Have you noticed the corporate pitches that compare their products to iPhones or iPads to try to force the feeling that they are "like Apple"? Bill Ford just pitched the Ford electric car in this manner. If Apple is the gold standard, the question becomes: What solar company is closest to being just like Apple? I think the answer is none, at least not yet.
The Apple model
Apple has a design culture that attracts design professionals to their product. It also has a completely vertically integrated product, where its case, graphical user interface (GUI), input devices, high-resolution screen and system packaging are all designed around the Apple culture. It has its own proprietary operating system and a steady stream of income from content sales off iTunes.
An analogy to some of Apple's business strategy might be solar-industry business plans. However, these are innovations that typically are not unique or proprietary. An example is when SunEdison -- now owned by MEMC
Solar companies today
Grid-tied photovoltaics (PV) aspires to be a "set-it-and-forget-it" kind of product, not needing the interaction of a GUI and operating system. Smart-grid integration could enable PV to have more of an operating-system value proposition, but that hasn't happened yet.
As far as design, I don't think there is a company that comes to the solar professional's mind when considering who is first-in-class with design. SunPower
There are a few companies that have tried to package solar systems into compelling designs. Akeena Solar
Solar companies tomorrow: Purpose Solar
The future of solar has the potential for design and operating systems to be combined in an Apple way. I call it Purpose Solar, where the solar system provides a needed service such as clean drinking water (direct-current PV-powered reverse osmosis), water pumping, air-conditioning/refrigeration, street lighting, and so on. These have traditionally been called off-grid applications, not in the limelight of our industry's alternating-current grid-connected focus. But at a consistent $90 a barrel for oil, and the lower cost of PV modules, off-grid is the place where PV will be taking a larger and larger portion of the world's energy pie. As the world realizes that an $80 barrel of oil is history, diesel generators currently used for off-grid applications will be replaced by an off-grid PV system.
There are companies currently providing Purpose Solar systems, such as the PV-power drinking-water purification systems from World Water & Solar Technologies (privately held) and SwissINSO Holding (OTC BB: SWHN.OB), which recently announced a healthy Malaysian sales contract and distribution agreement.
Purpose Solar will be valued by the gallons of drinking water produced, the air-conditioning comfort levels, the pounds of ice, and the security from lighting, not by kilowatts and kilowatt hours. Designs, operating systems, and GUIs can be combined, branded, and marketed for solar-driven "Purpose Solar" solutions. And that's where finally a solar company can be "like Apple."
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Joseph McCabe is a solar-industry veteran with more than 20 years in the business. He is an American Solar Energy Society Fellow and a professional engineer and is internationally recognized as an expert in thin-film PV, BIPV, and photovoltaic/thermal solar-industry activities. Joe can be reached at energy [no space] ideas at gmail dotcom.