Thursday, February 9, 2012

Silence is golden

As I type this, the internet is abuzz (well, moderately so) over two announcements that Apple may or may not soon be making: the iPad 3 (a pretty good bet for March) and the long-rumored Apple television (which might never be more than vaporware).

It's often been remarked how Apple's strategy differs from Microsoft's in this area. Microsoft announces technical roadmaps well in advance; their commitment to enterprise IT departments require them (or so they believe) to announce their intentions far enough in advance for IT admins to run security tests and develop their upgrade roadmaps. As a result, Microsoft frequently talks about the features of a product before it is fully developed, and the product that ultimately ships is often missing one or more core features included in the original vision.

Apple, on the other hand, don't say nothin' to nobody. Depending on the source, this has been interpreted as either symptomatic of Steve Jobs' maniacal paranoia and control-freakishness, or as part of a masterful advertising strategy. I fall into the latter camp: here we are weeks in advance of an Apple event that hasn't even been announced yet, and we're already seeing articles every day in the technical press talking about what they might or might not talk about. Apple's ads are masterful, but they receive untold benefit from the advertising that is handed to them by reporters and bloggers who can't help but talk about what might be coming next.

All well and good, but I believe there is more to it than that. Researchers have long known that humans experience gains and loss differently. You will be pleased if I come to your house and give you $10 for no reason, but you will be much more displeased if, instead, I steal $10 from your wallet. Even more, if I give you $10 and then suddenly take $5 back, you may well experience the loss of those $5 more acutely than you experienced the $10 gain. That's why investors hold onto stocks that are in the toilet and why it's so hard to accept that the used car you bought is a lemon: because dumping that stock, or giving up on the car, would require you to accept a loss, and we humans really, really hate to experience a loss.

So with that in mind, consider Microsoft's strategy. They come out in a tech event and announce an amazing new product, with 10 exciting features. One year later the product that ships contains five of those features, and two don't work nearly as well as you hoped. Are you going to be happy about the three good features that you got? Maybe, but not nearly enough to compensate for the seven features that you "lost."

Meanwhile, Apple says nothing until they have a polished product, where all three features work like a dream. There's no loss, because they never promised us anything in the first place; all we experience is gain. If you ever find yourself wondering why Apple products are so well-received by the marketplace, consider human psychology, and how Apple has managed to erase loss from the equation.