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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT