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AskTog, April 2010

Mac & the iPad, History Repeats Itself

For those of us around Apple for the launch of the 1984 Mac, things are awfully familiar.

In bringing that original Mac to market, Steve hit on a formula that worked for him. He keeps repeating it, and it seems to get better every time. It worked for the iPhone, and it worked for the iPad, too. Here are the necessary elements.

Small team

The first iteration of any new Apple product brought to market by Steve tends to look, at the onset, somewhat primitive. The iPhone, for example, was lacking such basics as cut-and-paste, the ability to search for a contact, and sported only a tiny handful of apps with none others available. The original Mac, likewise, shipped with a memo maker, a drawing program, and a painting program. Few others existed at launch.

Why so little on launch day? Because the Mac and the iPhone were both created by a tiny group of intensely-focussed young people working in extreme secrecy. The iPad was, too, but in its case, some hundred and sixty thousand apps could be ported from the iPhone, giving it a big head start. Strip away those apps, however, and you would be left with some bright, shiny technology with a handful of apps and some severe limitations, such as lack of support for multitasking or even something as fundamental as printing.

It’s easy to talk about Steve’s paranoia and how that forces him to keep the project small, but, in truth, the secrecy is more of a useful by-product of the way he manages new projects, rather than the central goal. Steve assembles and motivates a small team of young geniuses, then sets them to work for “90 hours a week and loving it.” The results are highly-integrated designs that far outpace the competition.

It is this small-team approach that, of necessity, results in important capabilities being left out of the first release. The payoff, though, is that Steve ends up with a central core of perfectly-integrated functionality instead of a rambling labyrinth of disjointed “features.” This design framework is so well conceived that it can be built upon for years, even decades, without being stripped out and restarted. Compare that with the history of Windows, with false start after false start, resulting in their repeatedly beginning design anew.

In stage 2, the second-release software, a much larger team builds upon those central capabilities without losing the tight integration originally achieved. That was true with the Mac in 1985, it was true with the iPhone 3G and iPhone software 2.0, and it will be true with next year’s iPad and especially this year’s 4.0 software.

Of course, secrecy does matter: As Steve learned with the release of the first Mac, “event marketing” is a powerful force. The carefully-planned generation of excitement surrounding each first release results in tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars of free advertising.

Fearless Leader

Probably the strongest character trait of Steve Jobs is his absolute lack of fear. While every other CEO in America, it seems, shakes in his boots at the very thought of not having a good next quarter, my experience in knowing Steve Jobs is that, frankly, he could care less about the next quarter. He’s much more focused on the next five years, rather than the next 90 days. But even more than that, it is his quest to change the world, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that end even if he risks failure in the process.

Every Apple employee, from the CEO on down, knew we were literally “betting the company” with the Mac. Both the Xerox Star and Apple Lisa, the first two attempts to commercialize the GUI interface, were failing in the marketplace, but Steve was so convinced that this new graphical user interface was the future, that he—and Apple—just flew ahead, in the full knowledge that he might be steering the plane right for a mountain.

The Mac has never been the runaway success it could have been due to a combination of subsequent abysmal marketing and the belief, on the part of Apple’s management once Steve left, that the Mac interface was now perfect and complete. (They watched, amused, as Microsoft crashed and burned, crashed and burned, until Microsoft, more than a decade later, finally figured out how to copy the Mac and swiftly pulled ahead in sales and even, in some areas, technology.)

The lessons of the Mac were not lost on Steve, and he pushes second and third generation products with all the fervor with which he pushes the first.

Today, Apple is a big enough company that it could absorb a failure with no danger of collapse, but Steve still bets heavily, and he doesn’t do so in order to swell the coffers in the next 90 days, but in the next decade or two.

Steve’s Razor

Steve, for such an uncommon individual, has a keenly accurate sense of what will appeal to the common person. His young geniuses pile up huge slabs of interesting ideas, and he carves away at those ideas, relentlessly, until all that is left is a perfectly-formed, extensible core.

His harsh treatment of both the ideas of, as well as the people of, the original Mac team led them to buy Steve a special red rubber stamp that said, “THIS IS S___!” so he could just stamp each page of their design submissions, instead of having to wear out his hand writing. [Underline substitutions are mine.]

Rumor has it that Steve has been throwing away entire design approaches for the iPad since before the advent of the iPhone. That’s what he does best, and it harkens back to his fearlessness: He’s never been afraid to make those around him utterly miserable if it will eventually result in the “right” product. It results in most of us not wanting to work for Steve Jobs more than once, but it also results in products that most of us want to buy, and buy, and buy. Besides, there’s always a new crop of geniuses ready to bend to Steve’s bidding.

Closed system

The blogs have been filled for three years now with the constant wailing of the technorati complaining bitterly about the iPhone’s, now the iPad’s, closed system.

It’s nothing new.

The Mac now connects to everything, but the first Mac did not. It was designed to always have a fixed amount of memory—128k—with no way of ever expanding it. The core of the OS was in ROM, not RAM. It was Steve’s vision that if you made every single computer with the same exact OS and the same amount of memory, developers would always have a fixed platform for which to develop, making their jobs easier.

Users could forget about plugging in add-ons, too, because there wasn’t anywhere to plug them. The system could not even connect to anything as basic as a hard disk, for example, again “supporting” developers by giving them a single, known quantity for which to develop.

Sound familiar?

Flash & the Arrow Keys

Jobs doesn’t like flash. It has a slow, clumsy, weird interface, and he’s elected to “cripple” his mobile devices to rid the industry of its dependence on it. In the next 90 days, as in the last 90 days, that decision will cost Apple money. Steve doesn’t care, and, if the stockholders do, they can get rid of Steve and go back to the way things were before his reappearance.

He did the same thing with the original Mac, although then, Flash was not the issue. Few will remember, but, when the Mac debuted in 1984, there were no arrow keys on the keyboard. That was a big deal. Almost every application then in existence depended on the arrow keys (then called cursor keys) for navigation. With that one stroke, Steve reduced the number of apps that could be easily ported to the Mac from tens of thousands to zero, ensuring that this new computer would have a long and painful childhood.

Steve’s button mania, which grew from his earlier parts-count mania, was already in full flower, and many have ascribed this crippling omission to some sort of self-destructive obsession. It was not. It was one of several strategies specifically designed to ensure that existing software would not run on this new machine because existing software, in Steve’s eyes, sucked (an opinion I share). The absence of those four keys ensured that any developer who wanted to have software appear on the Mac was going to have to start over and write software that conformed to the Mac interface, not the keyboard-oriented precursors to MS-DOS.

Steve’s fearless crippling of that original Mac saved that computer and saved the graphical user interface.

Childhood's End

I was responsible for putting the arrow keys on the Mac some 18 months after first release. I didn’t do it because I thought Steve’s original decision was wrong. On the contrary, I believed then and I believe now that decision was critically important. Without it, the new machine with its rodentiometer* and unproven interface would have been overrun with great hordes of horrific software, likely preventing the new interface from taking hold.

Rather, I added the cursor keys a year and a half later because the interface had taken hold and was growing vigorously. The Mac’s childhood was over. Not only had the value of the Mac interface been proven, but those few developers that had tried a straight port had been publicly humiliated by the press and had faced immediate financial failure. It was time to open the system up more, particularly to people who are visually impaired, by overlaying a complete keyboard-driven interface onto the primary, mouse-driven interface.

The tide has turned a lot more slowly with Flash. It is only now that HTML5, "the Flash killer," has finally made an appearance. I predict things will look a lot different a year from now. If HTML5 builds out as well as it appears, if more and more systems can alternately serve Flash or HTML5 based on the calling system, HTML5 may, in fairly short order, be universally available to iPhone/iPod/iPad users, and there may be no reason to ever support Flash.

On the other hand, Apple needs to consider opening up their mobile devices more and more as time goes on, just as we opened up the Mac. Either Apple doesn’t have the resources or Steve is unwilling to commit the resources to keeping up with the needs of the users and the competition. Multitasking, for example, is already a year late. So’s a competitive camera. (So, also, is Verizon compatibility, but that’s another subject.)

It goes deeper than that, however. There’s an overall problem at Apple, the same one that dogged the Mac twenty years ago, with keeping up with the users, as well as the competition. Try loading 20,000 photographs in the iPhone’s or iPad’s Photos app and try to find the one you’re looking for. All the keywording you spent dozens of hours entering in iPhoto is stripped off on the photo’s journey to the mobile device. It’s been three years now that serious photographers have been suffering. Where is it?

Steve and Apple keep a laser-like focus on that next sale, ensuring that the first two-weeks’ experience is absolutely perfect, but today’s new, naive user will be tomorrow’s expert. And you know what expert’s do? They tell their friends to buy. They are Apple’s best sales force, and they are not being properly supported.

Yes, continue giving new products the childhood they need to take root and grow, but, as with children, there’s a time to open the products up, still controlling what is important, while allowing the products to reach full bloom. Consider what Apple would be like today had the Mac, indeed, stayed at 128K of memory with no hard disk. The apricot orchards would have long since returned to Cupertino.

Word on the street is that Google has already powered up its copiers, and will be chunking out an iPad clone. Unlike Microsoft in the early days, these guys move fast, and they add real additional value along the way.

Steve already took the first necessary step to opening the mobile environment up when he opened the iPhone to external developers--or at least sort of opened it. More will be required if Apple is not again to end up a niche player in a market they created.

*Early technical term for a mouse.


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