This article is a comment on a recent Slate article published by Mr. Will Oremus, “Bad Apple – The company’s ugly, underpowered new iPhone battery case is a sign of trouble in Cupertino.”
In the concluding paragraph, I’m not sure where Mr. Oremus gets his info that “What Apple used to understand is that you can’t have it both ways. You can build one legendary product, or a wide range of mostly pretty good ones.” Did that come from his own experience? Or did someone tell him? Because if he were deeply experienced with Apple products I don’t think he would have quite that perspective.
Here are two thoughts to consider:
1. Apple has a long and deep history of creating and/or marketing products that “wet the whistle.” Products such as ClarisWorks (which they purchased because it satisfied this philosophy, and later rebranded as AppleWorks), iWork (featuring Numbers, Pages and Keynote), Calendar, Mail, Contacts, etc. There are more of these than you can shake a stick at. All of these products were designed to offer great, intuitive functionality, but by no means were any striving to be full-featured and robust applications in their respective product areas. Apple learned early on that they needed the buzz and interaction of the developer community working hand in hand with them, in order to survive and, later, to thrive in the marketplace. There were numerous occasions in which they overstepped their bounds and released products that “went too far,” pissing off the developer or ancillary product community, and they took the lesson to heart and backed away. Apple printers were one such product.
That was mostly the Apple of old. That was the company that knew how to make legendary products, but well understood that even legendary products could not survive in a vacuum, that they needed the symbiotic relationships with other key players (Microsoft, HP, Intel, Adobe) in order to retain their relevance. I would never think to blame Apple for its decision to leave fruit on the vine for other developers – sometimes even low-hanging fruit. This, in my view, was entirely intentional.
Which brings us to…
2. The world is different after the release of the iPhone than it was before the iPhone. First and foremost, what happened when the iPhone was released was that Apple became a phone provider. That’s obvious. But what’s not so immediately obvious is that that world does not tolerate – or foster – the guarded, heavily engineered, quality-first approach to design and development that had led Apple for so long. It changed almost overnight. In order for Apple to play on this new field, it had to play by the new rules. Those rules were perhaps best spelled out by Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, in what to me is one of the most destructive statements ever fostered by a for-some-reason respected business leader:
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
This single statement best epitomizes the new world that Apple had gotten itself into, and it forever and perhaps irreversibly forced them to lower their standards in order to stay in the game. It had to be a wrenching change for Apple to make, and in particular for Steve Jobs to make. He knew, I’m sure, the path he was being led down, and probably did not see a way out of it. It had become an inescapable truth that “the public” was now his customer, and that customer had long been accustomed to buying a book for its cover, and were all too willing to judge on promise more than on delivery. If the product didn’t deliver, you could conduct surveys and post apologies on social media and use crowd sourcing to determine the hot buttons you needed to address in the next release of the product.
None of this is the way Apple used to do things, and the change came about due to factors external to Apple. Apple is very big, but the world is bigger. As people become more and more intellectually lazy (which argument has been made by others better than I could try to make it here), they see less and less the pathways that result from the choices they make today. There’s always this underlying expectation that it almost doesn’t matter what we put out right now, which path we take today; it can always be fixed tomorrow. This seems true whether we’re talking about smart phones, computers, or political candidates.
To the old guard which I represent, it’s a hard turn to take. To those of us who grew up trying to get things right before putting them out there, this notion of throwing everything at the wall and seeing if it sticks is anathema.