Skip to main content

Apple's secret weapon

By John Brownlee, Special to CNN
June 13, 2012 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
Attendees of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference wait outside the Moscone Center in San Francisco on Monday.
Attendees of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference wait outside the Moscone Center in San Francisco on Monday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Brownlee: Unveiling of a new MacBook is another sign of Apple's competitive advantage
  • He says Apple does more than innovate; it controls supply chain and freezes out competitors
  • Apple's products can then be sold at extraordinarily high profit margins, he says
  • Brownlee: Apple has a virtual "time machine" with which it's able to stay years ahead

Editor's note: John Brownlee is Cult of Mac's deputy editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat and Gizmodo. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- It's hard to believe, but there was a time when Apple's computers were accused of being strictly last generation.

Their computers were made with clunky Power PC processors, and Windows PC owners smirked at the wheezing Mac platform. Michael Dell even famously said the whole company was so behind the times that if it were up to him, he'd euthanize it.

How things change.

While the rest of the industry was counting Apple out, a Steve Jobs newly returned to Apple spent the early part of the last decade quietly assembling a time machine. Following the iPad, iPhone and MacBook Air before it, the retina-display MacBook Pro announced Monday at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco is just the latest time traveler Apple has sent back to us from the future.

John Brownlee
John Brownlee

It's a machine so shiny, so shimmering, so futuristic, so unlike anything else out there that it will take the PC-making competition at least a year to release a truly competing product. How did this even happen? How did Apple assemble its time machine, and why can't the likes of Sony, HP, Dell, Acer and Lenovo seem to catch up?

Apple announces high-res laptops

There's no flux capacitor involved, and although Apple's design team, led by Jony Ive, is truly visionary, there are lots of companies with revolutionary visions of the future of computing. The difference between Apple and other computer makers is that Apple can actually build the revolutionary, magical machines it dreams up.

Apple announces upgrades to laptops
Siri 'crushes it' with comedy routine
Big bite for Apple
Apple's 'thermonuclear war' on Google?

That's Apple's real mojo. They can actualize. Apple can say to themselves that they are going to revolutionize the professional laptop, or the smartphone, or the tablet, and then not only follow through with an enviable purity of design, source all of the parts and manufacture their product in utter secrecy, then ship the resulting en masse and sell them at unheard of profit margins. No one else can.

It's all in Apple's mastery of the supply chain, which is Tim Cook's particular genius. His strategy is simple: When Apple decides to go ahead and make a revolutionary new product, it buys up literally almost all of the world's stock of the components that define the gadget. This not only gives Apple massive discounts in component prices, because they are buying in extreme bulk, but it also prevents the competition from quickly releasing clones of Apple's iconic machines, or matching Apple in price without cutting corners.

It happens time and time again. When Apple first released the iPhone, it took the smartphone industry a year to release a phone that was even competitive, spec-for-spec, by which time Apple had already unveiled the iPhone 3GS.

Hardware manufacturers trying to compete with Apple constantly discover that they can only build competing devices off of Apple's rejected parts, or else build new factories from the ground up to manufacture the parts they need.

Look at the iPad. It has no competition, 2½ years in. Last quarter, Apple sold almost 12 million iPads. Comparatively, Apple's biggest competitor -- Samsung -- sold 1.1 million tablets. Why? Companies simply can't build products as good, or Apple's stranglehold on the manufacturing supply chain prevents them from doing so.

Then there's a MacBook Air. We're starting to see competitive ultrabooks a year and a half after Apple unveiled the second-gen Air, but that's only after Intel reportedly set up a massive $500 million subsidy fund to help PC makers build a MacBook Air clone.

The new retina-display MacBook Pro is another such product. It's a beast of a machine all around, but its defining feature is a high-resolution display with 220 pixels per inch, each smaller than the acuity of the human eye. It's far and away the best display of any notebook or even desktop on the market, and you can bet that Apple is in control of most of the world's supply of the panels necessary to make a machine that even comes close to competing.

There's a famous Ray Bradbury story called "A Sound of Thunder" in which a man travels into the prehistoric past, accidentally squashes an insect underfoot and thus indelibly changes the future forever. Apple is that time traveler. The prehistoric insect is the competition. Apple crushes it underfoot with calculated purpose, and that is how the future of computing is once again forever changed.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Brownlee.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT