I honestly don't think it's actually that hard to do this though - to leap frog Apple and everyone else. It just takes either A: picking a device category that no one has really made *the* device for yet or B: figuring out a pretty major innovation or other differentiator in an existing category.
One real-world example of this might just be Microsoft's Kinect, actually. They are apparently doing really well in sales right now, and this despite the fact that the current software line-up for it is not that great. They have at least one "killer app" (the dance game), some actually rather nice and innovative hardware that looks decent, and a good existing ecosystem (Xbox). Granted Nintendo did *similar* stuff already, and Sony likewise just debuted theirs (and it's doing alright as well), so maybe it's not quite a good example, but it's close, as close as MS has had since the debut of the XB360 itself.
Another random idea might be to revolutionize the home oven or even the refrigerator. Totally outside of the realm that Apple and most other device manufacturers are in right now, but if you make either one of them more like a computer, their expertise come to bear. Imagine an oven with recipes built-in, Internet connectivity for updates of course (and remote start/stop if you want), a nice easily cleaned touch screen, built-in internal temp sensors (wireless, just press into your roast and the oven detects it), self-cleaning, etc, etc. None of this is particularly difficult or high-tech for the computer industry, but if any such oven does exist today, it probably costs $5000 or more. Ridiculous. A PC manufacturer ought to be able to do something like that, say based on Android, for maybe a $500 premium on the base oven cost, $1000 at most. This is really just a random idea, so it might be silly or impractical, but it just shows that there are plenty of unfulfilled tech needs that might not be *that* hard to tackle.
But let's consider a more normal, perhaps more realistic possible example. Remember this is off the top of my head so it's not likely to be a genuinely *great* idea, but hopefully it illustrates that even with a minimum of real thought you can come up with possible ways to really differentiate a product, *provided* you're willing to spend the time and money and focus in the right areas, primarily user experience (which encompasses industrial design).
Let's say you wanted to revolutionize the desktop computer space, something that really hasn't been done yet (even by Apple), and especially not in the PC market. OK, so how do we do that. What do modern consumers (who aren't already Apple customers) want in such a device? Well, they want good hardware (easy), nice design (slightly harder, but still easy - just hire Lian Li's people
), an operating system that works with the majority of software out there, they want a well-setup and intuitive user interface with a good suite of existing and functional tools (e.g. iLife and/or iWorks), and they want good user input functionality, plus great connectivity with all their other devices, the Internet, etc.
Now how many of those are already covered by one or more existing vendors? Good hardware? Yep, plenty of that out there. Good industrial design? Less so, but there are some pretty nice all-in-one or small form factor machines coming around from PC manufacturers, not to mention the obvious Apple iMac and Mac Mini systems. Operating system? Win7 and OSX are both decent, with their own sets of quirks, etc. Windows is more broadly compatible. User Interface? Here's where it starts to get less clear. Many people would argue OSX is a better, more seamless UI than Win7. I wouldn't necessarily agree with that, but if nothing else OS X is out because Apple won't sub-license it. So we're left with Win7, which is not so bad (or Linux, but that's out for compatibility reasons for now).
I think something most of us would agree on is that Win7 is not necessarily setup out-of-the-box for the best user experience, so it could do with some expert tweaking of settings. Simply *not* installing a bunch of trialware/adware/crapware is a huge step up from many PC manufacturers these days too, but we're still nowhere near revolutionary territory. How about nice alternative shells and/or themes? Could be some real value there, depending on how they're configured. How about a carefully selected and/or customized suite of software, freeware, open source, and even commercial, to handle all your computing needs, e.g. a highly capable and easy to use (simple) media player, music player, music store, etc, etc, etc? Pick things based on merit alone, not marketing deals and payola. How about pre-installed, pre-configured, well-documented, and clearly available enhancement utilities like FARR (maybe a simplified version, kind of like the Firefox "Awesome Bar" or Google Chrome's address bar), or having Everything (search) installed and available by default, or Circle Dock. Yes, these are all potentially complex programs to setup, and sometimes to use, but you pick based on ease of use, and you *do the configuration for the customer*. Setup good defaults, extend CircleDock to automatically add items to it perhaps, etc. What we're talking about here is basically creating a DC-user-tweaked system *out-of-the-box*, but with a focus not on power but on intuitiveness and ease of use. If you took something like Everything and replaced the default Windows search box, it would have the intuitiveness needed *and* the speed and capability. Just a small example, and I thin it's hard to understand just how powerful this could be if done right, but I'm confident that if the focus were on intuitiveness and ease of use, a good team of people with broad awareness of great tools like the DC community, could really put together - in essence - a great "slipstreamed" OS install.
Still, not revolutionary. What about the input device? Here I think is where the real magic might happen. There was a whole discussion on DC about this a while back
, so I won't bother repeating the details here. But long story short, there is great potential in various permutations of touch screen, tactile feedback, and other technologies, to create a new, more intuitive, more powerful, faster and more precise input system from various technologies mostly already developed. It would just take a good amount of in-depth testing and research to really make something great, just like Apple put lots of research time into Apple's famed "click wheel".
So what's the end result of all this? A user gets a beautiful computer, they open it up and it's well packaged and attractive (think Apple packaging but less pretentious?), it has a paper copy of the Eula, with a 1 page simplified real-English version (gasp!). The computer itself is small, sleek, attractive. They plug it in, it requires minimal wires (maybe just power cord - use wireless Internet, pre-paired bluetooth input devices), they turn it on, it boots quickly thanks to an optimized services and drivers list and appropriately timed/delayed startup software options. It doesn't ask for security software immediately because it already has a good, low resource option bundled in (free, won't nag them). It has shortcuts on the desktop to only what they need, or no shortcuts at all if that's determined to be the most intuitive approach and instead apps pinned to the task bar, or maybe CircleDock comes up by default, or some Welcome Screen, or whatever. But the bottom line is it's easy.
Then they want to listen to music, for example. They easily find a clearly labeled Music system, it has a library with some included music, maybe Creative Commons or some singles from major artists, the music has a clearly associated player and it opens to an intuitive music management and playback system, with an integrated store (yes this could even be a tuned Windows Media Player, but could be something else like SongBird too). They go to buy some music, the process is easy and seamless, using merchants/processors they're familiar and comfortable with (e.g. Paypal, Google Check Out, whatever).
Now they want to write a document. They find that a fast, efficient, and intuitive word processor is included, with all commonly used functions easily accessible. Maybe this is Office 2010, maybe it's Libreoffice, maybe StarOffice, maybe something else, but the focus is on efficiency, intuitiveness, and the brand/publisher doesn't matter. It "just works". They save and their default is set to commonly-used and cross-compatible formats - maybe it prompts them asking whether they're distributing the document solely for viewing, or want others to be able to edit it (PDF vs. DOC/ODT output), or maybe it asks if they want to publish to the "cloud" (Google Docs or whatever). It's all built-in.
Now obviously, with the mention of Google Docs above for example, this requires making some choices for the user about what services and software to go with. But that's entirely the point. Set them up with their photos using Picasa and pointing automatically to Picasa Online and they don't have to worry about figuring out where to put their photos. It may not be the single best option for everyone, but it will work for the majority of people very well. This is what such an experience is about. Not marketing partners and adware or trial versions, it's about giving people the tools they need to do what you know most people want to do, quickly and easily.
And all of this of course goes through your fancy new input device, a combination of keyboard, mouse, touch pad, multi-touch, pen input, and more.
Ok, it's all very theoretical and maybe the benefits don't seem huge, but then if you told someone a mere 3 years ago that Apple was going to create a touch-screen phone with nice design and a great UI and a few nice new features (e.g. visual voice mail) and end up ruling the market only 2 years later, when other phones had things like front-facing camera, physical keyboards, and a lot more going for them, people probably would have laughed. Even more so before the success of the iPod, which was really one of Apple's first majorly successful forays outside the core computer market and into "devices". Before the iPod, who would have believed Apple could do this? Much less *how* they did it. How many of us still look at the iPod and go "Why was *that* so successful when these other devices supported 10 times more formats, had no DRM, had FM radio built-in, didn't have overpriced accessories, had bigger capacities for less money, etc."?
The point is these things are often more than the sum of their parts, so even though what I've described above may not sound that impressive, especially to DC veterans who are used to setting all this up from scratch (and it may even sound restrictive in itself - I mean who wants to have their office suite chosen for them, right?
), nonetheless this is a part of what's appealing about Apple's products: they "just work", out of the box, everything is there and integrated. This is *totally possible* to do on a PC platform base, with the right mix of software, hardware, and services.
Create an excellent user experience, even if it's "cobbled together from lots of customizations to existing systems", and it will impress people. Bundle it with a great ecosystem of services and media, in an attractive package, and then market it well, and you've nailed it. Granted those are a lot of things to get right, but the key is that most of those are well within the capability of today's device giants. Marketing is often the hardest part! But I think companies just don't focus on those kinds of products and experiences. Apparently they'd rather have 20 similar - but slightly different - models, for example. Apple's line-up is simple, clear, powerful, and appealing because of all that. Someone else can do it too, and should.