Jony Ive on creative vs. problem solving modes in product development


It’s a given in the world of tech startups that you must solve a customer problem in order to succeed. That seems very straightforward, but Jony Ive presented the paradox in which he and other creative developers work at a talk he gave on the occasion of being awarded the Stephen Hawking Fellowship at the Cambridge Union.

The speech was filled with tiny gems, like the importance of listening to the quietest voice in the room during the creative process.

But what interested me was how he described ideas as not a response to a particular problem as he discussed the development of the touch interface at Apple.

“Nobody asked us to solve a problem. They were not in response to a technological opportunity. These ideas, they weren’t vulnerable or fragile for a couple of weeks or for a couple of months, these ideas were fragile for years.

What Ive enjoys is the unpredictability and surprise in the product development process. He described the paradox in the way he works:

“There is a fundamental conflict between two very different ways of thinking. It is the conflict between curiosity and the resolve and focus that is necessary to solve problems. Curiosity, while it fuels and motivates, despite being utterly fundamental to the generation of ideas, in isolation just culminates in lots of long lists, perhaps some ideas, but alone that’s sort of where it ends.

Ive made me rethink my relentless emphasis on focus when mentoring founders:

“The necessary resolve to find solutions to the problems that stand between a tentative thought and something substantial, that resolve and that focus very often seems in direct conflict with most creative behaviour. Honestly, I can’t think of two ways of working, two different ways of being, that are more polar. On one hand to be constantly questioning, loving surprises, consumed with curiosity and yet on the other hand having to be utterly driven and completely focused to solve apparently insurmountable problems, even if those solutions are without precedent or reference.

My successes in the startup world have virtually all come from helping instantiate a founder’s vision. The two occasions where I founded a company to realize my own ideas, Throughline and Popsleuth, were both non-starters.  As Jony Ive points out, successful developers can switch between curiosity/idea mode and problem solving mode not just once or twice in a multi-year project but “I find it happens to me once or twice a day and that frequency of shifting between two such different ways of seeing and thinking is fantastically demanding.”

So my takeaway from Jony Ive’s talk is that relentless focus is all well and good, and it’s necessary to build a successful product, but not sufficient. The creative/curious side plays an equal or even more dominant role. But as Ive points out, this shifting is “fantastically demanding.”

This is yet another reason why founding a company and driving the development of a product is so very hard for a solo entrepreneur. Almost every successful entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg had one or more co-founders.  And in retrospect, the reason why I was recruited onto the founding team of several startups was not because I was an idea man but was someone who could focus and bring the founder’s idea to life. Much as I’m fascinated by the creative development process I learned the hard way to stay in my lane as an operations manager, leaving the creative side of things to my

If you are intent on starting a venture, as so many are these days, you might want to look in the mirror and see if there’s an image of the curious creator or the focused problem solver. If you are clearly one or the other then start that search for your complementary co-founder ASAP. But if  you appear to yourself as ambidextrous, you just might want to test that appearance on a small project you take on yourself before tackling the start of a new venture and owning both the creative and operating side of things.

What’s your product narrative?


I’ve posted previously how at Amazon developers’ first step in new product development is to write a press release about the product they plan to create. But Scott Belsky in his new book The Messy Middle takes narrative well beyond the press release.

Carmine Gallo, one of my favorite business writers, writes about Belsky’s book in the Forbes article An Early Uber Investor Reveals A Creative Strategy To Build An Irresistible Brand. His key take-away from the book is that founders should build their narrative before they start developing their product.

According to Belsky, “Most entrepreneurs jump in and build a product. They’ll spend months, even years, building an MVP (minimal viable product). Right when they’re about to share it with the world, they realize it doesn’t resonate with consumers. People don’t understand why it helps them and why they should use it instead of something else.” Belsky recommends that entrepreneurs avoid this problem by starting with a story before the product is built—paint a picture of what the world will look like when the product is finished.

Belsy recommends that developers build a private web page for the product that should answer the following questions:

·     What inspired the idea?

·     Why does it need to exist?

·     Why is it relevant?

·     How does it make the future better?

The narrative services not only as the roadmap to how you develop your product but how you will market it as well. All stakeholders, from investors, team, or partners are helped to visualize the future.

Being able to recite a narrative—tell a story—about a future customer and how the product will solve a real-world problem is a powerful exercise that few leaders do in the early stages of the development process. “It’s very powerful and most teams don’t spend a lot of time on it,” says Belsky.

It’s a truism that investor pitches need to tell a story, but Belsky’s concept of the narrative goes beyond that to acting as the lodestar during the entire lifecycle of the product.  I see Belsky’s approach as similar to what I recommend to founders, using the journalists who? what? why? why” where? and how? to tell their products story. But what is different about Belsky’s approach is that it helps everyone envision the future. He gives a great example, how Garrett Camp, co-founder of Uber imagined a future where where everyone could call up a private driver, something only reserved for wealthy elites at the time. He imagined it as a superpower that ordinary people would have at their fingertips, literally. The story evolved into Uber’s first tagline: Uber is everyone’s private driver. Journalists report on the present; you narrative is a report from the future!

This also ties in with how Alan Kay recommends founders develop their products which I wrote about in the blog post How to invent the future. Belsky’s put his money where his book is, he was an early investor in Uber, in addition to founding Behance, an online portfolio company for creatives that he later sold to Adobe for an estimated $150 million. Today, Belsky is Adobe’s chief product officer and a venture capital investor.

He uses as an example Garrett Camp. the cofounder of Uber. (Belsky was an early investor in the company) Before Uber was a product—or a company—Camp was working on the narrative. Camp began to imagine an experience where everyone could call up a private driver, something only reserved for wealthy elites at the time. He imagined it as a superpower that ordinary people would have at their fingertips, literally. The story evolved into Uber’s first tagline: Uber is everyone’s private driver.

To recap, while Jeff Bezos’s practice of writing a press release for a new product that has yet to even begin development acts as a guiding light, a narrative envisions the future how the product will change life for consumers. Both approaches will not only guide developers but help them communicate the nature and value of their product to all stakeholders from investors to users.

Demo or die!


This directive was issued by Nicholas Negroponte, the founding director of the MIT Media Lab as a great contrast to the typical academic edict, publish or perish. The Media Lab’s support came, and probably still comes, from very large companies who want a front row seat at the Lab’s inventions and innovations. The ticket price is high, but so is the return on investment.

Joi Ito, the current director of the Media Lab, quoted this phrase to a TED audience:

“The demo only has to work once because the primary mode of us impacting the world was through large companies being inspired by us and creating things like the Kindle or Lego Mindstorms. But today, with the ability of to deploy things into the real world at low cost, I’m changing the motto now. And this is official: deploy or die.”

What brought this to mind was my major takeaway from Ken Kocienda’s book Creative Selection, about his 15 years of experience designing and developing products at Apple. His major accomplishment at Apple was developing the keyboard for the iPhone. He provides a fascinating inside look at how a major feature comes to life at Apple. There was a lot of concern about the iPhone keyboard, actually more like fear that users just wouldn’t be able to type efficiently and accurately on the glass screen. Ken became the DRI – Directly Responsible Individual – for the iPhone keyboard through a bakeoff process amongst 14 other developers in the iPhone software group conducted by the departed VP of Software Development, Scott Forstall. The demo is the core modality of feature development at Apple. If you are in charge of a particular feature or function, like the keyboard, your first task is to create a demo to show what the feature would look like to a user. Once you have a demo that works to your satisfaction the next step is to show your demo to your teammates. You next incorporate that feedback and get ready for the weekly meeting with your manager to show him the demo. If it passes muster the demo goes right up the chain of command. Scott Forstall was the ultimate gate keeper to Steve Jobs. Only when Scott was satisfied that the demo represented the best way to implement a feature like the iPhone keyboard would he arrange a meeting with Jobs and other members of the executive team.

According to Kocienda, Apple was very focused on the concrete and tangible. Brainstorming sessions were extremely rare. Even white-boarding sessions were used primarily in a problem solving, not presentation mode. Engineers were largely left to their own devices to develop their demos uninterrupted by management.

So while Nicholas Negroponte’s demo or die was focused on his patrons, Apple’s demos were used to refine a feature until it’s ultimate green lighting by Steve Jobs. Only then would the engineer begin to turn the demo into actual functioning code.

Joi Ito plainly was highly influenced by Apple’s culture, as he said:

Less planning and more presence in the moment can accelerate innovation, he argues. Getting objects out into the real world is the point. Don’t be a futurist,  he urges, be a “now-ist.”

This is great advice for founders. Along with get out of the office and talk to prospective customers it’s probably the second most important piece of advice – don’t leave your office without a demo.

The distance from a presentation to a demo is enormous. But starting to actually code before you have a demo that been subjected to both internal review and customer review is going to waste time and effort. Premature coding is more dangerous to a venture than premature fund raising.

So “demo or die” is a motto well worth bringing into your corporate culture. But it needs to be an integral part of the product development process, not a sidetrack to please marketing or impress investors.  At Apple during Jobs’ and Kocienda’s time:

Demos were the catalyst for creative decisions. We found that the sooner we started making creative decisions … the more time there was to refine and improve those decisions, to backtrack if needed, to forge ahead if possible. Concrete and specific demos were the handholds and footholds that helped boost us up from the  bottom of the conceptual valley so we could scale the heights of worthwhile work. Making a succession of demos was the core of the process of taking an idea from the intangible to the tangible.

There are many important milestones in the life of the startup but none is more important that turning your idea into demo, the mission critical step in product development, when your baby who has been gestating for months is finally born for the world to see.

An inside look at Apple’s software development process

creative selection

Creative Selection is a term coined by Ken Kocienda, who spent 15 years at Apple developing software and working on the iPhone and iPad during the second reign of Steve Jobs.  I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes of the works of art I admire, be they movies, books, software, hardware or in Apple’s case the brilliant melding of hardware, software, and services.

While I’ve read quite a number of book’s about Steve Jobs and Apple none of them have gone into the deep, nitty gritty detail of how software was designed, developed, reviewed and released at Apple.

Ken Kocienda’s book Creative Selection – Inside Apple’s Design Process During the the Golden Age of Steve Jobs is the not the first book by an Apple developer, Andy Herzfeld, one of the key Mac developers, released Revolution in The Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made in 2004 and there might be others, but either way I highly recommend Ken’s book to any software developer or business person interested in how the sausage is really made.

Ken lists seven elements essential to Apple’s software success:

  1. Inspiration: Thinking big idea and imagining what might be possible
  2.  Collaboration: Working together well with other people and seeking to combine your complementary strengths
  3. Craft: Apply skill to achieve high-quality results and always striving to do better.
  4. Diligence: Doing the necessary grunt work and never resorting to shortcuts or half-measures
  5. Decisiveness: Making tough choices and refusing to delay or procrastinate
  6. Taste: Developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing an integrated whole
  7. Empathy: Trying to see the world from other people’s perspectives and creating work that fits into their lives and adapts to their needs

Creative selection is the missing and combining of these elements, plus adding in a personal touch, a little piece of themselves, something Ken calls octessence.

In addition to learning a lot about Apple and its design and software development process you will also have a front row seat as Ken demos for Steve Jobs. His description of that event is poetic and renders real insight into how Jobs ran Apple and interacted with his team.

One thing I had read about Jobs that impressed me greatly was his quote about the meaning of focus:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

That’s what I thought the title Creative Selection referred to. But as you will find from reading Ken’s book there’s that and so much more, all written clearly and engagingly. Ken even includes an index for book nerds like me, so I can track down every mention of terms like creative selection.

Read the book, even if you don’t take advantage of the index.



What makes a good product?


The truism about a good product is that it solves a customer problem. But that’s just one clue amongst many. Jeff Davidson’s article on Medium’s The Startup The 10 Commandments of Good Products – what Defines Value? will help the entrepreneur build a lasting product that delivers value.

1 · It Makes an Undesirable Task Easier

Ease of use is certainly one of the defining qualities of a great product. Apple built an entire company around that value. And almost by definition, if you think about it, if you are solving a problem you are making an undesirable task – the problem – easier by providing a solution. But engineers and marketeers can be afflicted with scope creep – adding feature after cool feature until ease of use gets buried under a blizzard of features. Mitch Kapor hit the grand slam home run of products by brilliantly integrating the spreadsheet with charts and graphs. But his latter products suffered from trying to jam 20 pounds of features into a 10 pound bag – Symphony, Jazz, and Agenda to name three straight failures. The other reason for Apple’s great success was Steve Job’s insistence on simplicity and his vaunted ability to say “no” to features – sometimes even to Apple’s detriment. As Einstein supposedly said, “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Ease of use is tied in with simplicity of use. As the film directors say, be willing to leave your babies on the cutting room floor if these favorite scenes don’t advance the story.

2 · It Has Focused Value

Jeff has a truly great insight here and he knows it, as it’s in bold: Users have to imagine value before experiencing it. Job’s genius for marketing provides yet another example with his tagline for the iPod: “1,000 songs in your pocket – imagine that!” And millions did! Frankly I’m not a fan of the phrase “focused value” but the translation: your product does a few things, very well is the lesson here.

3 · It Lasts

Jeff has two great examples: the iPhone, which is basically unchanged in value delivery and form factor after 10 years – it’s specs have improved dramatically but its functionality is basically the same. The Vespa scooter is another example of a product that has remained relatively unchanged for decades. The term for something that last is classic. In today’s disposable culture of ADHD strive to create a classic, not a pop hit – here today, gone tomorrow. Jeff’s other point about lasting is that great products don’t fall apart or breakdown repeatedly. One reason why Apple leads the world in customer satisfaction surveys is durability. You need to engineer your product to survive every use case you can imagine. For physical goods you need not only great engineering but great manufacturing to build lasting products. The mirror image of lasting is planned obsolescence, products engineered to fall apart or become less useful to drive a customer to buy the next model. While this seems like a profitable strategy in the short term – please Wall Street with great quarterly revenue numbers – it’s a poor strategy in the long term. Why? Because you betray customer trust! And when you lose trust you lose loyalty. By building products that last you will build customer trust and loyalty – that’s where real value lies.

4 · It Has Aesthetic Appeal

Apple leads the world in this category. But how about Tesla for a change? Not just a breakthrough concept, but a beautiful car, inside and out. While there’s an occasional counter example, like Craigslist –  born ugly and still ugly today – in general, you want your product to be attractive in the transitive sense, that it attracts customers and as an adjective as well, it appeals to the senses.

5 · It is Intuitive

The saying “You only have one chance to make a first impression” is generally applied to people, and often used to coach candidates for job interviews. But this saying is equally true for products. If your product has a steep learning curve, like Mitch’s Agenda, relatively few people will invest the time to learn how to use it. The ratio of value to time invested must be high. As Jeff points outs, we buy when we try, which is why smart vendors offer free trial periods and friendly return policies. The days of shipping 5 pounds of manuals with a PC software application are long gone – replaced by perhaps three or four slides on the product’s home page, if that. Patience is going down, demand for immediate gratification is going up. That means you need to deliver attractive value immediately, even if it a while to learn all the features. Jean-Louis Gassée had the concept of the Z-axis in products. Your immediate impression is that the product is intuitive, but it’s also deep, not shallow. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, like Photoshop, but generally products like Photoshop are aimed at professionals who are willing to invest more time and effort to get greater return – the concept I use called ROTI: Return on Time Invested. We often quickly forget how much we paid for something if the time we invest in learning to use it is small compared to the benefit the product delivers.

6 · It is Efficient

The term I like that I learned early on from software engineers is elegance. The scientific definition is pleasingly ingenious and simple. As Jeff points out, great products are usually done by small teams, not as Bill Gates once said of IBM, “masses of asses”! The joke amongst developers is the camel is a great example of something designed by a large group. Watch out for superfluous additions such as heavy stylization. Great products have a high value to resource ratio.

7 · It is Visceral

Here’s a term I have not run across, despite being a psychology major: stimulus-response compatibility. Stimulus-response compatibility refers to the degree to which a person’s perception of the world is compatible with the required response. Being visceral means going beyond simply looking good – eye candy. Products should feel good, sound good, and even smell good. A good product is pleasing to many senses.

8 · It Satisfies the Seeking System

The term seeking system is also a new one on me, but it’s what’s behind the drive for novelty, which I wrote about in the post Novelty – the driving force for today’s consumers. Jeff defines the seeking system as humans intrinsic drive to explore, try novel things, challenge themselves, and to learn. It’s the driving force behind entertainment and social products. The seeking system is an intrinsic motivation – people want to be in control but they also want to explore. Thus the enduring value of the search engine.

9 · It Serves as an Expression of the User

Thorstein Veblen discovered this decades ago, it’s called conspicuous consumption. Fashion is the ultimate “expression of the user.” This is why aspirational marketing works so well. A product is purchased not for it’s utility value, but as a reflection of the status of the consumer. Apple’s white earbuds soon became such a symbol – they broadcast the message that the wearer was cool because they owned an iPod! Being the least fashion conscious person I know – I was once called by a Lotus executive “the worst dressed executive I ever met” –  I’ll leave this more to the marketeers than the product designers. However, Jeff throws in something I think is much more important to the product designer: the Ikea effect: People become attached to their creations and products and they start to define themselves by them.

10 · It Helps People

Helping other people is the number one value I look for in a venture. If your mission statement doesn’t say something of the form: “Our product helps people do X” then I tend to be skeptical about the venture. I look for products that deliver utility, not novelty. Utility lasts, novelty does not. If your product helps people it will last, it will become a classic, it will succeed. That’s why I would list this quality first, not last.

I don’t know anyone who’s built a great product by following a checklist. Founders need to absorb the characteristics of great products, not try to mimic them. One way to do that is to own or experience great products. Steve Jobs owned and used a BMW motorcycle and Martin-Logan electrostatic speakers – best in class products. You don’t need to buy everything, but try borrowing products that are classics – test drive a Tesla even if you can’t afford one now. By using and studying great products, whether the classics of yesterday by German consumer products company Braun, or the classics of today from Apple and Tesla, you will instinctively incorporate these qualities into your product. They must come from the inside out, they can’t be pasted on from a checklist.

When the platforms change the players change. Watch out!

apple ii

I’m not sure where I heard the adage that when the technology platforms change the players – meaning companies, will change with them, but it’s a good one for would-be entrepreneurs. Meaning those with a real bias towards doing a startup, as three MIT grads I met with recently, who really wanted to do a startup but didn’t know where to start. Watching for the next wave is one way to launch a business that will have the advantage of a megatrend behind it.

I went through two of the major instances of platform changes enabling new competitors which we missed not once, but twice. If you are running an established company rather than a startup you or a co-founder should spend a few percentage points of your time scanning for imminent platform changes in the technology environment and when you see a massive change coming get all hands-on deck to prepare for it.

The Apple 6502 Platform

Here’s the first example. In 1979 Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston started a company called Software Arts, Inc. to commercialize Dan’s invention of the electronic spreadsheet to be named VisiCalc. There were lots of PCs around in the dawning of the personal computer in the late 1970s but no single company had yet developed a platform, meaning a framework or environment in which end-user applications can be developed and run. Back in those days there was a strict delineation between systems software, what we now call the operating system, and applications software, like word processors, now called apps.  Dan and Bob wisely chose the Apple II from Apple Computer, Inc. and it’s 6502 processor as their delivery platform. If I recall correctly the Prime computer, a mini-computer played a key role in development, thought VisiCalc was coded in assembly language for the 6502 processor. Choosing the 6502 and Apple over the 8080 used by a number of other companies had a direct and highly beneficial effect on Apple’s skyrocketing rise to define the personal computer. As highly influential analyst Ben Rosen wrote of VisiCalc, It was he software that wagged the hardware dog. You can learn a lot more about the early history of Apple in a plethora of books and though no one has sought to write the history of Software Arts there’s plenty of information about VisiCalc onWikipedia. I’ll limit myself with providing you with a very insightful quote from Ted Nelson, a pioneer of hypertext and a hero of mine (deserving of a full post):

VISICALC represented a new idea of a way to use a computer and a new way of thinking about the world. Where conventional programming was thought of as a sequence of steps, this new thing was no longer sequential in effect: When you made a change in one place, all other things changed instantly and automatically.

— Ted Nelson[8]

The Apple II became a platform through two breakthrough ideas by Apple co-founder and technical genius Steve Wozniak: building seven slots into the motherboard, which enabled scores of hardware developers to build compatible cards, and by providing an early version of the BASIC programming language, thus making the Apple II accessible to those of us not equipped to program in assembler.

Software Arts built a very nice business on the Apple II and the strategy was to go broad but not necessarily deep. In other words a lot of the company’s resources were developed in creating versions of VisiCalc for others computer the process called porting, from Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, and probably a couple of others I’ve forgotten

The IBM PC PC-DOS Platform

But then along came the IBM Personal Computer developed in a skunkworks located from from IBM’s gravitational pull of its HQ. The IBM PC was the massive change in platform that unfortunately Software Arts missed. We were given a very early version of the machine, code named “Peanut” which came in on a plywood board,  and sported an operating system that wasn’t yet to be called PC-DOS, as it was an OS purchased presciently by Microsoft from a small developer who had no idea that that the market dominating IBM was soon going to enter the PC business. Well I have to be careful or I’ll be regurgitating everything I know about the early days of the PC which isn’t my point. Others have done that quite well and it’s not my intent.

What happened with the PC was that Software Arts made a very large mistake. Instead of treating the IBM PC like the market and platform creator that was soon to dominate the business computing world, it was treated the IBM PC as yet another port, much like Atari or Radio Shack. So rather than coding a new version of VisiCalc from ground up to take advantage of it’s leading hardware features, such as function keys, larger memory address space, built in floppy drives, higher resolution screen and more, the decision was made to use a cross-assembler. It got VisiCalc onto the PC fairly quickly. But Mitch Kapor who had been the product manager for VisiCalc for Personal Software, the publisher and distributor of VisiCalc, had left that position to develop his own program for the Apple II, VisiTrend/VisiPlot. That graphing program, which used the same file format as VisiCalc so it was easy for users of VisiCalc to import their data into VisiTrend to analyze and plot their data. Mitch wisely sold the program to Personal Software. Many of us at Software Arts, like me, who knew Mitch expected him to retire to Hawaii given his penchant for Hawaiian shirts. But Mitch had developed several other programs, so he was deeply embedded into the personal computer industry and he presciently spotted the IBM PC for what it was – a ground breaking new platform that would enable programmers to take advantage of it’s more sophisticated OS, 8080 processor, larger memory, extended keyboard and other of its many advantages over the Apple II.

Although Steve Jobs brazenly took out full page ads welcoming IBM to the personal computer industry the Apple II soon became a speck in IBM’s review mirror. Mitch got as a partner Jonathan Sachs, whose programming wizardry rivaled Software Arts’ Bob Frankston’s, as I recall Dan telling Bob in exasperated tone. To cut to the chase, Mitch was the designer of the most popular program for the, PC and Jonathan Sachs, the programmer. By designing and developing Lotus 1-2-3 from the ground up for the IBM PC and incorporating the graphing and data analysis features of VisiTrend/VisiPlot, VisiCalc soon became a speck in Lotus’ review mirror. The platform changed: from the Apple II to the IBM PC (and its clones) and with it the players changed: from Software Arts, Inc.  to Lotus Development Corporation.

The Microsoft Windows Platform

But sharp as Mitch was it was his turn to miss the next platform change. Bill Gates at MicroSoft had developed a competitor to VisiCalc; like all the other competitors I tracked as VisiCalc product manager, pre-IBM MultiPlan went no where very quickly. But it gave Microsoft valuable experience in developing a business spreadsheet, experience that was put to good use as Microsoft drove the next huge platform change, from the command line interface of PC and MS-DOS, to the GUI of the Windows operating system. I remember first seeing an early version of Windows and it looked very clunky. But Microsoft made up for in persistence what they may have lacked in visual design and by Windows version 3.1 Microsoft owned the next and virtually last platform for the PC and became a multi-billion dollar public company on the back of its graphical user interface and the Excel spreadsheet, written by Microsoft to take full advantage of its own operating system. There’s tons more inside baseball history to this platform change, Wikipedia and Google can fill in the many details. But the moral of the story is that Bill Gates, like Mitch Kapor, leveraged their early foray into PC applications programs to totally dominate the next OS of their times.

The Smartphone Platform and the Rise of Mobile Computing

But next came Microsoft’s turn to miss the platform change, and yet again the players changed with it. That platform change was driven by Apple and its development of the market-making iPhone and it’s brilliant accompanying iPhone driver, the App Store. I vividly recall Steve Ballmer, then CEO of Microsoft, replacing Bill Gates derision of the iPhone. Check out the YouTube video Ballmer Laughs at iPhone or read That Time Steve Ballmer Laughed at the iPhone. Ballmer and Microsoft had become fat, happy, and complacent.  They totally missed the smartphone and app platform change and Apple did what no one ever believed possible, it became not only amore valuable company than Microsoft, but created a new platform that blew away Microsoft and the rest of the legacy PC world as well.

So you know the saying, Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Well platform change has happened yet again! I knew well before most anyone that AI would become the next platform change. But that knowledge did me no good, as I didn’t know when or why. But neural networks, which had been left dead and buried by influential MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky rose from the dead, in the form of today’s machine learning. The infrastructure that enabled that resurrection, was the vastly more powerful computing power, the almost infinite storage capabilities, and most importantly, the reams upon reams of data to feed into the neural network to enable machine learning. Google spotted the AI trend early on and wisely scooped on many of the worlds’ AI experts to help it make use of the power of AI. Apple, which lead the iPhone platform change, was too busy taking selfies with celebrities to spot this platform change which unlike the others, was not an operating system change but an application driver – AI – change.

The Smart Assistant and the rise of the voice UI

And there’s yet are two more platform change to discuss, one being the move towards voice control of consumer devices, from iPhones to TVs to a wholly new platform pioneered by of all companies, Amazon with it’s Alexa smart assistance brilliantly wedded to its family of smart speakers, the Echo.

Again Apple had the early lead with smart assistants, just as it had with the Apple II, in the form of Siri, the virtual assistant purchased by Apple and delivered on Apple’s family of operating systems: iOS, watch OS and tvOS. But Apple made much the same mistake as did Software Arts. Instead of capitalizing on it’s early lead with Siri and investing the huge amount of resources at its fingertips, Apple applied the porting strategy, making Siri available on its family of operating systems: iOS, MacOS, watch OS, and tvOS and on it’s very late to the party, the overpriced HomePod smart speakers. Apple is now hellbent on catching up with Google, evident by it’s poaching Google’s head of AI to take the same position at Apple. And having this position report directly to CEO Tim Cook demonstrates the attention Apple is now putting on AI. But they are indeed playing catch up as their HomePod smart speakers were generally lauded for the sound quality but they we heavily criticized for the very weak version of Siri used with these speakers. Jeff Bezos, after failing mightily with Amazon’s attempt at manufacturing a smartphone, has mimicked Apple’s iPhone killer app: The App Store. Only Bezos calls smart speaker apps, Skills. But whatever you want to call them, he’s got thousands of programmers developing for the Alexa platform, and 10,000 plus skills available. In a move that mirrors Microsofts’ licensing of Windows and Google licensing of the Android operating system for smartphones, has licensed Alexa for use with other companies devices, including cars!

In Summary

So there you have it. Multiple platform changes from about 1981 to the present. All missed by the incumbent king of the previous platform. The lesson here is the by now stale quote from hockey all-time great Wayne Gretsky, I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.  Unlike my call on AI which, I’d become fascinated by reading many of my employer, publisher Addison-Wesley Publishing Company’s AI books, I have no idea what’s coming next. Certainly one could argue that crpytocurrencies are the platform du jour. And like the platforms before it in all probably one or two companies will rise to dominate the industry. Cryptocurrencies and it’s partner in crime, the blockchain, are about where personal computer was before the release of the IBM PC – just getting started, with no dominant player. So whether it’s robotics, quantum computing, biological computing, gene editing, virtual reality, or my personal bet, holograms, there many candidates to choose from. Entrepreneurs need to know some technology history and just as important, keep their antennae up for what’s the Next Big Thing by reading voraciously and attending industry events outside their domain of expertise. I’ll leave you with a well known quote from Alan Kay, The best way to predict the future is to create it. And here’s Alan on YouTube explaining what that quote means for developers today.



Don’t put old wine in new bottles!

wine bottles

Having been a mediaphile for decades and actively involved in software and book publishing for many of those years, I’ve running into the problem of both startups and established companies trying to sell old wine in new bottles.

It’s been many years – since my college days in fact – since I read Marshall McLuhan‘s The Medium is the Massage. (Originally and more aptly titled The Medium is the Message)But there’s one of his key insights that has stuck with me: that new media types tend to ape the content of their predecessors in the early days of their existence until eventually artists and other creatives start to develop entirely new content types.

I learned a classic example of this in a course on the history of film. The first films were basically filmed stage plays. They had one camera left in a fixed position and the goal was to capture a stage performance on film.  It wasn’t until directors like George Melies innovated with special effects and hand painted colors that film became more than a simple recording device in the early 20th century. Today over a hundred years later we take color, multiple camera angles, and most importantly, editing, for granted. There is now a highly developed language of film.

Similarly the first records were recorded live to disk. If any of the musicians made a mistake they’d have to play, and record, the entire piece over again from the beginning. Records, were like film, originally seen as a way to capture a live performance. Today’s laptops and even smartphones can handle a mind boggling number of separate tracks, enabling overdubbing, editing, special effects, and so much more.

This pattern continued with television and videotape. But this piece isn’t about history so much as it’s about history repeating itself. Today VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) are both at the infant stage of film: the silent, black and white, recording of stage plays through a single camera loaded with just minutes of film stock.

A lot of what I’m seeing now is startups trying to put old wine – content ranging from their video games to existing multiple choice tests to a company’s technical manuals – into the new bottles of VR and AR.

I was fortunate enough to work at the company that built the first application for personal computers that enabled them to do something that the dominant computers – the mainframes and minicomputers of the day couldn’t do: the electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc. Steve Jobs himself admitted that it was VisiCalc that drove the sales of the Apple II and Ben Rosen, in his influential newsletter The Rosen Report, called VisiCalc “the software tail that wags the hardware dog.”  Pundits at the time thought that a good use for personal computers in the home would be for women to store their cooking recipes . Of course today anyone who cooks can find great recipes using Google – I never heard of anyone male or female taking the time and trouble to enter their cooking recipes for use on a PC.

So I hereby encourage all entrepreneurs to first study the history of information technology and the inflection points when new media broke out of the old wine bottles and then to do lot of brainstorming and customer discovery to find out what’s the new wine for VR and AR.

Being neither a pundit nor a visionary I won’t attempt to be a digital sommelier and predict what those new wines will be, only that I’m confident that neither VR nor AR will take off until they develop new visual languages that become widely adopted.

And come to think of it, there’s a new opportunity for you: develop the tools used to develop that new wine. In fact that’s how one of the most successful companies of the last 40 years started – Microsoft. Bill Gates and Paul Allen first ported the BASIC programming language to the Altair, one of the first personal computers, and built their business initially by porting other programming languages to early PCs. As the saying goes the businesses that provided the picks, shovels, and dungarees (think Levi), made a lot more money that the early gold prospectors.

Just don’t try putting old wine in new bottles, as it will likely turn to vinegar, and last I looked the vinegar business was not a great business to be in.

How I Built This podcast with Guy Raz



I often recommend books and articles to founders, but here’s my first recommended podcast: How I Built This with Guy Raz, from National Public Radio.

Host Guy Raz dives into the stories behind some of the world’s best known companies. How I Built This weaves a narrative journey about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists, and the movements they built.

The first How I Built This podcast I listened to was Instagram: Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger. Both co-founders were extremely frank and insightful about how they built Instagram. The stories of how they differentiated Instagram from the many other photo apps that flooded the market is of particular interest.

First, by following the tenets of lean startup guru Eric Ries, they looked into the the usage and engagement patterns of the roughly 100 users they had for their initial app, Bourbon, which was one of many location-based check-in apps, including Foursquare. What they found was very valuable: users were most interested in the photo sharing feature of the app, far beyond it’s key location-based check-in feature.

Then an insightful comment from one of the founder’s wives, Systrom and Krieger lead the founders to realize that by building photo filters into Instagram casual photographers could create much better looking photos, leading them to be far more willing to share those photos on the Instagram network.

Perhaps the most important differentiator, which was strongly emphasized in the podcast, was that Instagram ran totally counter to all the other photo sharing apps out there that were closed networks – you had to request permission to follow anyone. The founders decision to keep Instagram open, so anyone could follow anyone, was seen as one of the best decisions they made – though at the time it was a strongly debated question.

There are a lot of other great insights into what it takes to build a successful startup, including a wonderful disquisition on the role luck plays in startups.

The one last item I’ll share with you before recommending you listen to the entire podcast – and explore other podcasts in the How I Built This series – is the issue of market timing. A key success factor for Instagram was that it was launched coincidentally with the moment that the built-in cameras in smartphones basically matched point and shoot digital cameras in quality. All of a sudden millions of people had a point and shoot camera in their pocket or pocketbook. And as the saying goes, The best camera is the one that you have with you. But what they didn’t have was a great place to quickly and easily store and share those photos. Instagram solved that problem for them.

Finally I should also praise host Guy Raz for his excellent questions and management of the discussion with the two founders. I’ll certainly be listening to more of the series and I hope readers of this blog will do likewise.

Why targeting the right customer isn’t enough


Cellphone users in Jodhpur, India, where Google sent a researcher this week to get feedback about apps. Google is changing core products in India to use less data and work better on low-end smartphones. CreditRebecca Conway for The New York Times

From Steve Blank, the dean of entrepreneurial education from where I sit, on down, we mentors and educators are constantly harping on the issue of targeting the right customer. And indeed segmenting a market and defining your customer is indeed necessary, but it’s often not sufficient for the holy grail of product/market fit.

The New York Times article Google Missed Out on China. Can It Flourish in India? is an excellent case study in how Google realized the one huge difference between customers in India and the West – the relatively tiny mobile data budgets and primitive mobile phones used by most Indians.

Many of the new Indian users have basic phones, which make it difficult for them to run certain apps or to store big files like videos. Data plans are limited, and despite a telecom price war that has cut the price of a megabyte of data by as much as 97 percent, some customers are unable to afford more data when they run out.

Google actually has a unit called Next Billion Users, dedicated to creating products for emerging markets like India, Brazil and Indonesia. Google has marshaled some of its best developers, designers and researchers to figure out how to adapt or completely rethink products like YouTube to serve the needs of mobile internet users with smaller budgets but big aspirations.

But instead of just dumbing down or shrinking its existing products to fit the low end mobile phones and small data plans, Google did extensive research into how people really use their phones, what needs are unmet, and how the company’s apps are received.

Google’s developers were actually, whether they knew it or not, acting as cultural anthropologists, quizzing Indians about their internet use, their habits, even how they commuted to work, collecting information to take back to the team.

One result of this research was the development of a new product called Datally, aimed at users with tight data plan constraints. Google also found that language has been a barrier to Internet adoption in India and now its voice-driven assistant is very popular, accounting for 28% of all Google searches conducted by voice.

As a startup there’s no doubt you only have a tiny percentage of the resources of a Google, but that shouldn’t prevent you from emulating their methodology for understanding their customers, their needs, and how they use their mobile devices.

And if you are beyond the startup stage and looking to expand into new markets, the lessons of how Google has approached its customers in emerging markets are even more relevant.

Product/market fit is shorthand. It leaves a lot out, like how the user experience fits the needs of the customer, what are the trends in the market, what changes are taking place in infrastructure and platforms that most developers build upon, and more.

The deeper you can go and the more you can learn about what devices, platforms and services your customers use now, which ones they aspire to use, and where you can fill an important gap, the more likely you will be to onboard a whole new cohort of customers.

How innovation really happens


one device

Entrepreneurs and the entire entrepreneurial biosphere is obsessed with one word: innovation. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the word is getting to be one of the most overused words in the English language,  viz my Google search results just now: About 691,000,000 results (0.87 seconds).

But the reality is that if your startup is not either making changes to something established, like Uber has done with taxi service, or introducing something brand new like Twitter’s micro-blogging platform, your startup is just a “me-too” venture unlikely to acquire customers, partners or investors.

But there’s a common myth you need to be aware of which is addressed in the Inc. article by Greg Satell entitled The One Thing Nobody Ever Tells You About Innovation. Here’s his conclusion is a nutshell:

So innovation is never a single event, but usually takes about thirty years to move from discovery to engineering to transformation. That’s just a rule of thumb, sometimes it can be longer or shorter, but we’re talking decades, not months or years.

As Greg writes, innovation at its core is about combination. Steve Jobs and the iPhone is a perfect example. If you read any of the books about the genesis of the iPhone it’s plain that Jobs genius lay not in inventing something new no one had ever seen or thought of, but in combining existing technology: radios, modems, the touch screen interface, and a smaller version of Mac OS into a new and brilliant form factor and UX (user experience). Brian Merchant’s book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone is fascinating reading and is a great case study of how innovation takes both time and context to actually sprout and grow. 

My key takeaways from both the Inc. article and Brian Merchant’s book are that there are several factors common to breakthrough innovations:

  • They are usually based on ideas that have been gestating for years in academic or corporate labs, and may take up to 30 years to gain massive popularity. The WIMP interface (Window, Icons, Menu, Pointer) that gestated at first Xerox Labs, then Apple,  and it finally made it big with Microsoft Windows 3.0.
  • Innovators are by their nature highly curious. This curiosity translates into constantly searching and exploring takes you into unfamiliar places where your knowledge and experience provide little guidance. That can be uncomfortable, but it is also absolutely essential to coming up with profoundly new ideas.
  • Being comfortable with uncertainty. If you want certainty go join an established corporation or work for the government.  Entrepreneurs have to thrive under circumstances where they have imperfect knowledge, but enough to plow ahead anyway.
  • Comfort with failure. Because entrepreneurship is based on the scientific method some of your hypotheses will be wrong. That not failure, it’s just learning. And likely a stepping stone to success. One comment that struck me hard was Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that at any one time there are roughly 10,000 versions of Facebook running! Why, because they are always experimenting, gathering data, analyzing that data and then useful changes can be made to the Facebook billions use, based successful experiments.
  • Seek out new ways to combine, merge, mix and incorporate the existing with a smidgen of the new. eBay took a centuries old business practice, the auction, and by putting it online and enabling both buyers and sellers to build their reputations and otherwise do business quickly, conveniently and safely, created a billion dollar business.
  • Being observant of yourself and others. Many great inventions, like VisiCalc, where based on solving an individual’s problem. So monitor your own behavior and find your own pain points. If enough other people share that same pain point, such as how to keep their electric toothbrush charged, your introduction of an induction charging station may be a big hit. But also observe and monitor other people and other businesses. Where do they get stuck? Get frustrated? Irritated? Attempt kludgy work arounds? Give up? Being an entrepreneur is being a social anthropologist. But instead of writing academic papers you may be creating a new product or service and filing for a patent instead of submitting a paper to a journal.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. There are a plethora of entrepreneurial meet ups, networking events, seminars, workshops and the like. You are very likely to see the same entrepreneurs, VCs, professional service providers, et al there. Try taking a factory tour or watching what happens on a construction site. It’s rarely the incumbents who invent the future, as they are too busy looking in the rear view mirror and protecting the present. By going to places you’ve never been before, like the Fuller Craft Museum you’ll expose yourself to products new and old and people, like docents or curators you would never meet at a typical founders’ event.

Finally, be open. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open to what’s around you. Many successful song writers keep a notebook where they jot down some lyrics which may not emerge into a hit song for years. You can do something similar with the problems and issues you observe that may eventually percolate into a new product or service.