How Apple chic whips rivals

Are its products really that phenomenal, or are rivals simply not competing?

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Apple gets lauded constantly for creating great products. But are its products really that phenomenal, or are rivals simply not competing?

Let's look at the MacBook Pros, the archetype of Apple industrial design (I'll focus on other product categories in future posts). As I've written before, they're the essence of chic: gorgeous, well-made, and well-equipped.

But are they really that good, or are PC makers like Hewlett-Packard--as an example of the most potent rival--simply dropping the ball?

HP sells a lot of business laptops. Its EliteBook line (and more recently its ProBook line) populate the desks of many large companies in the U.S. and abroad. That's undisputed. However, I'm not talking about conventional workhorse laptops. I'm talking about designs that create a buzz and, ultimately, define a company as truly different--like Apple's MacBook Pros.

HP Envy 13: competitor to 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. Hewlett-Packard

So, what did HP come up with as a "different" design in response to the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air? The Envy (a kind of follow-on to the ultrathin Voodoo Envy). When I first saw the Envy 13 and 15 last fall (just after the line was announced) on display at a conference, I could see HP was on the right track and, in fact, the Envy 13 beat the Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro in some respects, as I spelled out.

But, now, about six months later, and just after a MacBook Pro refresh, it's apparent the Envy isn't winning the race. Yes, the 13-inch Envy is thin and light. But not remarkably so. Yes, it's attractive, but not different enough to send throngs of consumers scurrying away from the MacBook Pro. And the Envy 13 seems doomed to fail at $1,499. Most consumers compare it to the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is priced at $1,199, a whopping $300 less. That's not competition, that's capitulation.

The Envy 13, however, is an exception because Apple doesn't typically win on price. In fact, the principle of price elasticity doesn't seem to apply in a big way to Apple. For example, the Envy 15, at $1,299, handily beats the $1,799 Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Apple, despite this, moves a lot of MacBook Pros. And my own experience seems to support this. I've seen a lot of 15-inch MacBook Pros in coffee shops, hotels, and airports. I've never seen an Envy anywhere (and I'm fairly observant about these things). And I've only seen the Envy at one retailer, Fry's in Southern California. And the two Envy models (the Envy 13 and 15) were buried among scores of other Windows 7 laptops and didn't stand out.

Which brings us to the reason why HP, Dell, and others can't compete on cachet (the "great" factor). On top of the allure of the aluminum designs, MacBooks are sequestered, at retail, in their own special space--whether it be Fry's or Best Buy (what Best Buy calls "Apple Shops"), very visibly separated from the crush of Windows 7 machines. This, in turn, leads consumers to partition Apple products in their minds: Apple versus "others." The tony Apple stores only magnify this.

HP bought Voodoo. Then the slick Voodoo Envy 133 died on the vine.

And the other secret to Apple's success? Focus. It focuses its considerable creative forces on a few designs instead of dozens of relatively humdrum models.

So, how does HP compete against that? It certainly has both the financial and engineering wherewithal--and has some very distinguished laptop lineage, to boot. The team that designed the groundbreaking DEC HiNote Ultra (gorgeous and ultra-thin for its time) in the '90s went to Compaq, which HP acquired. And HP also acquired Voodoo, the company that made the original Voodoo Envy 133, a beautiful, if slightly flawed design the was never upgraded and, consequently, left to rot. (Though some would say the HP Envy is the follow-on, it's really a completely different product.)

The answer is--at this juncture--HP doesn't compete on chic. HP laptops, despite some decent designs, invariably get lost among the Windows 7 hordes, while Apple continues to create cachet, coolness, and cash.