It's not magic: How Apple achieves greatness

Apple uses the word "magical" a lot these days. It's enough to make you wonder if Steve Jobs dropped out of Hogwarts. (Tim Cook: Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff? Discuss.)

The most magical item in Apple's endless bag of products is probably the iPad. Even before the tablet hit the shelves, chief operating officer Tim Cook was talking up the "magic of using [the iPad]” at an investors conference. For a time, Apple’s standard boilerplate at the end of each press release described the original iPad as magical.

It’s not just tablets, though—Apple sells products like the Magic Mouse and the Magic Trackpad. With the possible exception of Mr. Clean, no other non-legerdemain-focused company so consistently depicts its products as supernaturally enhanced.

As fond as Apple may be of promoting its products using terms of enchantment, I think it misses the point—and actually sells the company's efforts a bit short. Instead of “magical,” it's more accurate to describe Apple’s products as brilliantly and patiently engineered, with meticulous attention to detail.

What Apple means by magic

Apple thinks this trackpad is so magical, it even put the word ‘Magic’ in its name.
You can see the roots of Apple's attitude toward how it markets its products in its general aversion to heavily marketing tech specs. While an iPad competitor boasts in a TV commercial that "your wife will love the dual-core Tegra 2 chipset," Apple's marketing is different. It's about the experience of using the product, not the hard, extremely technical work that goes into building it.

Apple uses “magic” to describe two core elements of the Apple experience: How it feels to use an Apple product, and how using that product makes us feel about ourselves. Apple—particularly via CEO Steve Jobs—has described the appeal of more than one Apple product or innovation rather succinctly, saying of each: “It just works.” How it works isn't important; a magician never tells how he does his tricks.

Intellectually, we all know and understand that Apple’s technology isn’t really magical. The Magic Trackpad is really The Technologically Advanced Trackpad With The Unique Ability to Discern Multiple Fingers and Recognize Numerous Complicated Gestures. The magical iPad is actually the result of years of both hardware and software engineering.

Apple describes its products as magical because the experience of using them is awesomely rewarding. “It just works” isn’t about ease-of-use: It’s about the wonderful—and wonderfully frequent—”Aha!” moments that characterizes discovery of Apple products’ features.

Mastering tricks with the iPad’s virtual keyboard isn’t magic, but it sure makes you feel wizard-like.

Here’s an example. Over time, you notice that tapping and holding a vowel on your iPad keyboard launches a popover menu with accented variations. You discover it—likely by accident—and remember it’s there, perhaps adding the proper accented character the next time you type the word “cliché.” Days later, when you want to type the ¢ symbol in an email, you think to tap and hold the $ key. It just works. It's like magic.

That experience, like literally hundreds of similar discoveries you make as you use Apple’s products, is magical. You take tremendous pleasure in the realization that things work the way you want or expect them to, and just as importantly, feel well-deserved pride that you figured it out. When you use an Apple product, you experience double-sided victories like these all the time, and the experience ages well. There’s still a small, multifaceted wave of giddy triumph even the 20th time you type that ¢ on your iPad.

My argument here really isn’t a semantic one. I posit that the experience of using Apple’s products is very often personally rewarding in multiple ways, and I’m comfortable describing such technology-infused happiness as magical.

Magic experiences lead to loyalty

Folks who become enamored of Apple’s products are too often described as “fanboys,” victims of Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field.” In truth, there’s no distortion field, and the users of Apple products are not cultists blinded by the sheer power of marketing and the desire to look cool.

The term “fanboy” gets used because once people start using Apple’s products—products built with the company’s intense focus on user experience—they quickly understand the benefit of using those Apple products. Not only are those users far less willing to switch away from Apple in the future, but they’re eager to evangelize Apple products to others. People want to share the experience of using their Macs and iPhones and iPads with everyone; the joy Apple products inspires feels contagious and worth spreading.

So are Apple products magical? Of course they aren't. But the feelings they elicit are.

All that said, I do think that Apple should tone down its use of the word “magical” and just keep focusing on the experience its products offer. When you learn how magic tricks are done (His thumb is fake! The hat has a false bottom! There are two women!), the effect is often disappointing; you've been deceived by a gimmick. That doesn't happen with Apple products; the more you think about the efforts that went into creating them, the more awe-inspiring they become.

Apple’s mastery of design and user interface comes not from luck, but from testing countless iterations, making and reevaluating decision after decision. That’s not magic. It’s hard work, intelligence, and a relentless attention to the user experience. Calling the results of that work “magical” sells the whole process short.

[Lex Friedman is a staff writer for Macworld, and your card is the three of clubs.]

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