What Would Apple Do? Don't Ask

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.

andreessen

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.

Be Secretive
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.)jobs

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?

Photo credit: JoiMacevangelist on Flickr

Discussion

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  • http://www.episodic.com Noam Lovinsky

    Frankly, Apple is terrible at building web applications IMO. The year long botched launch of the new MobileMe is a perfect example. Is this because of a lack of expertise, experience or investment? My guess is investment.

    On the desktop software side, I think this analysis applies: http://venturebeat.com/2009/07/23/npd-apple-now-gets-91-of-spending-on-pricey-computers/ That is, the Apple software products that do well and drive revenue are the high end products such as FinalCut and Logic.

  • HammerOfTruth

    I’m not sure about your statement “Jobs hates free”. Sure iTools went to a pay for play, but there are a lot of programs that are free when you buy a new Mac, like iLife. You can argue that iLife is in the cost of the computer, but compared to the competition with comparable hardware, they don’t give you full featured software, only trial versions. Plus if you look historically at these types of programs, they have gone down in price since the mid 90′s. A basic photo cataloging and imaging program would cost at least $80, and iLife comes with that and more.

    The problem with free software is that as a society we don’t see the value in free. We don’t appreciate free. We only do that when it costs us some money. Just ask any shareware developer and they will tell you that while people will use their software, hardly any of them would donate any money. The same people would buy software if they wanted to use it and there was no shareware alternative. Want more proof? Look at Apple’s app store. There are more critics for FREE apps than there are for paid ones, WHY? They didn’t pay anything for it.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    @HammerofTruth: love the moniker, first of all. And thanks for commenting, second of all.

    I agree with everything you say except that Mac software is free. The cost is included with the price of the Mac, and the software is often used by Apple to justify the Mac’s price point.

  • http://Getonthat@fubini Ross Fubini

    Noam, I’d counter that it’s not expertise – it’s focus. Execution is a result of leadership (+luck) and Apple has not cultivated or rewarded leaders for focusing on the web application. There are no heros there and therefore no success.

    Obvious contrast to the web obsessed Google teams which use the same iterative apple design process (internally and internally) for web applications and underlying technology. And as a result they have the corresponding world class experts.

    Until Apple believes it will live by their web applications as they came to believe with iTunes store – their web leaders will be second fiddle. Second fiddles are rarely in tune to lead the dance.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/ Glenn Kelman

    Ross, that’s an excellent point that Google is very iterative, but I think Google is more data-driven. A designer just quit Google because we was asked where the data was that one shade of blue would convert better than another… And you’re right that much of the talent at Apple has focused on places other than the Web.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/ Glenn Kelman

    @Noam, just saw your comment. Good bust on the Venturebeat link, and I agree. One reason to make high-end software is that it drives demand for high-end hardware…

  • http://www.zillow.com Spencer Rascoff

    Great post Glenn.

    I think the genius of Apple and Jobs is threefold:
    - their pursuit of perfection
    - their emphasis on design
    - their ability to give consumers what they want, before they even know that they want it

    Certainly the first point — their pursuit of perfection — flies in the face of Silicon Valley groupthink which tells us to ship early and iterate. The aura of Apple, and their extraordinary PR machine, requires perfection even in the first release.

  • dave

    The seamless way apple products work together is not a technological superiority, but a marketing one. There computers and operating systems are lousy. Their marketing great. Luckily a large majority of users have very low computing needs, and even lower knowledge of computers, and so the fact that they made a lousy choice, won’t penalize them.

  • JanelleS

    I knew that last major redesign of our site was a huge hurdle and challenge, but I don’t recall the scarification rituals and blubbering. However, being the default extrovert after Savan’s departure, perhaps I simply am not in tune to a developer’s quiet moments. I’d love to hear the real story in the kitchen sometime over a gallon of ranch dressing.

  • http://bromo.craigbromberg.com Craig Bromberg

    Funny, I wrote on this same subject using this same question—What Would Apple Do?—last week, except my question goes to the heart of Apple’s content strategy, especially as it is perfected in the App Store and in iTunes via metatags. Apple shows the way to monetize community (not to mention content) and Jobsian perfectionism—safeguarding the moat around Apple’s ecosystem—is precisely what has made that strategy (and the dollars that have flowed from it) so amazing.

  • http://www.twitter.com/vishalanand Vishal

    Glen, a great post.

    There is this [old] Guy Kawasaki interview with Michael Raynor where Michael says – Apple’s clock hasn’t changed; it still reads twelve o’clock. It’s just that it happens to be noon again.

    There is some truth to that. Worth reading the rest – http://bit.ly/TxqqF

  • http://blog.redfin.com/ Glenn Kelman

    Thanks for the kind words Spencer. I would add that Apple is willing to make opinionated products: music players that require a computer connection, smart phones without keyboards, laptops without ethernet ports… if you made those decisions by committee or got feedback via focus groups, they’d never fly.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/ Glenn Kelman

    @Craig Bromberg: excellent point, and I had not realized you had expressed some of the same ideas first. Bravo!

    @JanelleS: I think the person to ask about the last re-design is Matt Goyer, but I’m happy to share a cup of ranch dressing with you anytime!

  • http://www.mcubedsw.com Martin Pilkington

    I wouldn’t say Jobs hates “free”, but more he realises that you can’t build a business on “free”. Every business has costs so every business needs income. If you give away your product for free you have no income. Some people try to say “well we’ll make it up in scale” but last time I checked 100 * $0 = 1,000,000 * $0.

    I’d also say that Apple has invested a LOT in online services. The difference is, they aren’t what you traditionally think of as online services. The iTunes Store and App Store are both online services, but they are not run through a browser. Apple is doing the smart thing and focusing less on web SITES and more on web TECHNOLOGY. Web sites are a nice idea but they can’t replace desktop apps.

    However, there is nothing about web technologies like HTML, CSS, Javascript etc that means they can’t be desktop class development environments. Apple has shown this with Dashboard widgets, Palm is showing this with WebOS. This is why Apple is investing lots of money in Webkit, HTML5, CSS3 etc rather than “cloud” computing. Everyone is jumping on the web bandwagon, without realising that web apps aren’t what people want. People simply want to be able to access their data anywhere, it’s just the web is the easiest way to do that at the moment.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/blog/author/glenn%20kelman Glenn Kelman

    Martin, this is just a brilliant insight, one I was groping toward myself before I decided the post was long enough! You said it more clearly than I could have. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  • http://community.bsu.edu/members/Online_Stock_Trading.asp online stock trading guru

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. There are some good points here.

    I’m Out! :)

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