Listening, fast and slow

Marco Arment’s recent post, “Apple is Listening,” got me thinking about Apple’s on-and-off history of listening to its customers. Apple prides itself on figuring out what people want before they can articulate it. There’s lots of talk about “faster horses” and “skating to where the puck is going.” And there’s no question that some of Apple’s biggest successes have come from ignoring the conventional wisdom.

But sometimes people really do know what they want, and Apple’s track record in recognizing when that’s the case is spotty. I have a couple of favorite highs and lows.

Apple introduced the Watch in a September 2014 event and released it the following April. As Ben Thompson said in the wake of the introduction, the Watch was unique among Apple products in that there didn’t seem to be a story about why it existed or what it was for.1 It was just a hodgepodge of unfocused features.

Apple’s customers, though, figured out what the Watch was for right away: fitness. And remarkably, Apple listened. Development and marketing turned on a dime and went all-in on fitness. The Watch’s success came from Apple paying attention to its customers and giving them what they wanted.

My favorite example of Apple’s failure to listen is not the Mac Pro (although that’s a good one) but the Mac mini. The Mac mini was released in 2005. It was marketed as an entry level Mac for people who owned a computer but wanted a low cost way to switch—another way for Apple to take advantage of the iPod halo effect. Many of Apple’s regular customers, though, saw the mini as an inexpensive2 way to get a second Mac to use as a home server.3

Apple must have known this, but didn’t act on it for four years. It began selling the mini with OS X Server preinstalled in 2009. That continued through the salad days of the mini, with new versions released in 2010, 2011, and 2012.4

And then it stopped. There was no 2013 mini. Even worse, the 2014 version was a sealed unit. The RAM couldn’t be upgraded, and there was no option for buying one with OS X Server preinstalled. Apple apparently decided that what the mini’s customers said they wanted wasn’t what they really wanted. The 2014 mini was a big disappointment, and mini users began snapping up the 2012 versions wherever they could find them. Apple stopped development after 2014, probably because of poor sales brought on by its anti-customer redesign.

Last fall, six years after the last “good” version, Apple listened again, reintroducing the mini as a highly configurable system, with prices that range from $800 for a baseline model to $3,600 for a super tricked-out screamer.5

Unlike the Watch, Apple had a strong idea of what the mini was for when it was introduced. But it was, as it turned out, the wrong idea, and the product now has a 14-year history of Apple not listening, listening, not listening, and listening.

I don’t think any Apple enthusiasts want the company to become driven entirely by focus groups. The customer isn’t always right. But sometimes…

  1. One thing it was not for was fashion. Apple at the time was presenting itself as a nascent fashion brand, and tried to position the Watch as a competitor to Rolex, Breitling, Tag Heuer, and so on. That failed so thoroughly that the only traces of it left are the Hermès bands. 

  2. You might argue with the “inexpensive” characterization, but there’s more to expense than money. If you’re very familiar with Mac software and your other computer is a Mac, a server that runs OS X can mean a huge savings in time and frustration. 

  3. Or an out-of-home server. Macminicolo understood the value of the mini immediately and began offering colocation services for users who wanted their mini in a high bandwidth data center. 

  4. You certainly didn’t need OS X Server to use a mini as a server, but offering it preconfigured that way allowed Apple’s customers another opportunity to trade money for time. 

  5. Assuming the only screaming you need is from the main CPU, not graphics.