Default vs. Optional – Why Apple Does It Right

 

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One of the biggest challenges to the widespread adoption of SSDs is making the argument to the average price-conscious consumer that the performance benefits are worth the extra money. In most cases, the default option for a typical PC laptop or desktop is a traditional spinning hard drive with lots of storage for the money. The option is often included for an SSD as an upgrade, but aside from the ambiguous description “faster” to indicate the significant performance delta, there is little to justify the upgrade for the average consumer.

Why is this the case? Because consumers of electronics and computers have been acclimated to comparing numbers as a way to decide if an upgrade is worth the extra money. The 3.7GHz CPU can be numerically compared to a 2.4GHz CPU. One is clearly 1.3GHz faster than the other (it’s more complicated than that, of course, but the gist of the comparison is generally correct). And 8GB of RAM is double the 4GB default option. And a 750GB hard drive stores 3x the amount that a 250GB hard drive can store.

But when it comes to comparing an SSD to a traditional HDD, the comparison is much harder to quantify (accurately) in a simple number-to-number comparison. Especially because SSD capacities are often a fraction of that of the available HDD capacities. Why would a consumer pony-up an extra $100 for a 128GB SSD when the HDD option has 500GB already. Doesn’t sound like a worthwhile investment just because the description says “faster.”

The problem is further compounded by the order of magnitude improvement on random read and write speeds of an SSD vs. an HDD. When using a computer operating system, the vast majority of normal operation tasks involve random reads and writes of small files. Only certain tasks – such as copying over large, contiguous files such as movies or disk images / ISO files – make use of sequential reads and writes. But trying to quickly and effectively communicate 4 different performance metrics, the concept of an “order of magnitude,” the performance per $ per GB, and the subjective “snappiness” of using an SSD to a consumer in a short blurb for an upgrade option . . . is an impossible challenge.

So, how would one overcome this educational challenge and open the floodgates for consumers to adopt these revolutionary devices that transform the experience of using a computer? Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with educating consumers about those advantages, even significant as they may be.

WHAT?

Yes, that’s right. The solution to SSD adoption has nothing to do with consumer education, despite the fact that a good chunk of the impetous for this very blog stems from my desire to educate and evangelize SSDs. Ironic, huh?

The solution, or more accurately, a solution to this quandary is to take the upgrade rationalization decision out of the picture entirely. The foremost example, and in many respects the champion of SSDs and flash storage, is Apple.

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Does this mean that there is some mystical, magical, or revolutionary “secret sauce” to Apple’s implementation of SSDs across their various product lines? Well, not in the sense that their SSDs are materially much different than anyone else’s. (Granted, their use of a proprietary PCIe SSD form factor hasn’t done much to push SSD adoption in anything other than Apple products themselves.) But the sheer ubiquity of flash storage in Apple computers is incredibly critical to their widespread adoption among consumers of Apple products. SSDs are the default, not the upgrade.

Here’s a list of Macs that come with flash storage as the default (and in fact only) option:

  • MacBook Air (11″ and 13″)
  • MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13″ and 15″)
  • Mac Pro (new version arriving late 2013)

Not a huge list, is it? And at first glance, goes against the grain of my argument by suggesting that Apple doesn’t take SSDs seriously as the default option. But Apple recently introduced a fantastically consumer-centric justification for jumping on the flash bandwagon: Fusion Drive. I won’t delve into the nitty gritty details of the technology itself now, but you can read up on it here and here. It seamlessly bridges the gap between the performance benefits of SSDs and the storage / price benefits of traditional hard drives. There’s no longer a need for a consumer to weigh the pros and cons of SSDs and HDDs together (a complicated and nuanced decision, depending on what you’re looking for). They get most of the performance boost of an SSD without losing the storage capacity and

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With the advent of Fusion Drive, the list expands:

  • Default & only option:
    • MacBook Air (11″ and 13″)
    • MacBook Pro with Retina Display (13″ and 15″)
    • Mac Pro (new version arriving late 2013)
  • Fusion Drive upgrade:
    • Mac Mini
    • iMac (21″ and 27″)

This leaves only the “classic” non-retina display models of the MacBook Pro and the soon-to-be-obsolete giant Mac Pro as the only non-flash computers that Apple sells. (Both of which are on their way out.) Granted, Apple isn’t making flash the only option across the board, but the omnipresence of flash storage (either as the default option or the consumer-friendly Fusion Drive upgrade) makes Apple the front-runner in SSD adoption among the big computer manufacturers.

So here’s the real focus for this argument on Apple “doing it right” in terms of flash storage. It isn’t that they offer flash-only models, because other manufacturers do as well. And it isn’t that they have a lot of upgrade options for flash storage, because other manufacturers also do as well. It’s the fact that the preferred and ideal use case, according to Apple, is flash storage.

In typical Apple fashion, they don’t wait for the consumer to figure out that flash storage is what they really want. They don’t spend a lot of time educating consumers about the merits of SSDs either (outside of some very ambiguous performance comparisons for PR and keynote purposes). They recognize that one of the biggest bottlenecks to system performance in modern computers is the sluggish hard drive, and made the decision that performance and the quality of the product they produce should not be held back by cost per GB comparisons that aren’t by any means apples-to-apples (no pun intended).

Now, before I incite the rage of Apple haters, let me be clear: there are some downsides to Apple’s “we know better approach” that substitutes tech oracles like Steve Jobs (and lucky guesses) for existing market demand. As successful as Apple has been so far, there’s no immutable law of inertial success that means they will continue to do so well by bucking the Microsoftian method of focus groups and user experience surveys. (And there’s probably a no-so-insignificant component to Apple fans’ claims of superior experiences using Apple computers being attributable to the performance gains achieved by using SSDs.)

But when it comes to SSDs and the widespread adoption of flash storage, sometimes you have to lead the consumer to what they want, rather than follow them there.

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