Aug 09

Apple reveals its deep, dark secret

Apple's Jonathan Ive and one of his many children

Apple's Jonathan Ive and one of his many children

Apple’s chief designer Jonathan Ive recently made a public appearance in London with the rector of the Royal College of Art. Jony, as most know, is responsible for Apple’s amazing design aesthetic, from iMac to iPod to iPhone. It was with great interest that I read the coverage of Jony’s chat, because he touches on the reasons why Apple is Apple, and by inference, why no other company is Apple. Asked what any executive could do to copy Apple’s success, Ives’ response was: “Don’t.” He went on to explain that every company needs its own raison d’etre, and that this should drive the actions of every employee from the C-suite down. That’s when he also delivered what I think is his most brilliant insight: “Apple’s goal isn’t to make money. Our goal is to design and develop and bring to market good products. We trust that as a consequence of that, we’ll make some money. But we’re really clear what our goals are.”

Damn, I love that. I have a feeling that many out there don’t believe for a second that Apple’s goal isn’t to make money. Having worked intimately with those guys for many years, I can tell you that they absolutely do want to make money, but as Jony says, this is not their goal. Make no mistake: this is a giant, flashing-neon, ultra-critical difference between Apple and most other technology companies. Apple fundamentally believes that you don’t aim for money, you aim for excellence — and money is the result. I’m sure this is just way too idealistic for some, because the real world can’t possibly work this way. Thankfully, Apple is proof that it does. Or at least that it can.

Now let’s get back to Jony’s comment that other companies shouldn’t copy Apple. I’ll agree that every company needs its own vision, but a lot of what Apple does is a blueprint for success for any company. And there’s nothing wrong with copying that. In fact, Apple has practically published a how-to manual for over-achievement: never stop innovating, worship good design, never compromise on quality, make long-term investments in the brand and keep things simple — not just the products, but the marketing as well. Many companies set out with the same values, but are easily sidetracked by money issues, timing issues, marketing issues and idiot issues. At Apple, they will sacrifice investments already made, blow up schedules, kill their #1 products, do whatever it takes to make a better product. They understand that in the end, they will only succeed if they “do the right thing.”

In operating this way, Apple makes it clear what’s wrong with most technology companies. They want Apple’s success, but are unwilling to commit their every resource to it. They play lip service to caring about design by building a beautiful shell around a product that just sucks inside. They demand of their ad agencies a campaign that creates “a buzz like iPhone,” without understanding that Apple’s “overnight success” came only after years of being true to their core belief. As much as I love Apple, I really hope that other companies will wake up to this. I’ll buy cool stuff from anyone. What I don’t get is why, when Apple’s means of success is so visible, other technology companies don’t seem to pick it up.

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  • Love the comment about focusing first on the product and experience, and the money will follow. It’s a simple truth that all too often gets lost with companies today. Great blog post!

  • Thomas Q. Brady

    Hey, Ken! I work downstairs. : D

    Great blog.

    Great post.

    Why is it that so many companies are so unwilling to admit failure on projects? Is it money? Why is Apple ABLE to kill a product at any time, and certain other companies will rush to market with a product they KNOW sucks, because “it’s too late to stop this train now”?

  • ken segall

    Thomas: that’s a huge, huge question and a great point to make. In my opinion, it just has to do with honesty and having respect for your customers. Apple not only has the guts to kill a successful product, they have the guts to admit a mistake (most of the time). If they don’t kill a bad product, they will do what they must to make it right, and to earn the customers’ trust. The machinations that many other companies go through to hide mistakes or quietly transition off of failed products can be mind-boggling.

  • I’ve known Ken for the better part of 20 + years, i.e., he sat in front of me in homeroom in HS and his birthday is one day ahead of mine, e.g., Mar 26th. That probably why he’s always been ahead of me in life. Ken and I also crossed paths in the corporate world when he worked on IBM and I was the controller for IBM’s Advertising and Sales Promotion.

    But the real truth in all of this is Ken’s devotion (wherever he’s worked) to simplicity. None of us can focus anymore for 30 seconds at any given time. So if you can’t say it in those 30 seconds then you missed your chance and it’s not worth saying at all.

    SIMPLICITY, SIMPLICITY, SIMPLICITY in all of your communications and product designs will in the end always carry the day.

  • Lou Fink

    G.J……………………..it took me 30 seconds to get to your first ” simplicity “, therefore the second and third were not, well, ……………. simple.

    Simply kidding……………..

  • Bob

    Loved this post. What I don’t follow about Apple and the concept of Simplicity is this – is it a Mac? An Apple? Or an iMac? I can’t figure that out and I’ve had clients at Apple who couldn’t explain it to me after working there for over a decade. Ideas?

  • ken segall

    Jeez, who invited you here? :) I actually don’t find it confusing. At least it’s far less confusing than the brands and sub-brands of other computer makers. Apple is the company, every computer they make is a Mac, and iMac is a specific model. Mac is an incredibly strong brand (arguably on par with Apple), which makes things much better for Apple — remember, in olden times they had to deal with two simultaneous sub-brands: Apple II and Macintosh. The nomenclature has evolved nicely. iMac, by the way, remains the one oddball name, but they’re kind of cornered on that one. Ideally they’d have MacBook & MacBook Pro, and Mac & Mac Pro. But they can’t change iMac to Mac because every Apple computer is a Mac. So that’s the one sacrifice they have to make to maintain order in the kingdom.

  • no surprise…but am LOVING your blog. yahoo! i mean, intel, i mean apple!

  • Brett Murray

    Hey Ken! Loving the blog… Reminds me of what a brilliant person you are and why I love working with you when the stars align now and then!

    Obviously my time at Apple was much shorter than your involvement has been (a mere three years for me), but I have come to one conclusion (correct or not, you tell me) about part of what makes Apple so successful and able to apply everything you say above. :-) It’s command and control.

    Virtually every public business has an authority over the CEO that the CEO answers to, be it a board of directors or shareholders. Some (like Nokia, my current gig) are consensus driven to a fault (CEO answering to the employees) and in the process of trying to give everyone a voice (an honorable thing) they end up having WAY too many cooks in the kitchen. As a result of all the above and more, large entities seem to constantly make unfocused group-think decisions (dramatic over-simplification, but you get what I’m saying). Apple has Steve Jobs. The board, the shareholders, the employees, and his direct reports all have implicit trust that Steve has a plan and has it all under control. You can feel it on campus like a warm blanket. Papa Steve is at the helm. And, so, Steve calls the shots. All of them. And he obviously mandates everything said above about design, experience, customer joy, etc. He can push aside the cash issue and just do the right thing because he only has his vision to please, and the customer is at the center of that. Other CEOs over time have had a similar ability to lead with full authority, but they are not leading any companies that compete with Apple, and most don’t have such a noteworthy personality.

    So what’s my point? Steve controls the company and answers to no one…but chooses to answer to his customer. Until a direct competitor arises with Steve’s clarity of purpose, marketing sense, design passion, and despotic tendencies, Apple will stand alone. Or until Steve moves on…but after this year’s scare I think even those of us that lived under his heavy presence realize the world needs him to stick around a while longer to push the bar a little higher a few more times. :-) However, from the posturing that was rumored to be going on inside of Apple during his uncertain absence, I am convinced Apple (as configured now) post-Steve will unfortunately begin to disintegrate as it did before. What was it you said about history repeating itself? :-)

    Sorry for the rant! Hopefully there’s something insightful in it!

  • ken segall

    Good to see you Brett — I agree with everything you say. (That’s what got me where I am today.) Steve proves every day the value of a benevolent dictator. Watching other companies agonize over product development, marketing, organization, etc., can be supremely frustrating. Because Steve is so involved, decisions get made. Everyone understands the vision and the values. Simple as it may seem, Apple makes progress every day. It will be interesting to see where this all leads as things continue to change.

  • Hi,

    thanks for the great quality of your blog, each time i come here, i’m amazed.

    black hattitude.

  • Aky

    I got to know about your blog after reading an article on the Cult of Mac. I love Apple products too. I read almost all your blog posts in last hour and they were insightful and informative. I especially liked the articles about MS & Windows ;). Keep them coming!

  • Pascal64

    In light of recent news that the minimalist style led to the disastrous design of the iPhone, much of Ive’s pronouncements need to be explained and reconciled. If I understand it, someone forgot that the human hand could connect the separate antennae girdling the device. Forgot? Or maybe just ignored?

    Did form suppress function here? Did utility get forgotten? Did the pursuit of revenue blind those who should be pursuing quality?

    Perhaps Jon and Steve are the latest victims of the Pollyanna principle.