'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

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Sunday, 23 May 2010

Polishing the Apple core

This is how Apple rolls

Like other products, the iPad will start small, but grow large

This is how the designers and engineers at Apple roll: They roll.

Then everyone goes back to Cupertino and rolls. As in, they start with a few tightly packed snowballs and then roll them in more snow to pick up mass until they’ve got a snowman. That’s how Apple builds its platforms. It’s a slow and steady process of continuous iterative improvement—so slow, in fact, that the process is easy to overlook if you’re observing it in real time. Only in hindsight is it obvious just how remarkable Apple’s platform development process is.They take something small, simple, and painstakingly well considered. They ruthlessly cut features to derive the absolute minimum core product they can start with. They polish those features to a shiny intensity. At an anticipated media event, Apple reveals this core product as its Next Big Thing, and explains—no, wait, it simplyshows—how painstakingly thoughtful and well designed this core product is. The company releases the product for sale.

One example is Apple’s oldest core product: Mac OS X. It took four difficult years from Apple’s acquisition of NeXT in 1997 until Mac OS X 10.0 was released in March 2001. Needless to say, those four years were… well, let’s just say it was a difficult birth. But from that point forward, Mac OS X’s major releases have appeared regularly (especially by the standards of major commercial PC operating systems), each better than the previous version, but none spectacularly so. Snow Leopard is vastly superior to 10.0 in every conceivable way. It’s faster, better-designed, does more, and looks better. (And it runs exclusively on an entirely different CPU architecture than did 10.0.) But at no point between the two was there a release that was markedly superior to the one that preceded it.

Next, consider the iPod. It debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only, FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and 5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in 2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop.

Today you can get an iPod nano for $179 that’s a fraction of the original iPod’s size and weight, with double the storage, a color display, video playback, and a built-in video camera. Apple took the iPod from there to here one step at a time. Every year Apple has announced updated iPods in the fall, and every year the media has weighed in with a collective yawn.

There’s never been one iteration of the click-wheel iPod platform that has completely blown away the previous one, and even the original model was derided by many critics as unimpressive. The iPod shows, too, how Apple’s iterative development process doesn’t just add, it adapts. Remember those third-generation iPods from 2003, with four separate buttons above the click wheel? Turns out that wasn’t a good idea. They were gone a year later. Remember the iPod Mini? It had no new features, and wasn’t even much cheaper— but it was way smaller.

The iPhone is following the same pattern. In 2007 it debuted with no third-party apps, no 3G networking, and a maximum storage capacity of 8GB. One year later, Apple had doubled storage, added 3G and GPS, and opened the App Store. The year after that, Apple swapped in a faster processor, added a compass and an improved camera, and doubled storage again. The pattern repeats. We may never see an iPhone that utterly blows away the prior year’s, but we’ll soon have one that utterly blows away the original iPhone.

That brings us to the iPad. Initial reaction to it has been polarized, as is so often the case with Apple products. Some say it’s a big iPod touch. Others say it’s the beginning of a revolution in personal computing. As a pundit, I’m supposed to explain how the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. But I can’t. The iPad really is The Big One: Apple’s reconception of personal computing.

Apple has released many new products over the last decade. Only a handful have been the start of a new platform. The rest were iterations. The designers and engineers at Apple aren’t magicians; they’re artisans. They achieve spectacular results one year at a time. Rather than expanding the scope of a new product, hoping to impress, they pare it back, leaving a solid foundation upon which to build. In 2001, you couldn’t look at Mac OS X or the original iPod and foresee what they’d become in 2010. But you can look at Snow Leopard and the iPod nanos of today and see what they once were. Apple got the fundamentals right.

So of course this iPad—the one which, a few years from now, we’ll refer to off-handedly as the “original iPad”—does less than we’d hoped. That’s how the people at Apple work. While we’re out here poking and prodding at the iPad, they’re back at work in Cupertino. They’ve got a little gem of a starting point in hand. And they’re beginning to roll.

[John Gruber is the author of Daring Fireball. A version of this piece appeared as "Apple's Constant Iterations" in the April 2010 print issue of Macworld.]


Originally published at http://www.macworld.com/article/151235/2010/05/apple_rolls.html

I don't usually post articles. In fact, this one is my first in three years of blogging. I also haven't succumbed to the, at times, great temptation to tell you about my admiration of thing Mac. So you get two firsts in one post today.

11 comments:

  1. Another awareness achieving post. As a total devotee of the iPod I am fascinated. Gaz (my son) is a devotee of all things Apple and though not contemplating an iPad is interested in where it's going.

    For me the iPod has been a revolution. I really have no wish to live without my music. I have well over a thousand CDs and another 120Gb of music on computer in addition to the 68Gb my CDs have generated on iTunes.

    So how was I going to live in NZ for 6 months a year without my music. Answer: I wasn't. My first iPod only stored 60Gb. My current one stores 120Gb. I take the bulk of the music that is important to me on the iPod and plug that into the semi-hifi system in NZ. Not like my hifi here but more than adequate.

    I've long contemplated changing from Microsoft PC to Mac and it's only Windows 7 that has prevented me from so doing - for the time being anyway.

    It'll be inetresting to see where Apple are in another year or two when my phones/computers/iPod and the like are reaching the end of their lives.

    As an aside when Apple replaced my faulty first iPod (without a single murmer) after 6 months or more I was asked if I wanted the Apple extended cover for 3 years on the replacement. "It's 3 years because that's the anticipated life an iPod anyway. And if it hasn't worn out it will be changed for a newer model." How correct they were, in my case anyway.

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  2. Who woulda thunk? You turn out to be a marvelous artist and a computer geek (and I mean that in the best possible way)!

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  3. GB. One word. Change.

    Robert - oh yes, a geek, that's me. My kids ensure I am up with the latest. The eldest has just done a great deal towards the government "Tax Changes" website that came out a couple of days ago.
    He did the calculator and coding, setting up servers and things.
    I only hope a hoard of angry people don't mob him because they are unhappy our GST has just gone up from 12.5% to 15%.

    Don't shoot, he's just the messenger, hoard!!

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  4. GB, I meant "change to Mac", not 'change' in general.

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  5. PS. MAC has Windows. And Powerpoint, and everything else.

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  6. I was just about to switch off and go to bed when your latest batch came through. GST up. Nobody told me and I've not been reading the NZ news for a week or more. With the parlous state of the £ v $ life's getting tough.

    My late son, Andrew, was a computer programmer about to complete his Doctorate in Computer Science when he died.

    'Change'. I actually did realise what you meant but I was going to do a facetious answer before you decided to remove the doubt and my excuse for being silly. As if I needed an excuse.

    I probably will.

    Night night.

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  7. Its the garden of Eden. Eve sits on one side of the tree. A bright red apple awaits on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The snake is curled around the tree watching Adam who sits opposite Eve playing with another kind of apple - An Apple Mac Laptop. - If Apple had polished their apple a whole lot sooner they could have saved the world a whole lot of grief.

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  8. GB. I'm sad to hear your son died. No-one should lose a child. It would be very hard for me to bear, I know.

    Alden. No, Eve should have turned it on to two-player mode and invited Adam to play too.

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  9. Yes Katherine you are right - that's just the sort of autonomous action an Eve would take!!!

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  10. Is John Gruber eye candy in your estimation or i-candy? Or maybe IQ-candy?

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  11. Hmmm. I hadn't really thought of him that way YP. Intense, intelligent eyes, direct gaze, sensuous lips. All plusses I guess. All my eye candies were composed and then post-dated more than a year ago. These days I am rather distracted by a particular real person :o)

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