenon that Apple uses to its advantage and what keeps the press coming back for more. And in turn, Apple's customers keep coming back for more too.

It's easy to say that Steve Jobs knows it all, if you're an Apple zealot, and even easier to say he knows nothing, when you hate Apple. But in reality, Apple's success is due to significant skill and a healthy portion of good luck.

To say otherwise is foolhardy.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter feed, and FriendFeed.

 

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