The first version is the vision, and that alone close

Mark McDermott
Mark McDermott
In Musings, Online Innovation
21st October 2011
The first version is the vision, and that alone

A couple of weeks ago Steve Jobs died. When he stepped down as CEO of Apple over the Summer it was clear that he was losing his fight with cancer although I don't think anyone expected it to be so quick.

There have been some excellent pieces posted by more eloquent writers than I so I will leave it to them to celebrate his life and achievements. Personally I have enjoyed re-watching some of his speeches (notably Stanford Commencement in 2005 and his 1997 keynote where he effectively illustrated the technical landscape of 2011) and if you have a moment I would suggest you do as well.

So I did want to write something on this and was chatting to Luke about what was at the heart of Apple's renaissance in the late 90s, domination of the last decade and how I could look at applying those principles to the projects we work on for ourselves and for our clients.

I bounced around some themes on single mindedness, design as first principle, sweating the small stuff, but as usual, Luke nailed it.

He reminded me that the first release of a new Apple product line rejects the status quo and solves a single problem, in a simple way.

The design may often be revolutionary but when you look at it, the feature set is usually pretty limited. But we don't mind, because the concept is so getable and enlightening that we are happy to be taken on the journey as the product evolves. We get on board through glorious simplicity and the liberating notion that we don't have to accept the way things are.

Let's take a closer look at some examples.

The iMac

The First iMac

The iMac was the first all-in-one computer on the market. It challenged the principle that a computer was a sum of various parts, peripherals and accessories. The visual screen, the ability to hear sound and the computer processor are themselves symbiotically linked so why not unify them into a single machine? The internet was clearly the future so a modem was included, it was not considered an optional extra.

Recognising the need for industry standards and compatibility the iMac was the first computer to solely adopt USB ports for connectivity. Controversially they removed the floppy disk favouring the CD Rom (built-in, of course). They correctly argued that recordable CDs, the internet, and office networks were making them obsolete.

Finally the iMac looked completely different. It was beautiful, with it's translucent plastics and Bondi Blue trim. It was time for computers to take their place at the heart of the home, not to be hidden away on retractable desks in the box room. It changed the way we felt about them.

The iPod

The First iPod

The iPod was certainly another iconic design but it was definitely limited. Effectively the iPod was a hard drive with an action wheel, 5 buttons and a single tone screen. But it was the quickest and easiest way to browse your library of music on a handheld device.

They got the interface and hierarchy absolutely right from the beginning and have hardly changed it since. Other mp3 players of the time had inherited the buttons and small displays of the portable CD player and were taking users on a familiar journey without challenging it.

The iPhone

The First iPhone

Look at the home screen of the first iPhone. No App Store. So you couldn't add any apps beyond the native ones such as web, email, camera, notes, maps, calendar etc. But looking at the interface doesn't it seem bare? There was obviously room for more but at the time they said that the web gateway was the platform for any additional stuff.

It meant they didn't have to worry about the complex eco system for the app store and could focus on disrupting the mobile phone market and changing our perceptions of what a mobile phone was actually for.

The interesting side product was that developers reverse engineered the iPhone to personalise it and add their own work. They built a way of working around it because they liked the product and saw it had a massive future. I'm absolutely convinced that those early jail breakers helped Apple to roadmap the marketplace when they were ready to open it up.

Was it just Apple?

I think it would be wrong to suggest that Apple are the only company to have got this concept of first version simplicity right. The Amazon Kindle obtusely focussed on the reading experience and then iterated to perfect that before adding anything more.

I would argue that early days Nokia were the same. They reduced physical phone size and increased battery life. My Mum still loves her old Nokia because it does exactly what she wants it to.

Google's home page is just a search field.

Conclusion

By not doing the expected you can ultimately end up with a greater solution. By stripping back the acceptable functions of today you leave room for innovation in the future and greatly increase the chances of solving your focal problem better than anyone else.

I would like to invite every client we work with (and my own team) to embrace this concept together and be brave and bold enough to try and do this on our own work. I'm pleased to say this principle is deep rooted in our latest product - Schedule.

Apple saw where they wanted us to be back in the 1970s and have been slowly dragging us there ever since. Thank you, Steve, I will leave the last words with you.

"When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there."

Steve Jobs in an MSNBC and Newsweek interview, 14 October 2006.