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Apple tries out new 'Think Different' campaign

Apple's flurry of lawsuits is part of its strategy to get competitors to think different -- i.e., to sink time and money into steering clear of any resemblance to the iPhone, iPad or iWhatever.

James Martin/CNET

On the Apple campus, thinking different is worshipped. The company's core aspiration is to deliver startling breakthroughs, not me-too, products. Now Apple is calling upon its rivals to "think different," but for different reasons than creating breakthrough products.

Apple's "Think Different" philosophy was expressed in a series of ads commissioned by Steve Jobs in 1997, a time when Apple was early in its comeback from the brink of bankruptcy. The ads featured Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Branson, John Lennon (with Yoko Ono), Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Maria Callas, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Martha Graham, Jim Henson (and Kermit the Frog), Frank Lloyd Wright and Pablo Picasso.

The ad copy talked about the "crazy ones," "misfits," "rebels" and "troublemakers":

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs viewed himself and Apple as misfits and rebels who had to think different, break rules and ditch the status quo.  That romanticized notion is part of the Apple mystique. Apple's products aren't hatched Athena-like from the forehead of Zeus, nor are Apple's employees today rebels and misfits plotting to overthrow the establishment. Now Apple is the establishment -- and it's trying to maintain its momentum.

Apple's breakthroughs come from executing well on several fronts --  assembling pieces into a more elegant package than what competitors can deliver, creating a more coherent user experience, mixing in a few real innovations, hitting the product pipeline with perfect timing and establishing an emotional connection with customers. That formula has made Apple the envy of the business world, but it wasn't always that way.

Steve Jobs wanted to change the world and paint his own "Guernica," but the reality is that the Apple of the 1980s and 1990s developed higher-priced products that appealed to creative types and ushered in the age of desktop publishing. Microsoft Windows dominated the desktop with more than 90 percent market share. The Apple of the 21st century, however, set the bar for society's rapid shift into a more mobile, digital world and is reaping the profits.

Apple's flurry of lawsuits is part of its strategy to use a flawed patent system to establish intellectual property rights barriers and to get competitors to think different, meaning to invest their time, money and effort in avoiding resemblances to the iPhone, iPad or iWhatever that could be litigated.  

As CNET's Brian Cooley characterized Apple's suit against Samsung, Apple is really trying to roadblock Google' Android platform, which powers most smartphones sold, and  "spook the herd" of companies using it. Last quarter, Android-based smartphone had a 68.1 percent share of the worldwide smartphone market, compared to Apple at 16.9 percent share, according to IDC. 

Part of Apple's magic is to give the impression to the outside world that all other smartphone or tablet manufacturers are like art forgers, copying from Apple's original art, which upon closer examination isn't necessarily wholly original.

Some competitors are thinking differently in ways that trump Apple's product design and functionality. Apple has lost customers, for example, because it hasn't had an iPhone with a larger screen to date (the iPhone 5 will remedy that situation) or NFC

As in past epochs of computing, Apple doesn't need to have a dominant market share to be successful. But as competitors like Google, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC, LG, Nokia, Huawei and others think more differently, Apple will have to come up with another major breakthrough product to maintain its alluring mystique. Perhaps a new category will do, such as the TV and set-top box. Stay tuned.

Samsung Galaxy S III screen comparison
The Samsung Galaxy S III , the HTC One X (above) and Apple's iPhone 4S (below.) Josh MIller/CNET