Will Best Buy Out-Innovate Apple?

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It popped into my head right during the middle of the recent MacBook introduction in Cupertino. A thought that could cause the Apple faithful to burn me at the stake. And here it is: "Hey, Apple is copying Best Buy."

If you haven't heard, Best Buy recently announced its Blue Label program, in which it gathers feedback from customers and uses it to work with its partners to design better products. Kind of like Dell's IdeaStorm initiative, except it's not out in the open for competitors to steal the best ideas. We're talking about a much grander scale here, from a company that has a ton of influence on what the vast majority of consumers wind up purchasing.

About a month ago, Toshiba showed us its new Satellite E105. Many have commented that the E105's shape is reminiscent of the now old-school MacBook Pro. But what I found most interesting are those features that Best Buy worked with Toshiba to integrate. Generally, Best Buy customers said they wanted a few things first and foremost in a new laptop: a thinner and lighter design than the typical mainstream machine, longer battery life, and a backlit keyboard.

And that's exactly what buyers get with the 14-inch E105, which weighs less than 5 pounds (just like the new MacBook), lasts a long time on a charge (5.5 hours claimed versus 4:45 on our MacBook), and sports a backlit keyboard (just like the higher-end $1,599 version of the MacBook). It also boasts some features we wish the MacBook had, like an HDMI port and a 5-in-1 memory card reader. Price for the E105? A reasonable $1,199, $100 less than the starting price for the MacBook.

Granted, the E105's design doesn't wow like the MacBook's—there's a difference between a "brushed metal body" and Apple's striking unibody aluminum chassis—and the E105 is chock-full of buttons while the MacBook is minimalist-chic. The point is that Best Buy brought a number of the MacBook's most compelling virtues to market in a more timely fashion, and over time the big box retailer could overtake Apple's innovation across several product categories. Assuming its partners can execute our best ideas.

Think about it. Let's say that the Blue Label program eventually covers not only notebooks but TVs, set-top boxes, MP3 players, and cell phones. Its certainly plausible that Best Buy could become not just the premier purveyor of consumer electronics but also the ultimate innovator, filtering feedback from customers directly to Apple's biggest competitors and collaborating with them to give Joe Six-Pack exactly what he wants from his next gadget.

The other first Blue Label laptop from HP, the Pavilion dv3500 series, doesn't seem to be as much the result of a deep collaboration with Best Buy as it is HP being handed a wish list of features it agreed to implement. We look forward to reviewing that notebook, too, but I'm more interested to see the next wave of Blue Label products that are built from the ground up in collaboration with the Blue shirts.

Of course, there is a risk here that Best Buy could keep the best ideas for itself for the products it sells under its own Insignia brand. Take Best Buy's latest personal navigators, which went on sale yesterday, the 4.3-inch Insignia NS-CNV20 ($499) and the 3.5-inch Insignia NS-CNV10 ($399). These devices offer baked-in cellular modems for real-time traffic updates and local Google searches. I'm not making any accusations here, but I find it interesting that Dash Navigation has had very little luck getting its innovative GPRS-enabled, Yahoo-searching navigator on Best Buy's shelves.

In the grand scheme of things, it's really in Best Buy's interest to work with and not against the big boys in PCs and consumer electronics. And if anything, I see the Blue Label program accelerating in the coming months; the Insignia brand simply doesn't have enough pull beyond a few markets with very low profit margins.

Should Apple be worried? Not in the short term. The company not only has some of the most innovative minds among its ranks, its customer base is also among the most vocal and passionate. Long-term, however, Best Buy's crowd-sourcing effort could very well give rise to that "One More Thing" from an HP, Sony, Samsung, or Toshiba that even Apple fans will covet.

Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief on
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13 comments
  • Bruce Says:

    Umm, Apple does not solicit customer feedback? You don't think they don't survey customers; have customer councils; run focus groups, etc.? Somehow they create great ads but their marketing brains turn off about customer feedback?

    Frankly, ditto Toshiba, Dell, etc.. -- They aren't proactively talking to customers?

    And customers can supply ideas of what they want but they don't design innovative new products. E.g. "I hate the little keys on cell phones" -- that doesn't lead to the IPhone, it takes some talent to do that.

  • Netbookie Says:

    I disagree on card readers. Who wants to carry a USB cable around everywhere? If wireless USB comes to Macs and cameras then I think Reality Check will be right.

  • tentpole Says:

    I think Mr. Spoonauer has confused Innovation with customer service. While it's great that Best Buy is working with their suppliers to give the customers a better product, it's not really innovative. Innovative is when you get something you didn't even know you wanted, until someone else showed it to you. I didn't know I wanted an MP3 player until Apple came out with the iPod. I had no idea a phone could be so useful until I saw an iPhone. I had no idea that I would want to shoot short videos any time, any where until I got a Flip Video camera.

    Innovation is giving folks what they want before they want it. Best Buy is just doing customer service, granted at a higher level than most shops, but it's still not innovation.

  • flypod Says:

    A retailer.... innovating? Really? Are you being serious?

  • Reality Check Says:

    Yeah and I can buy a Yugo that has an engine, 4 wheel hydraulic brakes, a radio and more for only $3000 brand new, oh wait they stopped selling these in the states because they were crapware! Guess what - quality has a price. A feature list isn't everything Mr. Spoonauer.

    Built in card readers in a computer are a stupid idea, a great sign that the designer has a serious lack of skillz.

  • Doug Marshall Says:

    I think Mr. Spoonauer is missing the point here. Unless Best Buy can design a state of the art OS, like Leopard, then Apple users are not going to covet any hardware that forces them to use Windoze. Apple makes decent hardware, but their genius is software design. It's the reason all the iPhone clones are not iPhones. No MacApps. A more prescient prediction is that Best Buy will soon be going the way of Circuit City...

  • Steve Says:

    Bwahahahahaha! You're kidding, right? Best Buy out-innovating Apple? That's the most ludicrous question I've heard in a long time.

  • Doug Petrosky Says:

    Is it really slightly ahead or somewhat behind? I mean seriously, it sounds like the people asked best buy to make laptops more like Apple does but at lower prices. The macbook pro has always been thin light, backlit and had good battery life. The macbook air got everyone thinking even more that direction. The real question here is would we have asked for those things if Apple hadn't already put them into our minds? The fact that apple continues down those lines and one up's it's self regularly is what makes their products great!

    What do you bet that next year best buy will tell toshiba to increase the size of the trackpad and allow for more finger commands through it, and maybe that they want their products to be greener and more sturdy. Maybe they will even ask for a latch less opening system? This is a stupid article! IMHO.

  • brockway Says:

    I really don't see responding to customer feedback as being innovative.

  • Mark Spoonauer Says:

    Note that the title of this article is in the future tense. The premise is that today Best Buy is delivering exactly what its customers are asking for (in this case only slightly ahead of Apple) but the more feedback it gets the more it could possibly anticipate what the public might want in a gadget. The key will be for the retailer to pick out not only what the majority wants but is able to tune into that one or two brilliant ideas that will wow or surprise, as Auramac mentions.

  • Cam Cornhole Says:

    Welcome to nineteenth century thinking!

  • scott Says:

    the article's title implies that best buy will "out-innovate" apple. what in this toshiba laptop that you describe is innovative, exactly? backlit keyboard? this has been done. card reader? been there too. lighter and longer battery life? i don't know how innovative those are in the grand scheme of the laptop user experience...

    what innovations is best buy bringing to the computing experience, please?

  • auramac Says:

    The genius of Apple and why every product launch is so highly anticipated is not necessarily because we'll get what we want- it's the surprises that wow us and finding out that we want something we hadn't ever known or thought about.

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