Okt 082011

Much is being written these days about Steve Jobs. Rightfully so – what he has done and achieved is just incredible. Indeed, he did change the world.

Here are a few of my observations of things that make Apple so unique and successful.

The important 80%

The Pareto principle tells us that 80% of a product’s features can be achieved with 20% of the effort. The remaining 20% of features taking the product to what is considered its completion however eat up 80% of the efforts. What does Apple do about this?

One secret of Apple products is that they often have less features than competing products. However, those features are made to perfection. No 3G in the original iPhone? No problem, the browsing experience was still way better than with other phones. No MMS until the 3GS? Who cares if you have easy to use email.

Most other tech companies have a different approach. Many of them still seem to see competition in the number of features. Their products do a lot, but maybe nothing really well. Another example is Google, who follow a kind of agile approach with pushing out new products early on as Betas. However, they take it differently – often the features themselves are only 80% complete. As a user I find this annoying – I stopped using Google Contacts long ago when I saw the syncing of groups messing up my data, and I gave up on trying to sync Google calendars with Outlook. Missing features are not as bad as poorly working ones. Once they may complete the functions they’ve already lost me as a customer.

So this is about the important 80%: Do less, but do it right.

The power of saying No

Steve Jobs had the guts to take decisions as to what a product will support and what not. In contrast, many other projects and organizations suffer in fact from weak leadership in the sense that there is nobody ready to say “No, we not gonna do that!”. Too big seems the fear that somebody could object or be blamed afterwards that it is not even tried. The result is a lack of priorities and eventually mediocre outcomes – the people in the organization will struggle trying to achieve just too many different things and goals. To produce really outstanding results, an organization needs an agreement on what the common priorities are. If this is left unclarified, productivity is lost in accomodating too many different needs. The creative team at Apple has few, but very clear priorities. I am writing this on one of their results.

A Vision – concrete and consistent

Over the years the vision that Steve Jobs apparently had in mind only slowly evolved to outsiders. iTunes started as a store for digital music. Ok, video content may have been a logical add-on later. But it was further extended with podcasts, books and apps, incl. now even the operating system. This content providing started for the iPod, continued with the iPhone and now covers the whole product range.

What evolved there is based on a wonderful consistent and concrete underyling Vision. I don’t mean that all this was planned and defined in detail already 10 years ago. But clearly there are some pretty concrete concepts that remained steady over time: content, devices and software to consume the content, and on top the experience for the user. This consistent approach is finally the reason why Apple left behind its competitors, most of them too long thinking only in devices. Only Google is kind of able to follow – but after all only immitating, not innovating.

Many, if not all organizations claim to have a vision. But how concrete is it? Goals like “We want to sell the most devices in category xyz” or may be even “We want to build the best products” is ok for a start, but it’s too high level. In order to make the creative teams on the working level productive, they need an idea what their outcomes are supposed to be like. This is not only about product development, this is just as well true for any software developing team within a company.

I’m sure these are not all secrets of Apple. Isaacon’s upcoming biography of Steve Jobs will certainly provide more insights for those thinking different.