Working Backwards to the Technology

At WWDC in 1997, Steve Jobs, having just returned to Apple, held a wide-open Q&A session. There’s video — albeit low-quality (VHS transfer?) — on YouTube. It’s a remarkable session, showing Jobs at his improvisational best. But more importantly, the philosophies and strategies Jobs expressed correctly forecast everything Apple went on to do under his leadership, and how the company continues to work today. In short, he’s remarkably open and honest — and prescient.

My quip today that Google is beginning to remind me of pre-NeXT Apple in the ’90s — announcing more cool R&D prototypes than they release actual cool products — brought to mind one of the segments from this session. There’s a five-minute clip of just this segment here.

It starts with a testy remark from an attendee upset about Apple having killed OpenDoc. Attendee: “It’s sad and clear that on several counts what you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jobs deftly laughs off the insult, and goes on to explain that he has no doubt that OpenDoc contains some great technology — that it allowed for things no other technology could accomplish. But that that alone was not enough.

Then he says this:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it.

If it wasn’t obvious then, it’s certainly obvious in hindsight that NeXT itself was the biggest of those scars. Amazing technology — an operating system and developer frameworks that debuted in 1988 and today serve as the foundation for almost the entirety of Apple’s product line. But NeXT never turned that technology into a successful product. Without a focus on products, new technologies are a crapshoot.

That’s why Jobs dismantled Apple’s pure R&D department, the Advanced Technology Group. The work ATG had done wasn’t all thrown away, but what continued was product-focused rather than technology-focused. Starting with the product and working backwards to the technology instead of the other way around has made all the difference in the world for Apple.

Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Google, and numerous other companies all outspend Apple on “R&D” today. The WSJ reported that between 2004 and 2007, Nokia outspent Apple on R&D by a factor of 9 ($22.2 billion vs. $2.5 billion). This discrepancy leads some to the conclusion that Apple underspends on research and development. I would argue instead that it shows that Apple is far more focused than any of its rivals.

What is focus? Again, we return to Jobs, on stage at WWDC, 17 years ago. The very first question in the session was, simply, “What about OpenDoc?”

Jobs:

What about OpenDoc? What about it? [Audience laughs.] It’s dead, right? Let me say something that’s sort of generic. I know some of you spent a lot of time working on stuff that we put a bullet in the head of. I apologize. I feel your pain. But Apple suffered for several years from lousy engineering management. I have to say it. And there were people that were going off in 18 different directions doing arguably interesting things in each one of them. Good engineers — lousy management. And what happened was you look at the farm that’s been created with all these different animals going in different directions and it doesn’t add up. The total is less than the sum of the parts.

And so we had to decide, what are the fundamental directions we’re going in? And what makes sense and what doesn’t? And there were a bunch of things that didn’t. And microcosmically they might have made sense; macrocosmically they made no sense. And you know, the hardest thing is… you think about focusing, right? You think, “Well, focusing is saying yes”. No, focusing is about saying no. Focusing is about saying no. And you’ve got to say no, no, no. When you say no, you piss off people.

Apple is going to keep saying no, no, no. And because of that, they are going to keep pissing people off.

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