For years, it has been fashionable for business-people to approach any problem — choking baby, lonely Friday, cold soup, global warming — by asking Jeff Jarvis’s question: “What would Google do?” But the most admired technology company in the world isn’t Google. It’s Apple. And when it comes to the most admired technology executive, Steve Jobs is firmly enshrined as the Valley’s Jesus with Eric Schmidt as a capable but boring prophet. When a major American industry collapses, no one imagines Eric Schmidt as the savior; all eyes turn to Steve Jobs.
So why isn’t Steve Jobs our savior? Why isn’t anyone asking “What would Apple do?” Perhaps it’s because the answer to that question flies in the face of everything we’ve learned to hold sacred over the last five years. Compare for a moment the basic tenets of Apple’s success with the way most people think about building a startup today…
Make Hardware and Software
Apple’s insistence on controlling both the hardware and the operating system was once seen as a liability in its battle against the PC: Apple was proprietary and precious and Windows was open and huge. But even though Apple’s products are now seen as more elegant and reliable because all the components work together, few have followed suit.
In fact, you can count such products on one hand: Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Wii, Flip Mino, arguably the Tivo, now perhaps the CrunchPad. All commercial successes. Why aren’t there more? Mostly because it never occurs to folks to build hardware and software. Entrepreneurs today are largely building media sites, not fundamentally new technologies, using low-cost platforms built years ago by other people. This is a lot cheaper, and so money is easier to get for these ideas: there’s more venture capital than ever before, but most VCs would rather invest $1M in 20 startups rather than the $20M one startup would need to build and market a consumer device.
But the problem is deeper than that. Even my generation’s Steve Jobs, Marc Andreessen, who has the stature and the capital to invent an entirely new device, never seems to have given it a thought. This is probably because most computer science programs never bother to teach computer scientists how to build devices; at Berkeley in the ’90′s, you could always identify the computer science students by the pizza boxes filled with computer parts that they lugged around everywhere.
Now the people who understand hardware aren’t in the same classes as those who write software; increasingly the two aren’t even in the same country. Steve Jobs may be technology’s last Renaissance man.
Apple sets up multiple security checks within its buildings, hoods prototypes under development and provides its own employees with misinformation. Amazon can be the same way: a former Jeff Bezos lieutenant complimented Redfin by saying our openness made him rethink Bezos’s advice never to write your competitors’ business plan. (Since I admire Bezos, this in turn made me wonder if our “well-why-not?” approach to blogging has been naïve.)
The truth is that these days, most entrepreneurs can’t keep a secret and many aren’t even interested in trying; entrepreneurs are by nature impresarios and exhibitionists first, and inventors second. It seems like Apple’s preference for secrecy is just as instinctive. Sure, its secrecy is calculated to give product launches the most pop, but Apple’s stealthiness is so complete on topics so far beyond new products — did you know that you can only photograph Steve Jobs from one side? — that the behavior must be reflexive.
I often wonder whether Apple gains more in mystique from its secrecy than it loses by being insular? I wonder how they work out their ideas with customers when they can’t talk about their ideas to anyone? Apple might be the only company in the world smart enough to get away with that.
Give Nothing Away
Steve Jobs clearly hasn’t read Chris Anderson’s Web 2.0 Bible, Free. I’m not even sure Jobs would agree with Michael Arrington’s argument that free services have the most potential to change the world. Jobs hates free.
Even with digital services like MobileMe, Apple has never given anything away. First of all, because Apple can’t afford to. Anderson talks about the falling cost of servers and storage as driving the economics of free, but Jobs understands what’s really expensive about making something beautiful isn’t the tools but the artists who use them: beautiful will always be a time-consuming proposition involving costly, talented people.
And Jobs probably understands too that consumers value what they pay for. Now, a whole generation of software entrepreneurs is learning the discipline of charging for software because of the iPhone’s App Store. As you would expect, the iPhone applications that people buy are deleted less often, reviewed more carefully, and used more often than the ones you can download for free. But most startups will make money by giving their apps away and developing a business based on the free application.
No Wine Until it’s Time
Redfin lately has been trying to move faster, guided by Reid Hoffman’s principle that if a debut product is perfect, it should have shipped six months earlier. We talk to other entrepreneurs, who mainly rely on their users to find their bugs, and wonder if we shouldn’t be the same way. We’re still scarred by the last major re-design of our website, which took place three years ago, driving several people to tears and one of our best people out of design at the company entirely.
But Apple iterates on every product over and over again, with half a dozen designers or more developing ten different mock-ups for every single feature. An interviewee once told me that an iPhoto print feature was delayed a year so that the binding for the first page of a photo album could be stitched rather than glued, even though every book glues the first page. Basically Jobs reinvented how books are bound so that Apple’s photo albums would meet his standards.
And this attention to seemingly trivial details is true of other Steve Jobs’s endeavors too: as my friend Noam Lovinsky has observed, one reason the scripts for Pixar movies are so flawless is because each frame is already so labored. Pixar has never increased its rate of production, and never failed to make a #1 movie either. Of course it’s easier to update a website than it is a device or a movie, but it seems like Jobs chooses problems whose solution require his level of perfection, not the other way around. It makes me wonder if Silicon Valley’s cult of making mistakes quickly is itself a big mistake.
That question is impossible to answer in the abstract, but every time I think about accelerating the pace of our development, I wonder if Jobs would actually speed it up by slowing it down and making fewer mistakes.
Offline Experiences Matter
Silicon Valley’s latest bloodsport is to predict the demise of Microsoft Office, the best, most widely used software in the world. I tend to agree that for most casual users, Mint will replace Quicken, and Picnik will replace Photoshop. But no one ever attacks Apple for making desktop applications for photo editing or music playing. In fact, what’s remarkable about Apple is how little it has invested in online services; it has no MSN or EC2.
When the company thinks about distribution, it does so in physical dimensions, reimagining retail stores. When it makes a mobile device, it encourages developers to re-code their web experiences to fit within the smaller screen of an iPhone, a move which might have drawn ridicule if it had come from another company. If the desktop is dead, why is one of the best technology companies in the world working to reinvent it?
And if everyone is arguing that Microsoft is wrong to build powerful, native applications, why isn’t Apple wrong about that too?
Anyway, these are the questions I wonder about when trying to decide what kind of company Redfin should look like as it grows up… What lessons do you draw from Apple, and which do you reject?