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 (NYSE: WFR) -- institutionalized third-party financing. Lots of companies have followed suit.

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 (Nasdaq: SPWRA) has the black background module to match its technological improvements in back-contact grids, along with the highest power-module efficiency. Some thin-film PVs are better than others at being monolithic black and not fading over time, but these aren't great design features. Flexible thin-film amorphous silicon such as that from UniSolar can be seen as looking different from glass-based PV modules with aluminum frames and structures, but possibly because of lower efficiencies it hasn't created a robust market. Design features will someday separate specific companies within the solar industry, but that hasn't happened yet.

First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) just announced the purchase of the tracking company RayTracker, a company originating out of Energy Innovations (founded in 2000 by Bill Gross) and IdeaLab. Trackers is where the most appealing designs have been proposed in the past. If you have the time and are interested, check out some of the historical patents on solar trackers. Some wild concepts came out of the funnest bunch of innovative thinkers in the '80s and '90s, mostly because at the time the thought was that if you build the best sun tracker, the world will reward you. RayTracker has now been rewarded for the many years of incremental improvements in its technology and the execution of its business plan.

There are a few companies that have tried to package solar systems into compelling designs. Akeena Solar (Nasdaq: WEST) has complete systems solutions with some installation labor savings but no real unique design features. Other companies, such as Applied Solar (formerly Open Energy) and Lumeta (owned by DRI), have been integrating PV modules without metal structures directly into roofing for some years. Many solar electric carports are coming to the market, with daily news announcements for larger and larger installations. Envision Solar (OTC BB: EVSI.OB) had one of the first architect-designed solar carports, but these companies have yet to capitalize on design in an Apple way.

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. 

First Solar is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Apple and Ford are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.