RIM, for instance, shipped its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet in April, then immediately began flooding the airwaves with ads that touted it as the first “professional grade” tablet and boasted of its support for Adobe Flash. Which would have been dandy … except that the tablet was thoroughly glitchy and sported a version of Flash that barely worked. The PlayBook’s marketing campaign was ready; the PlayBook wasn’t.
Like the PlayBook, nearly all the tablets that have followed Apple’s iPad onto the market feel like they were designed with a sense of urgency that trumped all else. It’s no coincidence that none of them have been big hits. If a serious iPad rival does come along, it won’t be one that was shipped prematurely.
All of which brings me back to Apple. Heaven knows, it often ships products that don’t include all the features an average consumer might want. But even when its products don’t “just work” in a way that feels practically mystical, they do work. What does it say about the state of the tech industry that this comes as a refreshing surprise?
I wonder how much of Apple’s competitive advantage over the past decade — from the iPod, to the iPhone, to the iPad — comes from getting there first. Even after other products (more or less) “catch up”, Apple still has the reputation of excellence that was cemented when they released a kick-ass product and competitors released hastily-engineered, shoddily-made knock-offs. Even when the product differentiation shrinks, the brand identity has already been cemented in the public mind.
Which isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t also maintain real substantive advantages in product as well. But the perceived gap likely outstrips the real gap, as competitors (especially in the smartphone market) make up for lost ground.
Note that this is true even without the crushing weight of patent litigation. Innovation has its own rewards.