Thus far, in my comparison of Apple and Nintendo, I’ve addressed the misleading similarities between the companies’ product design, their parallel roles in unknowingly assisting rivals, the buoying effect of their great first-party software, and their reliance on dominant portables. Most of those discussions were rooted in the past, so, in this final installment, I will look at the present and future.
Apple and Nintendo are arguably the two most popular tech companies in the world today, not in terms of sales or profit but in terms of customer interest and affection. Both companies have fiercely devoted fan bases and are admired by casual consumers of technology. In this article, I will present my theory that a major part of the companies’ glowing images is their surprising and unique corporate philosophies, which largely center on ignoring customers.
I will also look at the influential movement that Apple and Nintendo are now leading: innovating interaction. Both companies have solid backgrounds in creating and improving computer interactivity, and both have returned to this important work by exploring the possibilities of the touch screen.
Innovation: The customer knows jack
When you think about it, the hardware side of both the PC and the games industry is fairly dreary. PCs advance by receiving more RAM, more processors, and more gigahertz, all crammed into boxes that are either dull and cheap-feeling or stupidly “X-treme” and cheap-feeling. Because their clientele is younger and less thoughtful, game consoles suffer even more from sensationalistic performance increases. Since game systems cost even less than PCs, they feel even cheaper.
This dreariness is driven to some extent by the genuinely complex nature of the technology involved, but to another extent by sheer pandering. Hardcore tech devotees, a group small in numbers but large in influence, demand better and flashier toys almost constantly. On message boards, blogs, and enthusiast press outlets, rapid technophiles pick apart every miniscule nuance of these products to the point of absurdity.
Extemetech.com recently ran a review of two low-priced graphics cards. Keep in mind that these cards are not major releases; Extremetech’s main audience of hardcore gamers would want more performance than these budget cards could offer. Nevertheless, the review is so vast that it was split into ten different sections, weighing in at a hefty total of 3300 words with 16 custom graphics. I admire the tenacity and thoroughness of the coverage, but does anyone need this much information about a graphics card? It’s only one of several major PC components, each of which would require a separate review. Why is there so much emphasis on niggling performance numbers?
The problem is that traditional tech companies are either incapable or unwilling to upgrade their products by any other means than boosting stats. The hardcore techies and gamers demand better performance, and Dell, Sony, Microsoft and companies of their ilk cloyingly oblige, placating the fanboys.
The flaw in this approach is that devotees are not experts. They demand quad-core processors because it’s a simple and obvious way to improve the experience. They can’t come up with feasible ways to truly innovate the products because they don’t have the expertise or experience to initiate that kind of complex design. Sony could surely imagine some fantastic contraption that revolutionizes the gaming experience, but they elect not to because no one asks them to do so. Instead, they release a $600 box that does everything a gamer could possibly imagine, technologically speaking. And, of course, Nintendo quickly crushes them.
Did Nintendo receive even one letter asking them to replace the traditional gamepad with a motion-sensing TV remote? I somehow doubt it. More likely, the demand was for gleaming graphics, pristine HD output, and a robust online experience. These requests existed not because the customer is always right but because the customer’s knowledge of console design is limited. How is Joe gamer supposed to know that pretending to bowl with a high-tech vibrator is fun? He could never ask for that experience; Nintendo had to show it to him.
This philosophy is what separates modern Nintendo from their rivals. Microsoft probably implemented every feature request in their inbox when designing the 360. The original Xbox was too big and chunky? The 360 is smaller and sleeker. Xbox Live needs improvement? It’s now integrated into every part of the Xbox interface. Microsoft delivered a console that satisfied the gamer’s every demand. Nintendo delivered a console that blew away their expectations.
The Wii has humdrum graphics, no high-definition support, and piss-poor online capabilities. Even the name ‘Wii’ seems to have been generated in a parallel universe where focus groups do not exist (a paradise!). Instead of listening to their customers, Nintendo surprised them with the most innovative gaming device since the NES. Gamers always want something new. The traditional consoles offer novelty in the form of a monotonous stream of shinier and shinier graphics. Nintendo has given them something completely different, vastly unique and, above all, extremely fun. And they couldn’t have done it if they had listened to their customers.
Apple applies the same technique in its product development. In the interest of time, I will confine this comparison to the iPod, but a similar case could be made for the iPhone, the iMac, and the iLife suite.
This infamous forum thread shows the Apple fan reaction immediately following the iPod announcement. The general consensus can be summed up by this quote from user Pants: “hey – heres an idea Apple – rather than enter the world of gimmicks and toys, why dont you spend a little more time sorting out your pathetically expensive and crap server line up?” He then inserts an angry face emoticon.
This situation is nearly identical to Nintendo’s. For this special Apple announcement in 2001, speculation ran wild as usual. Fans analyzed Apple’s line-up, pinpointed a weakness, and expected Apple to rectify it. At the time, their prediction was reasonable, but only as good as the information they had, which, when it comes to Apple, is always minimal. If Apple was Dell, and the biggest complaint against it was its poor servers, then Steve Jobs would have announced better servers. No one was complaining that Apple did not offer an mp3 player because no one cared about mp3 players at the time. But, since Apple ignored its customers’ expectations and took its own path, it designed and released the biggest tech product in modern history.
This daring spirit is, I think, a big reason why people gravitate towards Apple and Nintendo. They are among the few well-established companies in their respective industries that consistently make unique products, forcing enthusiasts to keep an eye on them. More importantly, their unique products are generally successful, which is rare and refreshing in industries dominated by dreary stagnation. Their secretive nature also gives them an air of mystique, something sorely lacking from the corporate edifices of their completion. Imagine: “When’s Dell releasing the new Inspiron? I just can’t wait!”
Interaction: I can feel the future
The Nintendo DS was released in November of 2004. At Macworld 2007, Steve Jobs claimed that the iPhone was in development for two and a half years. The iPhone was released in June 2007, two and a half years after the DS. It’s a crackpot theory, I know, but it doesn’t seem completely infeasible that Apple may have been spurred on its bold path towards a touch-only interface by the elegant usability of Nintendo’s mass market portable.
Speculation aside, the two devices, while wildly different in function, share one key feature: a touch screen that is simple, effective, and, above all, flexible. The DS plays host to a wide array of exciting and innovative control schemes for games that would be impossible or undesirable on other systems. From the manic hodge-podge of styles in WarioWare, to the fast-paced tapping of Elite Beat Agents, to the calculated dragging in Planet Puzzle League, and even to the gentle point-and-click interface of Hotel Dusk, the DS provides a broader range of gameplay possibilities than any gaming machine that came before it.
Furthermore, these new forms of gameplay are often more fun than when played on a traditional controller. For example, the Kirby series has always been somewhat unremarkable. It’s a simple platformer with the twist that Kirby can absorb special powers from enemies. Kirby: Canvas Curse for the DS, however, is a wonderful and unique title. The player draws what are essentially rainbow treadmills with the stylus, and Kirby, in ball form, navigates the level via these paths. The player never needs more than the stylus to play the game, yet this simple control scheme provides deeper and more enjoyable gameplay than any other Kirby game.
To me, this scenario represents a game improving by becoming simpler and by receiving touch controls. Canvas Curse is a genuinely better than Kirby 64, which offered more complex controls and more sophisticated hardware. To find an analogous iPhone application, a program that demonstrates the true potential of its radical multi-touch interface, the app needs to be both simpler and better than its home computer counterpart. The iPhone’s best apps, sadly, do not fit this bill. iPhone Safari is a magnificent mobile browser, but it still lacks important functionality when compared to its Macintosh predecessor. The iPod app is also fantastic, but is actually more complex than the previous scroll wheel incarnation.
No, the Canvas Curse of the iPhone is its Photo app. I’m not comparing it to iPhoto, mind you, but rather to Preview (or any other simple photo-browsing tool). What I am specifically referring to is that swiping to scroll between photos and pinching to zoom on the iPhone is a significant improvement over using the scroll wheel and keyboard to zoom and scroll on a Mac. What’s more, the iPhone’s tilt functionality means that photos always fill up the entire gorgeous display, a feature that few computer monitors can duplicate.
The iPhone Photo app proves that simple touch controls can actually enhance a product that seems far more advanced on a full computer. Just as there are many games better played on a DS than on a PS3, there should soon be a variety of applications where an iPhone is preferable to a Macbook (if Apple would allow third party development, that is). Both of these scenarios, to the best of my knowledge, are firsts for portable devices. Even the best Gameboy games had superior siblings on home consoles, and who could possibly imagine wanting to use a cell phone of yore over a Mac? The DS and iPhone will succeed because they offer brilliant touch interfaces that are yet to be unduplicated on a larger scale. And once these technologies move to that grander setting, the potential seems limitless.
Conclusion: That’s all, folks!
My stated goal when beginning this series was to show that Apple and Nintendo’s popularity is linked to important similarities between the two companies. From their recent lows to their current highs to their future innovations, I see many correlations between these transcontinental tech pioneers. So, the next time you’ve got your iPhone in your front pocket and your DS lite in your bag, stop to think for a second why you’re such a slave to these shiny tech gods. In the end, you may realize that Apple and Nintendo got their hooks in you through the same opening.