Here’s a question for you: why didn’t HP, Dell, Acer, Samsung, or some other huge PC manufacturer build the Air before Apple? The answer is: they did. Sony’s X505 was a razor-thin laptop weighing less than 2 pounds, and it came out in 2003! More recently, Dell introduced the Adamo in 2009, and later that year the even thinner Adamo XPS. These laptops didn’t sell. Sony’s cost over three grand. Dell’s were also too expensive, and the battery life was pitiful. Instead of fixing those problems, Dell killed the Adamo line. Sony and Dell built nearly-great products with critical flaws and instead of challenging their engineers and designers to find ways to address those flaws, they concluded that nobody really wanted these systems. Apple didn’t give up, though. Drive too thick and too slow? Apple commissioned a special case-less SSD that could fit in its slim design. It worked to make the motherboard smaller, the components cheaper, and crammed as much lithium polymer battery as it could fit in the case. By 2010, the Air had evolved from an overpriced, underpowered status toy to the must-have computer of our day.
My point here is not simply that PC manufacturers are quitters. It’s that they have the entirely wrong mindset to build must-have products. Several times a year, I have meetings with major PC manufacturers about their upcoming product lines, and the tenor is always the same: “Our customers told us this is what they want, and our market research says this is what people are buying, so we made this great product to address that market!” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but you’ll never set any trends that way. If you want to make the product that everyone else compares their product to, you have to go outside the envelope. You have to take a risk to build something nobody has told you they want, because they don’t know they want it yet, and then you have to invest in it and stick with it until you get it right. The real irony here is that their marketing departments are constantly striving to find differentiators: ways to set their products apart from the pack. If every company is building products to address the same set of market research data, you’re not going to get differentiated products.
Here’s a bit of free advice for the PC manufacturers: lose the optical drive. No, not just in your upcoming ultrabooks, in everything. I’ve asked four PC makers this year why they’re still putting DVD drives in their 13-to-15 inch laptops while struggling to make them thinner and lighter. They all said the same thing: “our customers say they aren’t ready for that yet.” Well of course they’re not! If you wait until the world tells you an optical drive isn’t worth the tradeoff in thickness, weight, and space for a bigger battery, you’ll be marketing laptops just like everyone else’s. I’d make a million dollar bet Apple’s next generation of MacBook Pro won’t have optical drives in its 13 and 15 inch models, and they’ll be so slim and sleek and light everyone will want one. Then Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, Samsung, Sony, and the others will follow suit six months later, looking like they can’t come up with an idea until after Apple does.