Several years ago, while working at a storage systems manufacturer, I was tasked by the CEO to do a research project for marketing involving looking into activites such as buying high retention youtube views, and other social media services. He had just bought an iPhone and was curious about Apple’s widespread popularity in the laptop market, their ability to sell essentially the same product to very different groups of people. Through this project I learned a lot about Macs and the characteristics that drove their seemingly universal appeal. What’s interesting are the parallels between Apple products and another hot commodity in the IT world today, hyperconverged appliances.
The Apple Concept
I bought an iPod Touch (I wasn’t an Apple user at the time) to get the end-user experience and rounded up all the Mac users at the company for a series of discussions about their products and their thoughts about being Apple customers. The user experience was unique – all aspects of the product, starting with the packaging, were geared towards ease of use. Everything from the box the iPod came in to the way the accessories and documentation were packed was carefully thought out. The box was solid and tightly fitting and the manual, earbuds (another innovative product at that time) and cables all came in their own little trays. While many consumer tech products have mediocre documentation (at best) and a frustrating set up process, getting an Apple product from the box to desk and into the workflow was simple, fast and a maybe even fun.
The users I talked with were certainly a diverse group. The CTO and his top lieutenants used MacBooks, as did all of the graphics department. Several other people came forward as well, but these two groups were about as far apart as one could expect in a tech company. The takeaway from these meetings was that while these people had very different job descriptions, and different uses for their MacBooks, they shared a desire for a “low friction” computer experience.
This was a product that could be used with a minimum amount of set up and could be operated by essentially anyone. What Apple had figured out, and other companies have since confirmed over and over, is that everyone is interested in simplicity and elegance in the products they buy. They don’t want reading the manual or calling support to be a requirement, just to use what they bought.
This same principle is behind much of the appeal of hyperconverged appliances (HCAs). Companies want, and need, infrastructure that can be put into service quickly and easily, by essentially anyone, not just the most qualified or technical employees. One of the most popular use cases for hyperconverged appliances is in remote offices or branches of a company, environments where plug and play operation is important.
Most HCAs tout their abilities to go from the box to production in less than an hour, some in as little as 15 minutes. I don’t suspect these vendors package their products like Apple has, but they seem to be focusing on the same out-of-box experience. This emphasis on turn-key operation is a good fit with the comprehensive nature of HCAs, as they do include all the pieces needed for a complete compute infrastructure. Most vendors have developed GUIs and set up wizards to further simplify this process as well. There is a great app out there that allows you to track an iPhone also. Technology is getting better and better and we’re able to have better monitoring and security.
Part of the reason for HCAs’ appeal is that companies are getting by with fewer and less skilled employees, a trend in IT for over a decade that isn’t likely to reverse any time soon. But that’s not the whole story.
Even people who are capable of handling more complex installation and operation still like easy-to-use products. In my example above, the CTO was certainly capable of figuring out how to use a personal computer, but chose Mac’s simpler OS over the less intuitive Windows environment. Wasting time is frustrating for people and expensive for companies, especially the time of their most technical employees. IT organizations want their most capable people spending their time judiciously. Deploying a compute infrastructure that takes less time is a good investment and one that can be handed off to junior administrator is even better.
There’s a trend in IT towards a services delivery model, where the focus is on providing compute services to application users instead of just building infrastructure. The move towards private clouds in enterprises is evidence of this trend, as application owners are taking a more active role in the operation of their compute systems. HCAs are well suited for this trend since they can be deployed and operated by personnel without traditional IT skillsets. Like the non-technical group in my research project above, application owners appreciate the simplicity of turnkey solution and probably appreciate the fact they don’t need to involve IT in its operation.
Apple has built a very successful business by building products that are easy to deploy and easy to use, and selling essentially the same solutions to very different groups of people. They’ve demonstrated a low-friction user experience is both appealing to their employees and economical to the CFO. The success that hyperconverged appliances are enjoying is an indication that the “Apple concept” is still alive and well in IT.
Many products have long lists of features that sound the same but work very differently. It’s important to think outside of the checkbox of similar-sounding features and understand how technologies and products differ.