Should Apple Own New Product Categories?



Gizmodo posted an article today titled “What Laptops Looked Like Before and After the MacBook Air.” The article’s implication is that other companies are being unoriginal in their designs, saying “Let’s try something different next time, yeah?” Gizmodo was linking from Daring Fireball (a very pro-Apple blog) who was linking from this site.

Go check out the images they reference, which I won’t copy here because I’m not sure if they’re so freely licensed as Gizmodo implies by creating their own version (perhaps a little ironically). In any event, the basic idea is that everyone is copying Apple in notebooks just like they’re copying Apple in smartphones (and I’m sure tablets as well). This is presented a bit snidely, I think, as a bad and unusual thing that’s being done to poor, innovative Apple.

But let’s think about this for a second.

First, as I noted in another post, Apple wasn’t even first with the MacBook Air’s basic design. Sony (at least) beat them to the punch with the Vaio X505. At least one thin, light, wedge-shaped notebook predated the MacBook Air by a couple of years, and Apple simply changed the color of the metal and smoothed out a few lines. But the similarities are obvious.

sony_x505 v.  apple-macbook-air

Yes, the keyboard’s farther back on the Apple, with a large wrist rest, but that’s been true of the vast majority of notebooks ever since the trackpad was first introduced. Clearly, however, Apple didn’t come up with anything exotic here—either they borrowed design cues from the Vaio X505, or the MacBook Air’s design is simply a logical evolution in the quest to make ever thinner and lighter machines.

Certainly, Apple made the general design more popular. In fact, one could say that they actually created a new product category (as opposed to a mere niche), and as with all new product categories, by definition, the products that followed were more similar than they were different. This takes nothing away from Apple—they showed the way with an excellent product—but it’s also no different from any other new product category.

Examples abound where one company introduced something brand new or evolutionary and then others followed. Again, that’s really the definition of the product category, and the only alternative to the idea that one company (or artist, or author, or musician, or scientist, or engineer, or physician) comes up with something new and then others follow with variations on the theme, is that somehow, miraculously, everyone just spontaneously comes out with similar products all at once.

Obviously, that’s not what happens.

As I’ve thought about the whole “copycat” claim against anyone who saw that Apple did something cool and wanted to do something similar, I hit on the minivan as an example of a similar sea-change in product design and a resulting entirely new product category. So, I put together my own montage of before and after pictures, this time of vans before the Dodge Caravan, and then of minivans afterwards.

In 1984, Dodge released the Caravan and popularized a new automobile product category called the “minivan.” It was something of a sensation, spurring competitors such as GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, and others to come out with their own iterations. They all shared some fundamental similarities, primarily being built on car platforms instead of truck platforms, with similar sliding-door access to the sides of the vehicles, being smaller and more nimble and thus easier to drive than previous vans, and a variety of other common characteristics.

Now, one can argue that Dodge wasn’t the first to make such a vehicle, and that might very well be correct—just like Apple wasn’t the first to make a thin, light notebook with a generally wedge-shaped chassis that accentuates its thinness. That only reinforces my point, however. What Dodge did, specifically, was popularize a general product category that was either previously a niche, or hinted at by products that came before it..

So, here’s what vans generally looked like before (and in some cases after) the Dodge Caravan:

'66_Volkswagen_Kombi_(Auto_classique_St._Lazare_'10) 800px-1st-Ford-Econoline 1968_Sportvan_Custom_108 800px-1973-1980_Volkswagen_Kombi_(T2)_van_01

OldChevyVan Ford_Club_Wagon_--_12-14-2011_1

Ford--Econoline Chevrolet_Sport_Van

Here’s what the most popular kind of van, the minivan, looks like after the Dodge Caravan:

1st_Ford_Windstar 1st_Honda_Odyssey

91PlymouthGrandVoyagerLE Chrysler_Grand_Voyager_V_front_20100508 2011_Toyota_Sienna_--_2010_DC 2011_Nissan_Quest_SL_--_04-22-2011

Now, certainly, there’s a lot of variability in colors, trim, wheel styles, etc., in automobiles. But the distinctive shape and functionality of minivans created a new product category full of vehicles that are far more similar than they are different, and that stand apart from other automobile product categories.

Notebook computers, with some distinct exceptions such as gaming notebooks, have tended toward the more conservative use of grays and silvers and blacks, and so it’s no surprise to me that a product category such as thin and lights would be even more similar to each other than minivans. I would argue that within these narrower design constraints, there’s as much variation between the various Ultrabooks that have generated the “copycat” accusations and the MacBook Air as there are between the many minivans that have hit the market since 1984. In short, some are very different and some are more the same (in some model years, I’ve had a very hard time distinguishing between the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna), but they’re all more like each other than they are any other category of notebook computer.

Also, some of the more recognizable MacBook Air design cues, such as a black chiclet keyboard, certainly aren’t unique nor original to Apple products. Nor is aluminum, and interestingly enough the bezel, which is allegedly distinctive in the iPhone, is silver on the MacBook Air and black on the majority of Ultrabooks. Many such differences and similarities exist between the MacBook Air and other modern thin and light notebooks, but none constitute direct, line-by-line and color-by-color copies.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that Apple hasn’t led the way in a number of important areas by at the very least popularizing specific types of products. I’m merely saying that as with music (jazz, rock and roll, boy bands, punk, grunge, metal, hip hop, rap, etc., etc.), or young adult novels (vampire romances, anyone?), or clothing (fashions come and go, right?), or scientific advances, or just about any other area imaginable where one person or one company makes something that sticks, someone has to be first to blaze the trail.

Apple should be commended for either seeing what people really want and providing it (sometimes whether they knew it or not) or improving on previous designs in important ways, but they shouldn’t expect to keep it all to themselves. Chrysler couldn’t stop other companies from making minivans, any more than New Kids on the Block could stop other musicians from making music that sounded a lot like theirs. And just like New Kids on the Block wasn’t the first band to feature a bunch of teenage boys singing catchy and vapid pop tunes, Apple isn’t the first company to feature thin and light notebooks with wedge shapes.

I think there’s a difference between stealing intellectual property by directly and explicitly copying it, and merely doing something similar. With copyright, what’s protected are the actual words that make up a novel, for example, not the general plot. That’s why an entire genre of sword and sorcery fantasy novels sprang up after the Lord of the Rings featuring elves and dwarves and humans fighting against trolls and ogres and dragons in epic quests, without anyone infringing on anyone else’s copyright.

Sure, there’s probably some infringing of Apple’s intellectual property going on (just as Apple arguably infringes on a few patents themselves), and that might just be the nature of such a fast-moving and generally innovative industry. However, I simply don’t think a legitimate example is the fact that other products happen to look a little (or sometimes even a lot) like the MacBook Air (or the iPhone, or the iPad). This is particularly true since Apple’s designs are so minimalistic—it’s as if Apple feels they should own the very idea of designing things with little or no ornamentation, which somehow seems wrong to me.

What do you think? Should Apple’s products be able to stand alone, forever, or are they actually just examples of the first in new product categories, which by definition means there are going to be followers? Let me know in the comments.



  1. […] I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, I’m a strong supporter of intellectual property rights, including […]

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