Apple's Secret IngredientIf you look at what Apple's done over the last few years, there's an almost absurd amount of fresh thinking and major leaps forward. At some points along the timeline, things just seem to magically click together at the right places.
I'm not the only one who's spent some time thinking about how you orchestrate this sort of thing, but every time I tried to reduce it to some formula or strategy, it would just fall apart. There was some major conceptual leap missing.
There are some concrete elements. Apple's good at starting with something simple and gradually building on that base to create something great. You can see that in the hardware, the OS, the apps, the frameworks, even the retail stores. This isn't the whole story, though. If anything, these are just shadows of some more fundamental idea.
Then, by accident, I had a moment of clarity.
I was listening to Steve Jobs's commencement speech at Stanford from last year. In the speech, he describes three events from his life: dropping out of college, being fired from Apple, and facing death.
The message in each of these is tune into your intuition, tune out all the noise from everyone else, and trust that something is pulling you in the right direction. It's not an entirely new idea, but it's put very bluntly.
Apple's biggest successes in the last few years weren't sure things at the start. They were not the first in town to do a music app or a portable music player. When Apple's music products did show up, they were Mac-only for a while.
Mac OS X was so radically different than Mac OS 9 that some thought the whole project was nuts. I mean, who tries to base a consumer computer on Unix? Taking on Avid directly with Final Cut Pro? Switching to Intel? Opening a chain of retail stores? These guys are insane! Somehow, though, all of this paid off.
So what's the secret? Why is Apple zooming along at full speed when others are stuck in the parking lot? I think the key is, simply, fearlessness. Over and over again, they choose something that feels right and they pursue until it either succeeds or is no longer interesting. It's intuition.
I don't think Apple had any idea if selling TV shows on iTunes was going to work, but they didn't seem to worry too much about it. They released a video-capable iPod, some video content, and let things come together.
Fearlessness is what has allowed Apple to ship five major versions of Mac OS X since 2001, countless major versions of desktop apps, and engineer a complete revolution in the music industry.
The iMac had no floppy drive, no ADB, no serial port. If Apple had caved to concerns of what people would think, we might still be using all of these things. For that matter, if Apple gave up entirely ten years ago, most of us would probably be using Windows.
Remember when the industry consensus was that the desktop computer's death was imminent, and was going to be replaced by a series of specialized devices? Instead of being reactive, Apple responded with iLife, which put the computer at the center of all of these devices.
Watching a WWDC feedback session can be pretty interesting case study of all of this. Audience members stand up and talk about what they think is right or wrong about the Mac (usually, what they think is wrong). The Apple employees often answer with "thanks for the feedback," or "it's fixed but not in the version you have," but occasionally, they'll actually stand there tell you why they think the approach they decided on is right.
Even if you disagree with it, you often have to respect the fact that somebody sat down to try to make things better, even if it meant defending the idea to critics.
Fearlessness allows you set aside all ideas of what people might think and focus on what feels right instinctively. Without that sort of conviction, there wouldn't be Mac OS X, the iPod, or even the Mac.
Google is one of the few other large companies that really gets this. They have different priorities and techniques, but they have the same spirit as Apple.
People drive themselves crazy trying to figure out why Google does the various things it does. While I'm sure the folks at Google have a fundamental idea of what the company should be, I don't think they always have a precise, calculated reason for each step they take. It just seems right, so they take a chance.
All of this comes easily to small companies because there's just not much to lose. It's harder to keep that culture in big organizations, where it seems like there is something to lose. Maybe that's the real trap. Apple and Google seem to get it. And that is why the other big guys so nervous.
(By the way, this post was written with WriteRoom. I'm officially a fan.)
Apple's Secret Ingredient
Posted Sep 02, 2006 — 48 comments below
Posted Sep 02, 2006 — 48 comments below