A Sneak Peek at a Super Secret Apple Product Plan!

on November 12, 2013

Way back in 1994 when I was working for Motorola, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a breakfast meeting between the then CEO’s of Apple and Motorola, Michael Spindler and Gary Tooker. A lot of preparation goes into these meetings–just getting the people in the room saying the things you need them to say is the objective. Weeks of work went into a single two hour breakfast in a private hotel suite in Austin, Texas. Everything was supposed to go by the script–one that we had hammered out with our Apple counterparts the week before. I say “supposed to”, because at the meeting Gary let slip that we had a full set of Apple product roadmaps for everything Apple was planning to make. Mr. Spindler was not happy to find this out.

In the way only the Germans can do so well, he let his displeasure be known; his face became red and he began using giant compound teutonic words sprinkled liberally with what sounded like “scheisse”. Now, we came by those roadmaps through our own hard work: listening, comparing notes, guessing a bit, reconfirming… our salespeople did their jobs recreating something that Apple never shared with us explicitly. All Mr. Spindler did through his reaction at that meeting was tell us we were right. Which is why clever men like Gary say off-script things to men like Michael (much to the chagrin of lowly staffers like me). The general lesson was not lost on me though. If you are conscientious and careful you can reconstruct super-secret product roadmaps and plans even when your customer is trying valiantly to keep them from you. Even though times have changed at Apple and they have become even more secretive, it is still possible today.

To try and make a modern Apple product map you have to realize at least five things about their company:

1. Right angles are to be despised
2. The experience of a product is all that matters
3. Technology is always in service to an experience
4. When a product should be built is far more important than if a product should be built
5. Money can be made when something looks easy, because easy is very hard to do

So what does this all mean when taken together? First, a strong opinion about the central experience is absolutely required. Imagine hours upon hours of discussion on how a thing should feel from its heft, to an edge, to the way it must respond, before ever deciding the “how” of achieving that experience. Secondly, Descartes is not welcome in Cupertino. The one thing you will probably not find at the heart of the most secret design thinking at Apple is a nice X-Y grid with specifications rising up and to the right on to infinity. Cartesian thinking carries with it an implied dualism–MIPS per millimeter, or milliwatts per hour, for example, and human experiences tend not to fit that neatly on a grid. Experiences tend to overlap each other, as do the capabilities of a piece of technology, so the product plan must be capable of showing the overlaps in a way that encourages thinking about a requirement’s relationship to the whole, not a part. To be sure, Apple will happily show off specs and classic X-Y charts after the fact, but it is highly unlikely they design a product that way. Everything must point back to the experience, that is the guiding principle.

Imagine Steve Jobs and Jony Ive way back in 2002, out for a walk. Steve is out front Jony is a step or two behind listening respectfully. Steve reaches into his back pocket and pulls out his iPod. He says point blank that he wants the same experience he has with his music (namely all of it, right here, right now in the pocket of his blue jeans) for the entire internet. The thing he wants is the entire internet in a pocket. That discussion sets a boundary on an experience that becomes inviolate. Pockets have certain sizes because hands fit in them. Hands have certain ratios such as the distance a thumb can rationally travel while holding something. The internet to most users means a browser, so a no compromise handheld browser must be dreamed up. How do we navigate? Click wheel? And on and on… no one goes near a piece of technology until after the experience is fully defined and it fits inside that sacrosanct bubble that is the prime directive. We could imagine a development timeline at Apple being 80% debate about the experience and 20% mad dash to get the thing out the door.

Put it all together and you get something that probably looks like this:

Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 6.02.30 PM

1: Center: the experience
2: Next layer: Vital characteristics of the experience
3: Next layer: Enablers of those characteristics
4: Next layer: Technologies that are required
5: and so on…

This is obviously a simplistic view, but taken together you can see how Apple could decide to wait until 2007 to release the “internet in your pocket” iPhone. If the wedges aren’t in place to deliver the experience you wait, and that might take years. You can also bet that if such a plan existed, only a handful ever see a complete one. Each product area in the company focuses on its piece not necessarily seeing the whole, or only as much of it as required to get the job done. Plans like these can keep secrecy at a maximum. There is also a certain beauty in a product plan like this because it keeps everyone maniacally focussed on an experiential outcome.

These charts can and do get enormously complex but that is what is required to make an experience look easy.

And easy is the best way to make good money.