Friday, April 16, 2010

History is Context

Despite historically being a personal computer maker, Apple is clearly moving to be some sort of "digital lifestyle" company. Forget the cute name change (dropping "Computer") and other direct comments about this. They are all self-serving and much more can be learned from examining behaviors.

A key "behavior" of a company is the products it releases. Let's look at the highlights of these "non-computer" products:

A (mostly) ARM based platform, centered around pen/touch interaction with specific appeal to the PDA, mobile communications, networking and graphics. Add ons and applications are supported with a custom SDK, allowed them to be written relatively easily in an OO language.

Devices that support the platform include simple tablet-like PDA/entertainment devices, smartphones, ruggedized devices for verticals and larger devices with integrated keyboards.

Any of those specs throw you? A keyboard on the larger device perhaps? That's because this is not iTouch/iPhone/iPad, but the Newton platform, and refers to the MessagePads, Seahorse, Tarpon, Schlumberger Health Terminal and eMate among the many devices made to support the platform.

And this all started in the 1980s.

I periodically rant in Twitter about the stupidity of tech pundits. Such that I often don't read, watch or listen that much, as they infuriate me. This is exactly why. No one [well-read, that I know of] has talked about the above history in any but the slightest detail basically since it was happening.

But a straight line can be drawn from Apple's computer platforms, though the Newtons to the iPhone platforms of right now. And if you act all pundity and think about what they did, that's called analysis. You can come up with some useful intelligence from it.

My key takeaway from Apple is actually a public statement, the Digital Hub concept. Delivered way back in 2001, and which I think they are clearly still working from.

You get one desktop computer, you attach PDA-type devices, entertainment devices and portable devices to it. You attach to the internet. And you get to continue being productive (work) as well as being entertained. Remember, this was the Information Superhighway era and there were Info Appliances (all to often, actual appliances like refrigerators with computers embedded) proposed and sold that would do specific tasks and network in their own way. It was not clear that the general purpose computer, the PC had a future outside of offices and servers. In fact I am a failed futurist – I thought the PC was dead and we'd all have info appliances for specialized tasks, and iPad like things and smart refrigerators. Instead, we have a faster, shinier ten-years-ago sort of computer world.

Anyway, back to Apple. They are still working on this whole philosophy and it's easily visible in their mobile platform. Who else would require tethering to a computer to get software updates? Who else would assume (not just require, but assume) that the center of your media library is the computer, not the portable device. Etc. The core information architecture follows precisely from this assumption.

And – without getting too deep into it – their strategy for OS and application control has been unchanged since at least the Mac Clone business was killed in 1997. This extended straight to the portable platforms (nothing at all on the iPods, and strict control only when the market clamored for, and hacked into, ANY openness on the iPhone platform). Even before this, the little Pippin software was all routed through Apple. It even informs Apple's own apps, like the iWorks suite; pretty, but built from a singular point of view. Trying to move outside the intended scope is difficult or impossible.

It's not a shock. It's not a regrettable surprise. And no matter how much I like to argue they could add something like an "untrusted app" feature, or better type controls, or a color picker that isn't insulting to colors, without sullying their brand, it's really not likely. Because this is now baked into the DNA of the company.

We spend a lot of time developing this knowledge at places I work. The last one had a wall of (mostly old) phones and I spend a lot of time showing what even 2-3 year old devices worked like to the sometimes annoyingly young staff members and interns. Some of us have been in mobile specifically for over a decade, and that's just forever. Just myself, I've been on projects for the first music-phone "ever" and the first camera phones in the US, and built an app store from scratch around 2001.

All of this we try to keep in mind, and pass on to the rest of the company, and when we get our act together, mention in the blogging and on the patterns wiki so everyone in the world can share in it. The next time you are trying to figure out something, ask one of the old timers around your office (or, email us I guess) to cast their mind back, and see what you can learn from the not-really-very-old history of technology.

And it doesn't just make you feel good. Knowing what has been done in the past helps you exploit the concepts, or avoid those mistakes if they are fundamental (e.g. not just that the technology wasn't advanced enough yet). Knowing what the competition is doing lets you predict their next move, and understand their current moves. For example, I'd say you are totally safe assuming Apple will continue to place the Mac at the core of their strategy, and protect it at significant cost. If you can exploit that, you have a leg up; you can design and market for the appropriate niche.

This works for any product – I just used Apple as a well-gossiped case. What are you competing with, or wondering about, or building that you think is all new? Are you sure it's totally fresh and new? Are you sure you understand the competition as well as you can?

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