SHIFT: Why the iPhone ruled 2007 (and the new iPods didn't)

Can you imagine a world before the iPhone? It's difficult, isn't it? But there was a time earlier in the year when instead of reviewing the iPhone, we were making predictions about it. In April I wrote a column titled Why the iPhone will succeed, at any price. I argued that while other cellphone companies have some great products, they also flood the market with mediocre ones. I wrote that niche products don't capture the public imagination, and that when it comes to selling products, diversity is overrated: "What about the concern that consumers don't want to be sitting on the subway next to someone with the same gadget? Well, the iPod blew that notion away." I advised future Apple rivals like Motorola: "stop diluting your best models with 20-plus other mediocre models."

Motorola never sent me a thank you note. On the other hand, you don't need me to tell you that Apple's minimalist strategy played out well in 2007: the company sold one million iPhones during the product's first 74 days on the market. When will other companies start offering fewer, better products? My observations and wishes for 2008 after the jump.

Choice Is Bad 1: Leopard vs. Vista
The iPhone succeeded in part for the reason I mentioned — in a sea of Palms, BlackBerrys, and HTCs, the iPhone is an excellent option that cuts through the confusing variety that can make consumers second-guess their decisions. There's only one iPhone. It costs $399. You'll get 8 GB of memory, no more, no less. One color, one size.

Apple fully understands its lead in this respect within the tech industry: just watch this brutal Choose a Vista Mac ad. It's hard to understand Microsoft's logic for introducing six versions of Vista, making everyone except the Ultimate users feel left out. At the same time, Ultimate purchasers hold a sneaking suspicion that they didn't actually get a lot more for their money. Leopard may not be a better operating system than Vista. Both systems are young and still ironing out kinks. But Leopard certainly is easier to choose. Because Apple just offers one system you don't have to worry about a customer service rep. saying, "Oh, well that's because you bought the wrong version."

Choice Is Bad 2: The Amazon Kindle
Amazon's recent Kindle launch is notable because it's a great example of a company offering one product where it could have introduced six. Amazon is trying to do for digital readers what the iPod did for digital music players. It hasn't started with the most attractive product, but it did just start with one product: the definitive Kindle that is supposed to have enough memory, Internet access, speed, and readability for any and every customer. It would have been easy for Amazon to introduce many Kindles — more memory, less memory, EV-DO, no EV-DO, blog capable, book only, etc. But as it is you can buy an Amazon Kindle in whatever color you want, as long as it's white. Has the strategy worked for Amazon's first gadget? It's too early to say. In the meantime, if you want one, get in line.

Choice Is Bad 3: Too Many iPods?
In April I spoke about how Apple was the paragon of simplicity. The company still offers just a few computers, but the number if iPods on the market has multiplied over the years from two to many. Even if I don't count different colors, there are seven iPod choices costing $79, $149, $199, $249, $299, $349, and $399. That's more iPods than there are editions of Windows Vista. If you include all of the color choices as well, we're looking at seventeen different iPods, compared to one $399 iPhone.

One might argue that, with its seventeen iPods, Apple has never been healthier; after all, its stock broke the $200 mark for the first time yesterday. But I smell iPod fatigue on the horizon. Plus, the 6G iPod Classic has gotten some seriously bad reviews — is the iPod team spread too thin?

Apple should be careful if it wants to continue to seem like it's "thinking different" from other tech companies. Feature creep is a known issue: Apple needs to watch out for variety creep.

My New Year's Resolution for Tech Companies: Slim Down
While others dream of Roombas that put your clothes away, I have simpler hopes for 2008. My wish for the New Year is for some of the great tech companies out there to slim down their product lines and surprise me instead with one great thing. I want to see a camera company with just one point and shoot — an excellent but affordable one that the company will stand by as the one to get. And I need a new PC notebook. HP: why are you selling a million different models? Are people's needs really so diverse? How about one solid product at several price points? I like Apple, but I'm not ready for it to swallow every market whole. Rivals, please repeat after me: quality, not quantity.