Polished Apple • 9 April 2010 • The SnowBlog
I want to say something about iPhones, but before you start thinking that this is a technology blog, I'm only bringing it up to talk about corporate attitudes rather than about bits and bytes. The more I look at what Apple are doing at the moment, the more it seems like they're working hard to take over the world. And I don't mean that in a bad way. They really seem like they're trying hard and doing a more grown-up job of joining the dots than any of their competitors.
Apple have just announced a new update to the iPhone's operating system. OS updates sound like dull things, but in these days of clever software, changing the OS changes the phone. 90% of the things that made the iPhone revolutionary are in the software. If the iPhone had merely been a phone - a piece of hardware - and it had run, say, Microsoft's mobile phone OS, no one would even remember it by now. And the thing is, the OS update Apple have just announced contains a lot of features that people were half-expecting to see three years ago when the phone first came out. But Apple weren't ready then. They knew if they added those features in the wrong way, it would compromise the phone's appeal and usefulness, so they waited. They looked at how everyone else did it and what worked. They looked at what sorts of features actually conferred useful benefits and which were just marketing glitter. They looked at the privacy and security considerations and three years down the line they came up with their own approach. And now, to recycle a cliche, the best will be even better. And my point is, I don't think I've ever worked in a big company that would be capable of acting that way with that level of both perfectionism and restraint. But that's what you need if you want take over the world. Perhaps my experiences aren't all that representative, but I've been part of a few corporate teams developing new products or processes or 'channels'. And in every single case, they sounded more like a pilot for a satirical sit-com than a basis for successful innovation. The person in charge would have been selected as part of their career grooming, or because no one good was available. Important projects need managers senior enough to push through what needs doing - often chosen regardless of relevant expertise or interest. Other team members from other departments would be selected to avoid ruffling feathers or to help achieve 'buy in' back in their own teams. And very rarely did these projects involve seconding anyone away from their day-jobs: changing the world had to be accomplished on top of a very full day-job. And if the manager was on secondment, it often meant they were being eased out of the business - a period spent working on 'special projects' being a way of separating them from their normal responsibilities while giving them plenty of time to ring round looking for 'opportunities' elsewhere.
I suppose I've been particularly unlucky because clearly not all design teams are like that, otherwise nothing would ever get built, but I struggle to think of any organisation that could match Apple in placing such a premium on technical know-how and then marry it with mature design. Or the will to override marketing considerations by withholding features for years if needs be - but then, when they were ready, putting marketing firmly in the driving seat to produce a product launch the whole computing world would be talking about.
And bewitched as I am by it all, I'm still trying to put my finger on exactly what Apple are doing differently that's allowing them to eat Microsoft's lunch - not to mention Nokia's and HP's and Dell's - more or less at will. Perfectionism is part of it - a very big part. Restraint is another: excelling at something or leaving it to others - not dabbling, not dipping toes in the water, not 'playing catch-up'. Apple don't even seem to be competing with anyone. They plough their own furrow and they do it in a way that ignores everyone's idea of what the rules are - which in effect re-writes them. And I suspect there must be some other 'value' in there which places design ahead of technical capability or marketability. They strive to make their devices beautifully designed to do what they do and everything else is in service to that goal. And by doing so, they can stake out the most profitable part of the market and hold it (so far) against all-comers. They are definitely not perfect, but just at this second in time, I think Apple are a company almost all of us could learn something from.