When It Comes to Customers, Selfish Is as Unselfish Does

Last Updated Jul 10, 2008 2:07 PM EDT

Queue of people waiting for the iPhoneThere's certainly news value to Apple opening an iPhone application store for third party software. But it's easy to misinterpret the potential lesson. As the Times puts it:
[CEO Steve] Jobs failed to make his personal computers dominant, in part because software developers did not write as many programs for Mac-based machines as they did for Microsoft Windows PCs. He did not make the same mistake when he developed the iPod music players. Apple's iTunes stores, with easy and inexpensive downloads of music, gave the device an insurmountable lead, to date, over other players.
Certainly having easy access to a choice of software can make a platform more attractive. However, many companies miss the underlying ironic logic. Most high tech businesses I've seen try to dominate their market and most fail utterly. Why? Because they are focused on themselves first. "Dominate the market" becomes far more important to them than "make the customer wildly happy."

People can smell that a mile off. Even if a company is successful for some period of time, hundreds of thousands and even millions of users may be looking for a way to walk away. Look at all the popular hostility that piles up around Microsoft. All you have to do is try Vista on an ordinary PC to understand.

For all the mistakes that Apple has made -- and there have been truckloads -- the company has always fundamentally understood how to construct a product that people liked to use-- and just plain liked. Call it an irrational desire to buy the quality of "cool." Who cares? If customers get the practical and emotional satisfaction they crave, you will succeed. And if developers are more likely to write applications for platforms that people love, then success can become real dominance, because customers want it. Jobs isn't shy about speculating where it could lead:

In an interview, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs said he believes the iPhone represents a rare launch of a new computing "platform," as evidenced by a rush of iPhone software development by other companies. He said past efforts by rivals to establish new mobile software platforms resulted in mostly anemic applications."There's been nothing on a mobile phone a fraction as good as what's on PCs," Mr. Jobs said.
iPhone queue image via Flickr user drownedrat, CC 2.0
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.