Apple R&D and Steve Jobs Methodology: Long-term vision

21 Mar 2011 Sandeep Mehta

Let us continue our discussion on the Steve Jobs methodology. We discussed user centric design as the fundamental tenet of new product development under Jobs. Let us now focus on the long-term vision. I will be gleaning information from several sources to see if we can build a better picture. Let us start off with the information from the transcript of an interview with ex-Apple CEO John Sculley.

Steve had this perspective that always started with the user’s experience; and that industrial design was an incredibly important part of that user impression. And he recruited me to Apple because he believed that the computer was eventually going to become a consumer product. That was an outrageous idea back in the early 1980′s because people thought that personal computers were just smaller versions of bigger computers. That’s how IBM looked at it.
emphasis added

However, a long-term vision is not enough.  One has to break it down into manageable steps.  This is likely more art than science because many of the necessary technologies are not quite read at the time vision is generated.  So the idea is to have a clear vision in mind while working through the steps over the long-term.

He was a person of huge vision. But he was also a person that believed in the precise detail of every step. He was methodical and careful about everything — a perfectionist to the end.

The key capability for an R&D manager, then, is to look at roadmaps of different technologies required to achieve the long-term vision and identify what to invest in when.  Even when technologies do exist, they may not be implementable because of difficulty integrating into a user centric design.  So, R&D managers need to be able to combine a vision with technology roadmaps AND integrate them into a user-centric design:

On one level he is working at the “change the world,” the big concept. At the other level he is working down at the details of what it takes to actually build a product and design the software, the hardware, the systems design and eventually the applications, the peripheral products that connect to it.

Let us now use the Wired article The Untold Story: How the iPhone Blew Up the Wireless Industry to dig a bit deeper in to this concept of long-term vision aligned with technology plans and user experience.

In 2002, shortly after the first iPod was released, Jobs started thinking about developing a phone. He saw millions of Americans lugging separate phones, BlackBerrys, and — now — MP3 players; naturally, consumers would prefer just one device. He also saw a future in which cell phones and mobile email devices would amass ever more features, eventually challenging the iPod’s dominance as a music player. To protect his new product line, Jobs knew he would eventually need to venture into the wireless world.
emphasis added

Many people were talking about convergence back then.  But, vision is not enough.  It needs to be aligned with technology roadmaps.

If the idea was obvious, so were the obstacles. Data networks were sluggish and not ready for a full-blown handheld Internet device. An iPhone would require Apple to create a completely new operating system; the iPod’s OS wasn’t sophisticated enough to manage complicated networking or graphics, and even a scaled-down version of OS X would be too much for a cell phone chip to handle. Apple would be facing strong competition, too: In 2003, consumers had flocked to the Palm Treo 600, which merged a phone, PDA, and BlackBerry into one slick package. That proved there was demand for a so-called convergence device, but it also raised the bar for Apple’s engineers.

One way to explore a vision as complex as a convergence device is to experiment.  It is not enough to just trust the gut feeling about the vision, it is important to take small steps.

So that summer, while he publicly denied he would build an Apple phone, Jobs was working on his entry into the mobile phone industry. In an effort to bypass the carriers, he approached Motorola. It seemed like an easy fix: The handset maker had released the wildly popular RAZR, and Jobs knew Ed Zander, Motorola’s CEO at the time, from Zander’s days as an executive at Sun Microsystems. A deal would allow Apple to concentrate on developing the music software, while Motorola and the carrier, Cingular, could hash out the complicated hardware details.

However, results on experiments may not be as successful as hoped.

Of course, Jobs’ plan assumed that Motorola would produce a successor worthy of the RAZR, but it soon became clear that wasn’t going to happen. The three companies dickered over pretty much everything — how songs would get into the phone, how much music could be stored there, even how each company’s name would be displayed. And when the first prototypes showed up at the end of 2004, there was another problem: The gadget itself was ugly.

R&D managers need to have the faith in their long-term vision to learn from failures and continue.  As we have discussed, Nokia had a prototype touch-screen smart phone in 2004 as well, but chose not to pursue it any further.  Here is what Jobs did:

Jobs delivered a three-part message to Cingular: Apple had the technology to build something truly revolutionary, “light-years ahead of anything else.” Apple was prepared to consider an exclusive arrangement to get that deal done. But Apple was also prepared to buy wireless minutes wholesale and become a de facto carrier itself.

But the faith in the vision should always be supported by robust technology plans (or R&D plans in general):

Jobs had reason to be confident. Apple’s hardware engineers had spent about a year working on touchscreen technology for a tablet PC and had convinced him that they could build a similar interface for a phone. Plus, thanks to the release of the ARM11 chip, cell phone processors were finally fast and efficient enough to power a device that combined the functionality of a phone, a computer, and an iPod. And wireless minutes had become cheap enough that Apple could resell them to customers; companies like Virgin were already doing so.

Even a robust technology plan is not enough.  One has to bring it together into a user centric design.  Finally, may be we could use a process like spiral development to support this endeavor.

They built a prototype of a phone, embedded on an iPod, that used the clickwheel as a dialer, but it could only select and dial numbers — not surf the Net. So, in early 2006, just as Apple engineers were finishing their yearlong effort to revise OS X to work with Intel chips, Apple began the process of rewriting OS X again for the iPhone.

For more, please continue on to the next component of Steve Jobs methodology: Engaged leader:

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