apple-evilgenius.jpgThe recent Wired article on Apple’s management practices is interesting for the wrong reasons. The article makes several points about the irony of Apple’s popularity in the tech-world given the secrecy, an old world concept in the new open web 2.0 world, with which they work.

This is fine and good, but the big question I had while reading the piece is this: if Apple is so secretive, how can the reporter have any confidence that their sources are any good? Or that the people willing to talk to the reporter don’t have their own reasons for telling less than flattering stories about Steve Jobs? The article says:

Apple creates must-have products the old-fashioned way: by locking the doors and sweating and bleeding until something emerges perfectly formed. It’s hard to see the Mac OS and the iPhone coming out of the same design-by-committee process that produced Microsoft Vista or Dell’s Pocket DJ music player

The old fashioned way? Hard to think of many old fashioned companies making perfect products. And while it’s hard to see the iphone coming out of the same process at Microsoft and Dell, I’m sure there were plenty of design review meetings, executive reviews, and other meetings at Apple that are similar in purpose to what goes on at Microsoft or Dell. Like Google’s 20% time, culture is the overlooked factor in why outcomes are what they are. The same process can arrive at very different outcomes if the cultural values and rewards are different.

Believe me, I’m no Apple flunky defending the mothership – but the article creates it’s own lack of credibility in making judgments about a place described by the writer as very difficult to access, and because it’s a magazine article there’s no burden of referencing sources, or even calling on other Wired writers for context in how product decisions at Apple are made.

Moreso, the article misses the fundamental point: Apple loves its products, and people love its products. If there is any ideal Jobs represents it’s clearly the attempt to make great things, an ideal rare among tech companies, much less ones in the Fortune 500. And with product quality so high consumers are indifferent to whatever management philosophy is behind it.

The best analogy for the description of Apple offered in this piece is the film industry. Where directors and producers drive creative visions, large numbers of experts work hard in service to those ideas, and the entire endeavor is organized with premiums on secrecy and control. It’s just an artistic model for business, not something unique to Apple or that odd for folks who study how great things are made.

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9 Responses to “How Apple got everything right”

  1. Jim Rait |

    Randy Thom writes of the movie industry:

    “When an artist does work that seems innovative, we say that he or she has created something. The more I think about the process we call “creating,” the more I’m convinced we use the wrong word to describe it.” He goes on to express in ‘On Being Creative‘….

    “The Tyranny Of Competence
    In the movie industry a high value is justifiably placed on technical competence. It is assumed that every draftsperson should know how to use the tools of the trade and be able to perform on cue, under pressure. The trouble with paying so much attention to skill and technical prowess is this: The frame of mind in which interesting things germinate is often more confused and desperate than organized and confident.”

    It is this interesting tension between autocratic leadership and participative creative processes that differentiate competent innovators from great ones… it is the culture (this is the way we do things around here)that determines how people manage their exposure to ‘risk’.. will I get my head blown off for defying the leader or will the leader be interested in my interpretation of his commands. I was a new recruit to a company where my role was to run the Design and development services. I remember saying “why don’t we do…” went off to lunch and came back to chaos. “What is going on?” I asked one of my managers. “We are doing what you asked for this morning!” It turned out that in this organization’s culture a leader saying “Why don’t we.. ” meant “Do!”. I had to say “Folks this is a discussion point. Why don’t we…” and then we had a discussion and agreed a course of action toward the goals that I was expected to set!!

    Reply
  2. Robby Slaughter |

    Apple draws upon creative force to define its business, and thus is bound up by the byzantine world of secrecy, accusation, and power irrevocably associated with art. It’s weird to live in a world where form trumps function, but, that’s apple. I blogged about the difference between Macs and PCs last week:

    http://www.robbyslaughter.com/blog/?2008-03-14

    Reply
  3. Scott |

    Actually some artists are very open about their craft. Consider all of the “making of” films about films, or documentaries about artists and their process (The mystery of Picasso is one of my favorites, though it probably bores most people to death).

    It is true that many artists are secretive, but there are good counter examples.

    Reply
  4. Ben Buchanan |

    Personally I don’t think Apple gives two proverbials about its products, so long as they sell. Nor do they give two proverbials about the people who buy the products, so long as they keep buying. They’re a corporation like any other.

    I think the reason Apple gets it right is that they foster the cult of mac, which means their mistakes are forgiven or explained away. If you really ask questions of a Mac zealot, they will eventually have to rescind their initial assertion that “nothing EVER goes wrong, EVER!”. They’ll look a bit embarrassed, shuffle their feet and stare into the middle distance.

    Then they’ll admit that the migration from their G3 to their G4 utterly ruined their application installs and they ended up rebuilding the G4 and just copying their data over. Or they’ll admit that their MacBook pro literally burned their legs. Or they’ll accept that yes, actually, they haven’t used OSX out of the box for years; instead they run a small army of third party applications to produce their “perfect environment”.

    In short, their experience is the same as any PC user. But they BELIEVE they’ve got something better, and THAT is what Apple is good at creating. Apple has flashes of brilliance like the iPod or the iMac. But for every success there’s a failure, like the fanless cube. So they don’t get it right every time, or produce perfection (iPods are great, but not perfect). They get it right often enough that the fans stay fans; the rest basically follows.

    IMHO. In other news, I have no idea why I attract flames from Mac zealots ;)

    Reply
  5. Steven Hoober |

    To ben, “Bah!” My migrations always work (right this moment, moving from my G4 MDD to an iMac!), since the day OSX came out. I, and most everyone else I know, uses the OS as it comes, and at least /can/ use it without fuss if they have to sit down at another computer.

    And don’t think emotional design (feeling like its better than it is) is not a science, and a great achievement for any company.

    Old line companies make lots of great products. There are a few failed industries (autos seem so lost) but have you bought a good tool ever? I mean drill presses and hammers. These are some of my most satisfying experiences, and don’t think they aren’t systems. Things absolutely attach to them, and high-use folks burn a lot of bits and blades so making this work right is a critical need.

    Reply
  6. Sebhelyesfarku |

    Apple was able to create a cult of brainwashed Mactards so of course easily gets everything “right”.

    Reply
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