The Unintended Consequences of a Single Design Decision

Phil Baker / January 9th, 2017

Being involved in the design and development of consumer products, I’ve seen how a single design decision can have huge unintended consequences and change an entire industry — for the better or the worse.

As a positive example, when Apple decided to design notebooks using aluminum housings and abandon the industry’s use of plastic with ugly vents and screws, they created a huge industry of automated machining of solid aluminum blocks. That industry has now made it possible for other notebooks to use the same processes to create their own products.

Another example is when Apple decided that thinness was a major goal for its mobile products. The unintended consequences have had a huge impact, likely beyond the original intention, but one that’s impacted performance, features, user satisfaction, and the entire industry.

Some of those consequences are:

Shorter battery life – Making phones and notebooks as thin as possible and then making them even thinner in each subsequent generation resulted in less volume for batteries. But because the one dimension that reduces a battery’s capacity most is its thickness, battery life of iPhones and MacBooks have suffered. Battery life of iPhones and the latest line of MacBook Pros are well below expectations and are one of the major user complaints. So much so, the battery indicator no longer displays time left. And, since a battery’s life is based on the number of charging cycles, smaller batteries need more recharging cycles, resulting in a shorter life.

Fragility – The thinness of iPhones has resulted with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus actually bending in normal use and the need for protective cases. Samsung has shown, with their Galaxy S7 Active, that a phone can be made with a rugged, waterproof enclosure that’s only a few millimeters thicker. Speaking of Samsung, there’s even speculation that their problem with the Note 7 phone catching on fire was a result of trying to beat Apple in the thinness competition.

Reduced number of ports – With thinness comes the need to remove many of the legacy ports designed for thicker products. While leaving them out makes it possible to reduce thickness, it requires carrying more dongles to connect to our other devices.

Loss of features – iPhones still don’t have NFC and wireless charging, likely a result of insufficient space. Magsafe, one of the most innovative features ever created for notebook computers, has been eliminated to make the new MacBook notebooks thinner. With its removal is the loss of the battery charging indicator.

Typing errors – Thinness has led to notebook keyboards with reduced performance compared to the iconic keyboards used in products like the ThinkPad. Key travel has gone from 3 mm to under 1 mm, causing more errors.

What’s ironic is these consequences might have just resulted from an Apple executive saying. “I want our products to be as thin as they can be”, walking away, and then everyone taking the person literally. How likely is it that, when that request was made, anyone was thinking of any adverse outcomes? Well, perhaps a few engineers that were told not to be negative and be a team player.

The lesson is that an arbitrary goal for a product’s requirement can have far-reaching effects on the company’s products, as well as an entire industry, and few may be aware of that when it all began.

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He has developed scores of products for companies including Apple, Seiko, Polaroid, Barnes & Noble, Polycom, Proxima, ThinkOutside and Pono Music. Phil is the author of “From Concept to Consumer”, a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at www.bakerontech.com.
  • klahanas

    All very true. If I may add…Gorilla Glass became a “commercial thing” because Apple used it. Corning had no idea what to do with it. I call that the Bubba Gump syndrome (everything is shrimp). Just a rebranded hammer/nail analogy.

    Yes, and also the motives of some of those design decision serve different purposes and agendas. The move to Unibody, eliminated Expresscard, without adding USB3. Apple could have kept two Unibody chassis on the 15” in 2009, but they chose EC elimination to keep only one. They paid lip service that only 10% or less of users wanted it.

    In the same year, though USB3 was proliferating, they waited two years (or so) for Intel to include CPU support, rather than include a NEC USB3 controller. Result…for two years the fastest port on the machine was a USB2. A $2K+ machine!

    Both examples indicate a totally self serving Apple. They cut off the head and tail of the distribution curve and cater to that. Good for them…

    The outcome is the abandonment of the Pro market. There is nothing Pro about ANY of their current devices. A Pro device is adaptable to do Pro work. What we got is a “skinny chicken”.

    • Kizedek

      “Gorilla Glass became a “commercial thing” because Apple used it. Corning had no idea what to do with it. I call that the Bubba Gump syndrome (everything is shrimp). Just a rebranded hammer/nail analogy.”

      Haha, nice anti-apple spin on what is really quite mundane:

      1) most things are initially overlooked because most people can’t find a good commercial use or viable manufacturing supply chain for them… until. someone. does. I call that the “Post-it Note Syndrome”

      2) Sounds like you object to Apple, in particular, because it uses catchy names for things. Guess what? That doesn’t change the fact that “Gorilla Glass” is a really tough laminated glass; and that Apple through its constant and rigorous materials research and experimentation found that it was better, more viable, and more suitable for its products for this time period than other glasses, plastics or sapphire.

    • Kizedek

      “Gorilla Glass became a “commercial thing” because Apple used it. Corning had no idea what to do with it. I call that the Bubba Gump syndrome (everything is shrimp). Just a rebranded hammer/nail analogy.”

      Nice anti-apple spin (speaking of a rebranded hammer/nail analogy) on what is really quite mundane:

      1) most good things are initially overlooked, because most people lack imagination and can’t find a good commercial use or viable manufacturing supply chain for them… until. someone. does. I call that the “Post-it Note Syndrome”

      2) Sounds like you object to Apple, in particular, because it likes catchy names for things. That doesn’t change the fact that “Gorilla Glass” is a really tough, laminated glass; and that Apple through its constant materials research and experimentation found it, and found that it was better, more viable, and more suitable for its products for this time period than other glasses, plastics or sapphire.

      Not sure how this can be construed as “everything is shrimp”, because as you note, it was something different than the usual glass, Corning didn’t know what to do with it, and it was not widely used, if at all. The name doesn’t make it tough, its properties do. If Apple touted “normal” glass already in use by every other OEM as “Gorilla Glass”, then you might have a point — it would still be “shrimp” no matter how Apple dressed it.

      • klahanas

        I can’t help but chuckle Kizedek. Based on my known positions on Apple, you might think what you thought. I was actually supporting the notion that Apple popularized Gorilla Glass where Corning couldn’t.

        Also, I don’t think or know that Apple called it Gorilla Glass. I thought that was a Corning TM. I also like it because it’s descriptive.

        Finally, the Bubba Gump was geared to me on rebranding hammer/nail but pointed at Corning.

        I hope you’re sitting down…we agree!

        Take that as a testament to my objectivity for when I do criticize Apple. 🙂

  • Glaurung-Quena

    This piece quickly devolved into a mishmash of semi-legitimate complaints, outright errors of fact, and completely unrelated complaints that don’t actually have much of anything to do with thinness mixed together into a nasty gumbo of baloney.

    The first and biggest problem is mixing together complaints about mobile devices with complaints about laptops. Nobody in the world has ever said “gee, I wish my phone was thicker and heavier.” Making the iphone as light as they can get away with while still delivering battery life that satisfies most of their customers is a completely sensible goal on Apple’s part that is 100% oriented towards customer satisfaction.

    Laptops have two markets: people who want to be able to put their desktop into a shoulder bag (size, weight, and battery life being by far secondary to computing performance), and people who want a portable computer that doesn’t weigh much and gets great battery life. Apple stopped making computers for the former group when they axed the 17″ macbook pro.

    So, iphone:

    1. Jesus Christ (gets out Samantha Bee style megaphone), *Bendgate was never a thing.* Citing a completely manufactured controversy made up by clickmongers making false claims does not do much for your credibility.

    2. Actually the Iphone has gotten microscopically thicker in the past generation. Also, the iphone’s battery life has been slowly but steadily improving as Apple pursues ever more efficient SOCs and screens. Maybe you could have done some actual fact checking before hitting “publish”.

    3 You’ve heard of Apple pay? based on NFC protocols. That’s right, it’s been built in for the past 3 generations but you were too busy not noticing that the battery life had been getting notably better without the phones actually getting any thinner, so you missed it..

    4. Headphone jacks got left out of the newest iphone (which again, it minutely *thicker* than the previous iphone) to make room for a bigger camera, a fact that is easily discoverable if one bothers to actually, you know, do a little research on Google.

    As to laptops.

    1 Battery life. Apple foolishly took a long time to get new laptop designs out the door. So they skipped over a couple generations of CPU designs. In that generation or two that Apple did not ship in a laptop, Intel has continued to strive to deliver chips that perform better but use less power. Intel’s solution has been to leave the ceiling TDP for the CPU the same as before, but move the floor (at idle) far lower, and make the CPU “bursty,” ramping up and down a far greater range of clock rates so as to burn as little power as possible to get the job done and then race back to idle. But that means that a battery life indicator algorithm attuned to the behavior of intel’s older chips is going to deliver nonsense results, dancing all over the place. And that is going to happen regardless of battery size.

    To maintain product secrecy, Apple keeps hardware teams firewalled from the OS team until a new product is ready to ship. This is probably why the problem with the battery indicator didn’t get spotted and fixed ahead of time. Writing new battery life algorithms takes time. Removing the broken time left indicator was a fast, easy fix while their coders work on a new algorithm.

    I’ve seen reviews of the new macbook pros that say the battery life is better than the previous generation’s (and in line with Apple’s claims), and reviews that say it is worse (and not measuring up to claims). The problem, fundamentally, seems to be that Intel’s bursty CPU design makes battery life depend far more than before on usage patterns. One person’s “light” usage is another person’s “heavy” usage, and as always with entitled nerds on the internet, the people who are the heaviest most demanding users who hammer their device’s battery and then complain on twitter about how it doesn’t last nearly long enough tend to *think* that they are average users when they are actually far out on the tail end of the bell curve.

    2. Ports. I bought a used 2008 17″ macbook pro for a friend. It has over a dozen ports along both sides, nearly all of which neither I nor my friend would ever use. Ditto for the ports on my old 2006 thinkpad. On the other hand, each of those laptops has only one or two of each port. If I want to connect two external monitors, or more than 2 USB devices, I am SOL. Apple decided that the thing to do was the same as they did back in the late 90’s with USB on the imac: embrace a new standard that will work for *everything*, enabling them to deliver products with fewer but more versatile ports. Once peripheral makers get on board and customers buy new peripherals, then everyone will be happier.

    As far as Magsafe goes, no, it wasn’t deleted due to thickness issues (again face checking would have been helpful). Apple already revised magsafe to be thinner when they came out with the retina macbook pros.

    The reason apple deleted magsafe is simple — their vision of the future is one in which all ports are identical, all ports are able to do everything we need ports for. That means switching to USB-c charging. Their vision of the future is also one in which all but the heaviest most demanding users simply plug their laptop in to charge at night and then use it all day on a single charge. A laptop that delivers 10 or more hours of life per charge is a laptop that most people won’t need to charge more than once a day. So magsafe becomes unnecessary. And right or wrong, if Apple thinks something is unnecessary, Apple leaves it out.

    3. Keyboards. Have you ever compared a modern thinkpad to a 20 year old thinkpad? They keyboards on the newer ones are much shallower and feel much worse than the old ones. Keyboard depth and feel have been being sacrificed on the altar of lightening and slimming laptop computers since the dawn of the laptop computer, by every laptop maker, not just by Apple. Apple made a new keyboard that some vocal nerds on the internet like and others don’t. And as always, most of their customers don’t care one way or another – they get used to the new feel after a day or week of using their new notebook and don’t think about it after that.

    • obarthelemy

      Your rant is a bit confusing and confused.
      Phones:
      – you’re amalgamating thinness and lightness. Article is about thinness only.
      – bendgate is a thing, though probably not limited to iPhones. People do put their phones in their back pocket and sit on them.
      – battery getting less bad at last doesn’t invalidate the point. It could have been good since day 1
      – reciprocally, have you ever heard someone say “i wish my phone had less battery but was even thinner ?”
      – space is like money, it has no smell. There’s no “taking the jack out to make room for the camera”. Plenty of phones have both. It’s a matter of making the phone half a millimeter thicker. My take on it is that Apple is milking its customers via extra overpriced peripherals.

      Laptops:
      – yep ,Apple product design seems to have failed with their latest laptops. Isn’t having the same company design the hardware and the OS supposed to be their killer advantage ?
      – You’re even saying HW and OS never were integrated to start with and that was all bunk all along ??? That’s news to me, but OK.
      – the problem is not just the battery gauge, and Apple hiding it is trumpishly hypocritical. The problem is the actual battery life. The explanation I’ve seen is that Apple intended to use a new battery tech, but couldn’t get it ready in time, so chose to ship an inferior product instead; because shareholders are getting restless about declining results.
      – the issue is not that Apple are using new ports, but that there are too few of them, and that you can’t even connect an iPhone w/o a dongle. Glad I could make that clear…
      – keyboard is both preference and habit. I went to try them out, off the cuff, I could use the Air’s, but the new McBook’s is very jarring. And noisy.

    • Wow. Top Hole.

  • I have tried my best to read this article as objectively as possible, making an effort to accept ideas that are in conflict with my own. However, being more accustomed to the excellent and detailed usability articles from the Nielsen Norman Group (https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ ), I find this really hard to do.

    There are so many blind assertions without due discussion, and when these conflict with my own knowledge and experience, it becomes really hard to follow. I’ll give just a few examples.

    1. The discussion about the reduced number of ports suggests that thinness is the only reason why Apple chose to eliminate legacy ports. This seems to ignore that Apple’s history of doing this goes back to the Bondi Blue iMac and the toilet seat iBook, none of which were thin in any way. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to assume that thinness is not the only agenda when Apple removes legacy ports?

    2. Regarding fragility, I am sure that the author is aware that the iPhone 6s (& 7) was slightly thicker (by 0.2mm) than the iPhone 6, presumably in order to improve resistance to bending. Now Apple has an enclosure that is rugged and waterproof and only 0.2mm thicker than the iPhone 6. With this in mind, can you still assert that thinness is more important than fragility at Apple?
    (http://www.gsmarena.com/compare.php3?idPhone1=7242&idPhone2=6378)

    3. Regarding loss of features, I’m not sure where you got the idea that “iPhones still don’t have NFC”. This is plain wrong, and I use NFC on my iPhone 7 almost every day.

    If you are going to make a strong argument, please try to back your assertions including all relevant facts, and please don’t make simple mistakes that undermine the credibility of your discussion.

    • jfutral

      NFC notwithstanding, nothing you present counters the point that thinness is not a design priority to Apple and that there are not demonstrable consequences of that approach. Apple is constantly touting there product’s thinness. A .2mm “increase” is hardly a counter point. I don’t know how anyone can reasonable argue that Apple is not perusing as thin as possible in their current design goals. pretty much since the MacBook Air. I don’t recall Apple touting “We made the iPhone .2mm thicker so we could improve it’s functionality!” But they did talk about removing the headphone jack as related to maintaining physical form, aka thinness.

      The Bondi Blue iMac and iBook are pretty much irrelevant to any contemporary discussion on Apple’s design approach. Are you really trying to say that there is no benefit to thinness to migrating to all Thunderbolt ports? Do you think they would have still chosen eliminating ports if there were no physical design benefit?

      Joe

      • Yes. I believe they would have still eliminated the analog audio port on iPhones, even if could fit in the iPhone 7 case. Maintaining a decades old legacy analog port does not match what Apple has been doing since 1997.

        This is a deeper discussion which should include much more hardware and software examples, and not just I/O ports. To really see where Apple is heading, I think you need to see how Apple handles all things legacy, including Flash, Rosetta, and under-the-hood software stuff like mDNSResponder/discoveryd for example. You need to understand how Apple consistently culls legacy stuff across the board, sometimes for no apparent functional reason.

        It is not my intention to go into this here. My intention is to point out that this article loses credibility by omission of relevant facts and by simple mistakes.

        • jfutral

          Legacy vs relevance discussion aside (the only limitation to audio on the iPhone was what Apple did before the jack, not it’s age), Apple clearly articulated that eliminating the jack was about _space_ which is directly tied to size and thinness. That is unarguable. It is their own words.

          So again, nothing you point out is relevant to either the author’s or Apples own public articulations that thinness is their physical design aesthetic and that there are consequences, intentional or otherwise.

          Joe

          • Both LeEco and Lenovo have eliminated analog headphone jacks in at least some of their models. Wait another year, and I expect to see more. I propose that we resume this discussion next year.

            It is tempting to think that decision making inside Apple is driven by certain whims of Jonny Ive. Especially when Apple gives a simple and easily comprehensible answer like “thinness” instead of the vague term “courage”. However, I believe “courage” to be far closer to the actual decision making process inside Apple.

            Maybe to balance the “thinness” argument which I believe is overblown, we should discuss what Apple meant by “courage”.

          • jfutral

            It is irrelevant what Lenovo and LeEco does or doesn’t do. The point is that Apple articulated a reason of space in eliminating the analog jack, period. I don’t know why this and Apple’s own statements about thinness are such a stumbling block for you. It is the data at hand, irrefutable. There are clear aesthetic choices that Apple makes and it has an effect on their product.

            There is nothing to “balance” thinness when it is Apple’s own words and their body of work for many years is crystal clear. Is it because of the implications that someone may not like something you do?
            You and others here have regularly made the rationalization of “making the tough choices” about what to include and not include. And from Apple’s own words and clear actions there chosen aesthetic of thin is at least one of those reasons. And for this reason in particular there are clear physical (you know, physics) consequences, of which Apple seems quite satisfied in making.

            I don’t think there is anything “dumbed down” about it. It is an upscale, sophisticated, aesthetic choice. That’s not dumb. But that doesn’t mean it is issue free.

            Joe

          • What is your take on the iPad 3 which was significantly thicker and heavier than its predecessor?

            It suggests to me that Apple is not “thinness at all costs”. It is a high priority for sure, but some things are occasionally more important. There is a balance.

          • jfutral

            First, ‘significant’, in this instance is relative. The overall aesthetic is the same. Second one instance does not indicate a trend of increasing thickness for whatever reason technological they chose to do so for that one release. They are obviously still obsessed with thinness in light of the subsequent iPad releases, including the Air.

            What would make a change in thickness/thinness a significant deviation, in my view, for Apple would be if they publicly espoused that as a design positive and/or their body of work and products released demonstrated that trend. One or two anomalies along the way doesn’t serve to counter the thinness argument. If anything it reinforces the limitations that design choice imposes. Sometimes even Apple has to concede, even if only implicitly, there are consequences for that choice.

            Joe

          • So if I understand correctly, you need to see more than three, or even a trend of increasingly thick products to be convinced that Apple is not dogmatically insisting on thinness at all costs.

            Are you sure, because that does sound a bit extreme.

          • jfutral

            No, I’m saying the exceptions don’t disprove the trend. There is nothing extreme about it. What’s extreme is pointing to one or two marginal exceptions and saying that proves something it clearly doesn’t.

            Joe

          • That’s what I said. You seem to be requiring 3 or more example of thickness increase, before you accept that Apple is not prioritising thinness at all costs. I’m saying that if you have to increase thickness 3 times, your engineering department is probably just lousy.

          • jfutral

            If you aren’t willing to take Apple’s word for it, I don’t know what else to say.

            Joe

          • pk_de_cville

            “Apple clearly articulated that eliminating the jack was about _space_ which is directly tied to size and thinness.”

            Also tied to obvious jack obsolescence (No jacks in premium phones within 2 years.) and haptic engine.

          • jfutral

            Yes, because now they have the _space_ to add those things. This is not about whether removing the jack was a good, bad, right, or wrong decision. But it was a choice affected by their design choice to keep things thin.

            Joe

    • Maybe the author should have waited until this news before writing this article.

      Consumer Reports Reverses Course, Recommends MacBook Pro Following New Testing After Apple Bug Fix

      http://www.macrumors.com/2017/01/12/consumer-reports-recommends-new-macbook-pro/

  • obarthelemy

    What I find fascinating alongside “thiness is important” is the successful rebranding of aluminum as premium.
    – it’s the stuff I wrap my sandwiches and leftovers in.
    – it’s not famous for being used in any fancy devices (airplanes, submarines have stopped using it because it melts contagiously)
    – My dad ended his career working at an alum (the precursor white powder) factory. It’s a bit smelly and noisy, and a lot dirty (the whole city including my room was covered in a fine mix of reddish and white powders, not even the fun ones). Not glamorous
    – it’s distinctively inferior as a phone casing: fragile, radio-opaque, expensive, scratchy, bendy…

    On the other hand, stuff like carbon fiber, composites, even simple plastics, are superior on all scores except look god. Or marble and wood and leather would be really luxurious…

    I think the overarching idea as to make tech stuff sexy, even at the cost of functionality. It worked !

  • jfutral

    The only point I would argue is that all those consequences are unintended, such as needing dongles for the elimination of ports. I don’t they were intended in the sense that Apple thought to themselves “Hey! Let’s make our users buy a bunch of dongles!”. I do think they did so in good faith that it was the right thing to do.

    Of course neither you nor I agree that it was the right thing, right way, or right time. At least when they eliminated SCSI or Firewire, other ports were both already doing most of the work except for a few hardcore users, pretty much the same way BETA was still in professional use when BETA dropped from the landscape and VHS was the clear market preference.

    And battery life is still a relative metric. But, like RAM, the ones who need more battery life are the ones who are most affected. Which brings me to my “unintended consequence”, the division of Apple customers.

    The complaints are coming from Apple users, which is not typical. Usually it is the typical Apple bashing users in comment sections or tech writers who have either never used an Apple product or already hated Apple because they were forced to use a Mac or iPhone for one reason or another.

    Whether this is actually intended or not we are still trying to figure out. I like to think it is unintended and that, unlike Chuq in his article here:

    https://chuqui.com/2017/01/apples-2016-in-review/

    Apple still cares about all their customers, even if we are a small segment of the market, because we are usually the ones most financially heavily invested in Apple. We are the ones who are most willing to drop many thousands of dollars on Apple products, even in the face of cheaper Android or Windows devices because Apple does still account for our usage. But it is hard to argue with Chuq’s thought process without some blind faith.

    Joe

    • Space Gorilla

      “The complaints are coming from Apple users, which is not typical.”

      I’ll just point out that pro users complaining about Apple abandoning them has been a thing for a couple decades. Gruber wrote about the issue 15 years ago (and throughout the years up to recently), and lots of other long time Apple users have voiced similar concerns for a long, long time. This isn’t new. Is it possible this is finally the time the pro users are right? Sure, anything is possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

      • jfutral

        Gruber depends on Apple’s success for his success. I take everything he says with a grain of salt unless it is corroborated by third parties. Same with you.

        Joe

        • Space Gorilla

          Gruber has been quite critical of Apple on the issue over the years. His most recent post on this issue included this line: “Selling 1000-day-old pro workstations at the same prices as in 2013 makes no sense. Whatever the explanation is, this situation is an unmitigated disaster.”

          The point is that Apple has been ‘abandoning’ some important segment of users for a couple decades. It’s not a new complaint. Correct me if I’m wrong but you do seem to saying that these kinds of complaints coming from Apple users is”not typical”. That just isn’t true, long time and pro Apple users have been complaining for a couple decades. I can’t remember a time when this sort of complaint wasn’t being made re: Apple.

          • jfutral

            I would correct you if I thought doing so would make a difference to you. But since you are long Apple and all you would do is find some way to rationalize a counter point, I don’t see it happening.

            Joe

          • Space Gorilla

            What am I wrong about? Did you not say “The complaints are coming from Apple users, which is not typical. Usually it is the typical Apple bashing users in comment sections or tech writers who have either never used an Apple product or already hated Apple…”

            That doesn’t seem up for debate, you did say that.

            So are you saying I’m wrong that Apple users (both long time and pro) haven’t been complaining about Apple for a couple decades? I know this is true, I’ve lived through it (I still have the original 1984 Mac on my desk). There’s no shortage of articles and comments over the last 20 years from Apple users complaining about some choice Apple has made or some direction Apple is heading (Naofumi touched on this a bit already).

            I have no problem being wrong, in fact I love it, it means I’m learning new things. But you have to present an argument based on facts.

      • Exactly. This continued trope that Mac users/Apple supporters exist in some alternate reality where nothing Apple ever does is wrong and all Apple supporters are slaves to Apple’s decisions flies in the face of the regular, detailed diatribes written by Apple supporters regarding some of Apple’s decisions. Apple’s actual users complaints carry far more weight that the regular, predicable literally-have-not-changed-in-30-years carping that we see from clickbait artists.

        • Space Gorilla

          I’m continually pissed at how Apple handles family households with multiple devices, it’s a mess. There has been steady improvement, but there’s a ways to go yet. I have lots of other complaints about Apple of course, but I also realize that one company can’t possibly please everyone, there’s going to be things I like and things I don’t like. So far there has always been a lot more to like, so Apple gets my business. I don’t see any evidence of that changing, this latest round of complaints seems very similar to what I’ve heard for a couple decades (or more).

    • In Christensen’s books about the Innovator’s Dilemma, he specifically mentions the unwillingness to leave behind your hard-core, most demanding, and most profitable customers behind, as the reason why incumbents often get disrupted. Putting it crudely, you shouldn’t listen too much to your most profitable users, if you want to escape disruption. Unwillingness to cede customers who value your expensive, high performance and super reliable SPARC servers, leads your R&D, sales and marketing efforts towards trashing low-end Intel servers. Instead, according to Christensen, what disrupters do is they focus on technologies that are barely good enough and will often not satisfy hard core users, but have the potential to rapidly improve and eventually surpass what the incumbents had.

      Apple’s actions with ports, pro-Macs, pro-software, Flash, earphones etc. can be neatly explained if you understand disruption theory and why Christensen thinks incumbents get disrupted. Apple doesn’t listen too much to their pro-users, and instead provides tools that enable normal users to do tomorrow what pro users do today. The willingness to f**k their hard-core users is what I think Phil Schiller means by “courage”.

      • jfutral

        I really don’t have a problem with anything you’ve said. They’ve cut servers, printers, most likely monitors, and most recently wireless routers. And if they cut Mac Pros I wouldn’t be surprised. But it is not about the products or features they cut, it is about the product they introduced.

        If that is what Apple is doing with the MBP, then they are being quite disingenuous, considering their demo of the MBP was about _pro_ users. That’s worse than deciding the highend users aren’t important any more.

        I don’t believe this is about disruption theory, as nice and neat an argument as you lay out, but without any teeth. It was just a plain out, nominal device upgrade. It’s good enough, but it isn’t anything more than that. That is what is really the essence of the complaints, if you really look. It is really just a plain mediocre update.

        But, email polling of users about the headphone jack on the MBP notwithstanding, I really disagree with the premise that Apple doesn’t listen to their serious, highend customers. I don’t mean geeks or blog writers who are more concerned about bragging rights. I mean the guys who use their products everyday to create work—graphics, movies, music, video, architects, developers, etc. There would be no point in selling highend gear. Cut it and move on. That’s courage. Not some cutting a mamby-pamby headphone jack.

        I really can’t believe Apple is saying f**k you to developers. Do you really believe that? They don’t have to go all Steve Ballmer, but if that is what they are really saying then things are worse than I thought.

        I think they take the criticism from those users quite seriously and personally. I don’t think you have any data to suggest otherwise. That’s why they keep explaining things. Just like those users were important to Jobs when he was around (as Tim B. reminds us), I do think _they think_ they are listening and delivering. Like, in reality the new FCX was designed from the ground up to specifically address pro user concerns. They just aren’t always so smart about how they go about it. (And FCX continues to evolve as they continue to listen, even though many have already switched to Avid. You do what you can.)

        Secondary topic:
        Speaking of disruption theory, I have my own theory about the iPhone headphone jack, but it boils down to there was nothing more Apple could do with audio, particularly with the iPhone. I think Apple decided, with the current state of audio technology, like with wireless routers, serves, printers, and monitors, it was time to hand that off to others who are more interested. There are a lot of other pieces, but it just boils down to regarding headphone audio technology, there is no problem left to solve, except in wireless. that’s where people are begging for a great solution.

        Joe

        • klahanas

          Really good exchange gentlemen.

          While Apple may not be explicitly saying FU to the customer, they have always “serviced” the customer in a George Carlin kind of way.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BtzaYpivFM

          I think personalities come into play as well. Apple is indeed a company with personality. It was formed in Jobs’ image after all. Jobs would not hesitate for an instant to declare anything dead. He may well have had reasons others can accept, but often on a whim. Under him, Apple was a moody company.

          The difference between now and today? Jobs could get away with it!

          Today, people get pissed. It’s about time! I’ve been saying this until I turned purple… the buyer/seller relationship is a competitive one, not kumbaya.

  • Kira Kinski

    I agree that Apple’s obsession with thinness is out of control, and might even do in the utility of its products. Who knows what features have been given up or, worse, imagined because there simply is no room for them. The sad part is that there is no real need for continued thinness; it serves no purpose but maybe bragging rights. Apple is normally not so short sighted, but then again the show is being orchestrated through a different set of eyes. In short, Apple has forgotten its goal to make insanely great products. It now makes insanely thin closed boxes.

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