I randomly ran across a YouTube clip today of Steve Jobs speaking at WWDC 1997. Specifically, it’s his response to an audience member who was allowed to ask a question and chose to troll Jobs about recent Apple decisions to use Java over OpenDoc (remind you of any other recently-ish controversial decisions by Apple?; more importanly, anyone even know what OpenDoc is? lol).
Instead of feeding the troll, what Steve Jobs did was unapologetically articulate the first principle Apple starts with and sticks with when they design products, which ultimately led to the decisions that this particular attendee was so annoyed with. That first principle is user experience.
Jobs explained how at Apple, decisions start with designing a customer (i.e. “user”) experience that can appeal to anyone, regardless of how well they understand the technical implementations that allow for them to have that experience.
He also doesn’t pretend to understand all of those techincal implementations with 100% accuracy himself, but defers to the fact that decisions such as the one in question don’t start with a conversation with the engineers about what the best technology is to use - they start with a conversation about what problems the customers are having and how to solve those problems in a way that will allow the company to sell 8Bn or 9Bn worth of products because that is where designing solutions starts: with understanding the user’s pain points, and discovering solutions that the user wants enough to buy the product.
“Do you want this?”
To illustrate his point, Jobs goes back to 1984 when Apple designed the world’s first small laser printer, the Laserwriter.
The Laserwriter had the first Canon cheap laser printing engine, a wonderful printer controller that Apple designed, Adobe PostScript software, Apple Talk, etc. But what made it successful was not that people understood the technology in it, but as Jobs puts it, “All we had to do was hold up the box and go, ‘do you want this?!’” And the answer, as we now know, was “Yes!”
People wanted the solution that the Laserwriter represented, irrespective of all the wonderful technology that made it even possible in the first place.
Knowing who you are designing for
Also of note is Steve’s classy handling of the troll. He doesn’t attempt to paint him out as a troll, in fact he starts by validating the man’s line of reasoning, disarming anyone who feels Steve is the one on the hotseat, and simply going on to explain why even though the man has a valid perspective it’s not the one shared by Apple.
I haven’t seen or heard enough of Jobs’ in situations like this to know whether this was just “characteristic Jobs” or not, but I can say for certain that his approach here illustrates perfectly why Apple has been so successful.
Apply has understood that it’s not making popular decisions, and been okay with that. Apple is not after 100% market share, because to please everyone, you have to sacrifice things that go against Apple’s ethos, like customer experience.
The strategy Apple used with the Laserwriter is the same strategy that Apple has used time and time again as it conceives of and designs products that are often looked back upon as revolutionary in the space they occupy. Apple has consistenty been in the habbit of asking, “what incredible benefits can we give to our customers”, and then designing according to those benefits and experiences, figuring out the technology of how it should work only after the ideal benefit or experience has been envisioned.
It’s a strategy that has served Apple well. Apple’s market share is far from majority, yet it holds more cash on hand than any other company in the world. So how can a company without majority marketshare even in their own industry be more profitable than it’s competitors with more customers?
Because it’s turns out that people are willing to pay well for things that solve their problems well.
Apple - as led by Jobs at least - has been quite content to aim for the share of the market that wants software and hardware that is designed to solve their underlying problems, and are willing to pay for it, while the rest of the market has been content to aim for the share of the market that simply wants to pay as little as possible, and doesn’t care how crappy the software or hardware they are buying is as long as they don’t spend much money for it.
Below is the clip of Jobs I’m talking about. If you have a moment to watch it, do so. If you design or build software - or anything for that matter, you will certainly appreciate his words, and clearly see why Apple has been so successful as a business:
Oh, and dem jeans tho.