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Dare To Be Different

This is all very nice for Apple and TomTom, but not so nice for those who compete against those brands. Not only do they have to convince the buying public that they really do want a navigation system or a portable music player, they also have to convince the same people that they don’t want that oh-so-aspirational iPod or TomTom.

A thorny question for such companies is how far they mimic the success of their rivals. There are plenty of small capacity flash based MP3 players that look rather like iPods: as long as no laws are broken, riding the wave of a competitor’s success is perfectly legitimate.

It is true that not every company wants to be a wannabe, and differentiation is also very important. Just because the people with cash to spend like the brand leaders today doesn’t mean they’ll still be liked tomorrow. The door is always open for someone to come along with an even more aspirational product, or offer an even more intuitive take on a standard idea.

But what interests me the most is not those products that throw everything out of the window and try to be completely different from what’s gone before, but those which take what they know has been successful and try to add their own edge to it. In this I am interested in the majority of products – very few items truly form a new product category, and most of those which claim to can be tracked back to one or more very recognisable ancestor(s).

Sony’s original tape Walkman, itself the grandparent of the iPod grew out of larger portable players; in-vehicle navigation systems have as their recent antecedents PC dependent software. Backtrack far enough and you end up looking for the first written music, the first drawn maps.

Track forward from these starting points and the logical progression to today’s products, bringing developments in technology into the mix as required, can turn up some interesting blind alleys. One example is Sony’s MiniDisc (I bought into that one) (a great technolgy, popularised too late... ed). It’ll also reveal moments of sheer inspiration like the development of London’s A to Z, the first in the world. Once in existence these innovations often meet an obvious need either previously expressed or suddenly ‘discovered’ with the help of some clever marketing.

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