Apple, Agile, & Iterative Platform Building

Some people struggle with Apple as an example of enterprise agility. It is a behemoth known for building massive (and sticky) platforms over many years. Are they the opposite of agile? Or are we misunderstanding Apple’s rise?

Creeping Determinism

Be careful of creeping determinism.

Once we know what Apple did and that it was successful, we all begin to think that their successful outcome was widely expected and understood all along. We lose sight of all the forks in the road Apple could have taken, the analysts who advised those paths, the competitors who took them. We see only the well trodden path directly from here to where we were and say “obviously that was the way to go”. But is that how Apple got here?

Forks in the Road

Let’s start with the iPod. It solved a problem. Many MP3 players were hard to work with and had little capacity. Apple made the software easy, and the capacity big. Rather than making the software Apple bought the company¬†SoundJam MP¬†and re-branded their product.

The first version did not support iPods or the next gen OSX operating system.

Version 2 added support for the modern OSX operating system and iPods.

In these two years, Apple would have seen the fallout of file sharing, lawsuits, people’s dissatisfaction with the price and content of CDs, and the hassle of needing to go to the store, buy, rip, transfer and then listen to music. To solve all these problems, version 4 of iTunes added the iTunes Music Store and a windows based iTunes app.

That’s 3 years between the debut of the iPod (2001) and the release of the iTunes Music Store (2004). Was a music store really an obvious next step after the iPod?

Other music services had been offering pay per song sales for years. Why would an iTunes music store fare better in a pay per song market? Why not try something truly innovative like cloud based music storage?

2 years before the iPod (1999) the web site released a digital locker for CDs that let users insert a CD, the service would acknowledge ownership, and the user could then stream that album from the cloud. This is much like services from Amazon and Apple today. Why not use this model for iTunes instead?

Why not just offer a subscription for unlimited music streaming?

Careful of your logic, you’re probably inserting some creeping determinism.

Here’s another fun point that is obvious in hindsight. It was the iTunes Music Store. Was there a plan to add podcasts (2005)? What about books (2010)? Movies (2006)?

Apple was thinking about the current problem, and the next logical step; some type of music store. If it failed, they’d try a different model (like they did with their cloud services several times). Of course, having this digital store would give them options down the line (books, movies, etc). But for the moment, music was all they needed to know; the rest was just a distraction. Not worrying about anything else, iTunes Music Store becomes a pretty good name.

From 2005 on, there were constant changes to iTunes (the app & store), but the investment began to wane. Why? Apple could have introduced cheaper iPods, included more music sales, offer limited editions iPods, and done all sorts of other things to generate more money in this ecosystem. That would make sense wouldn’t it? We have this user base, we want to keep it.

Careful of your logic, you’re probably inserting some creeping determinism.

For Apple, the next step was a different direction. iPods still had a lot of life left, but that problem was basically solved. At least, solved enough that there were new opportunities of greater significance in peoples’ lives than cheaper iPods and music. What direction? TV? Phones? Servers?

Careful of your logic, you’re probably inserting some creeping determinism.

Apple tried all of those. One failed and was killed. One was completely thrown away and redone. One was a great success. Which should Apple have done first?

Careful of your logic, you’re probably inserting some creeping determinism.

Jobsonian Vision

People talk about Apple as if it has some master plan starting in the late 90s when Jobs returned to Apple and is still being executed today. They think there is one long cohesive plan that has gotten Apple here. To believe that, you must believe that somewhere there is a plan that said (in this order):

  1. Create music player
  2. Create portable MP3 player
  3. Get the two to play nice
  4. Create a music store
  5. Add videos to the music store
  6. And TV shows to the music store
  7. Add movies to the music store
  8. Create cellular phone
  9. Add apps to the music store
  10. Create tablet computer
  11. Recognize purchased CDs in a streaming music cloud
  12. Add subscription music

That plan doesn’t exist. Sure, pieces were talked about years before they happened. They only happened once the combination of technology and customer demand made it a wise next step,

Slow = Fast

The only reason Apple’s ecosystem was successful, is that they went slow. They grew with the customer’s demands. They took feedback every year and iterated with a laser like focus on the next steps for the next year.

What’s the lesson for your own platform building? Go slow. Build it with your customers. Try to build it in a way that will give you options down the line. Don’t think too much about what those options might be. Postpone implementing options until necessary.

If you do it well, you’ll look back and think about how obvious it always was that you would end up where you are.

Be careful of creeping determinism.

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