This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Grasping the Details No One Else Did

            I’m an Apple Guy from way back. Bought my first Mac in 1992. Have the iPhone; have the iPad; this is being written on a MacBook. So I was definitely interested in the news about Steve Jobs stepping down.
            In the dozen or so stories I read the day after, no one mentioned my favorite Jobs anecdote, which had to do with the development of the iPhone.
            Never having made a phone before, Jobs brought a fresh perspective to it. Something that had always bugged him about phones was that when you went to check voicemail, you had to listen to all the messages in the order in which they arrived.
            He wanted to be able to see the voicemails that had accumulated and listen to them in the order he thought was most important, and perhaps not listen at all to some of them. He directed his engineers to come back with a design that would allow him to do that. In due time they reported back that AT&T, expected to be the wireless provider for the new phone, couldn’t do that with their voice mail system.
            Now at this point most executives would probably have done a cost-benefit calculation something like this: Do I really want to go to the mat with AT&T and try to get them to design a whole new voicemail system just to give my phone a feature that no phone has ever had and that we have no hard evidence the public really wants? Not worth it; let’s move on.
            Jobs, of course, told his people to go back to AT&T and insist they develop the voicemail capability he wanted his phone to have. The result is just one of the totally cool things about the iPhone, one of the many details that makes a difference.
            The great thing about this story is that Jobs trusted his instincts and went with them, rather than taking the safer, more sensible approach that just about anyone else would have. He’s repeatedly taken the risks that most business people instinctively try to avoid.
            In one of the Times articles, Jobs was quoted as saying that Apple did no market research for the iPhone or iPad because, “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” That may seem arrogant, but I can offer personal testimony to how it works in practice.
            Last year my wife’s cell phone was on its way out. We were already AT&T customers and had reached the point in the contract cycle where the phone could be replaced at the best possible price by extending the contract. I lobbied her to get an iPhone, but Linda demurred, saying it was too expensive and she really didn’t need something that complicated.
            This time, for once, I won the argument. Within a week of getting the phone, it was all she could talk about and she kept saying she didn’t know how she had ever lived without one. Yet any market researcher who had interviewed her a month earlier would have concluded the iPhone wouldn’t sell.
            Business visionaries, and Jobs certainly was that, have the ability to see beyond what exists to what people might want if only it were available. As a Silicon Valley banker told me a while back, one of two things happen to visionaries: They’re carried off the field in triumph by a cheering crowd, or they’re carried off on their shield, fatally gored. Regardless of how they leave, they’re not easily replaced.