A Sneak Peek at a Super Secret Apple Product Plan!

Carl Schlachte / November 12th, 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.

Carl Schlachte

Carl is a serial entrepreneur, having been Chairman and CEO of multiple public and private companies. He is currently CEO of Ventiva, a private thermal management company, as well as Chairman of Immersion (Nasdaq: IMMR ) and a director at Peregrine Semiconductor (Nasdaq: PSMI). You can follow Carl on Twitter at carlsuqupro.
  • FalKirk

    Wow, Carl, when I read the title of this article, I thought it was going to be a spoof or a way to chastise the rumor-mongers. But this was quite insightful.

    I really enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to reading more of your material in the future.

  • jfutral

    Falkirk beat me to the punch—Wow. So pretty much, what he said.

    Joe

    • FalKirk

      Great minds and all that…

      If you want, Joe. I’ll delete my comment so you can be first. 🙂

      • jfutral

        Great minds think alike, fools seldom differ.

        Thanks, but you earned first slot fair and square. 🙂

        Joe

  • Well done article.

  • Bill Esbenshade

    One of the better articles I’ve read in a while! Great work!

  • stefnagel

    Great. Hope you don’t mind my plopping an outline here. Apple makes oblique reference to this kind of logical view as “liberal education.” But it has nice hooks to your approach above. As you say, it’s doesn’t simplify the process of creation; robots need not apply.

    Apple and Aristotle:
    Poor criticism is unbalanced, incoherent.
    Even good criticism can struggle for balance and coherence.
    Balanced criticism must appeal to a definition of the whole.
    A wholistic definition of reality/causality is as old as Aristotle.
    Aristotle’s definition of any thing employs four causes for specificity and comparability.

    Causes:
    The four causes are material, formal, efficient, and final.
    Let’s apply these to the iPad to define just what it is Apple invented, to offer more coherence and balance.
    The what, the material cause, of the iPad is all the specced bits in it.
    The how, the formal cause, includes design choices as to what the iPad will look like and do.
    The who, the efficient cause, includes all the work on hard/software that make it do what it does.
    The why, the final cause, is the purpose for the iPad: computing, surfing, messaging, etc.

    Implications:
    Using four causes can generate descriptive definitions for devices and a kind of gamut chart for comparison.
    The material bits that make up the iPad are also defined by four causes themselves.
    The formal cause is the Jony Ives piece primarily.
    The efficient cause includes both engineers, developers, and manufacturers the Tim Cook piece.
    The final cause is decided by developers firstly and users ultimately.

  • Bill Smith

    Nice work, Mr. Schlachte.

    I spend many of my working hours listening to my upper management wax on about how they understand Apple. Drawing on textbooks that never had any basis in fact, they claim to have complete understanding of everything Steve Jobs ever planned. I listen, give blank stares and let them continue their diatribes.

    It seems incomprehensible to them that Apple is a vision-first company. Building a great product matters; their secret is in NOT thinking about how much money they can save/make to meet a target market price point. Apple’s focus is on what should (or even must be); they design the future they’d like to create.

    As Steve Jobs would say, design is determining the size, shape and color of the dent you want to put in the universe. A background in liberal arts empowers you to make that dent stylish and desirable on levels that others may never understand; that’s how you make it look “easy” while they’re shaving costs and making compromises. Apple designs many products; they only begin building when all the pieces are present or it’s a stride that’s essential to making another product possible.

    I am thrilled, both with your article, and that you seem to speak from legitimate experience. I do hope to read more of your work.

  • N

    Great article. Bad title. I’m not sure if the columnist wrote the title so I’ll give him a pass on the incongruence.

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