Getting It

To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that. Steve Jobs

When I read that quote on Quoth Steve today, I thought about this series on Apple's recent announcements and the ongoing discovery that many in the industry are communicating as the Apple WWDC continues this week. It underscores a key differentiator between Apple and most of the rest of the technology industry. In doing so, it also illustrates why so many in the technology press are fundamentally confused about both why Apple does what it does and why people buy Apple products.

Back when Japanese cars first began to gain a real foothold in the US, there was a similar dichotomy: Japanese cars had virtually no "options," while US cars were effectively custom built for each customer from an extensive list of options. Since I grew up in Michigan, the capital of the car industry in the US, I remember the derisive laughter about the limited options, the lack of this or that feature, and the expectation that the Japanese manufacturers would have to abandon the US or offer a better Chinese menu.

In retrospect, all of those observations and expectations were completely wrong. It turns out that the consumers appreciated the simplicity of getting a car without having to decide what to get on it -- and without having to wait for it to be built to their specifications. In fact, I lost out on a Pontiac Trans Am when my order turned out to have a very limited edition engine and the dealer decided he could get more for it from someone else, even though I had ordered it and waited for months.

1986 Trans Am

Today in technology, we have a similar situation: Apple is working on design in a way that Jobs thought about it. Most companies don't. Most put in a faster processor, more memory, more pixels, and expect those changes to compel purchases. Even customization is touted as a primary desire for consumers when that's not the case for many who just want to purchase a system that is ready to go, isn't bloated with a lot of distracting extras, and is designed in a way that allows it to disappear with use.

How do you want the products you purchase to be designed?

Farewell, Steve

Yesterday, just after hitting "publish" on my iPhone 4S recommendation post, I received the news that Steve Jobs had passed away at the too-young age of 56. I never met Steve, but his uncompromising focus on doing the right thing has influenced me. Today, Ken Segall (I read his blog religiously) shared the impact that Steve had on him, and I must agree, although I never had the experience of working directly with him.

Although I have been accused of being an Apple fan boy, my relationship with Apple is relatively recent and based on only one thing: my use of Apple products has given me a far more productive and pleasant experience than any of the environments I have used in over 25 years of daily technology use.

...and the reason for that is the insistence that Steve had on building products for people, not "users."

Yesterday, I was struck by how sad I felt when I learned of Steve's passing. I was rocked when I first saw the news, and found myself grieving far more than I would have expected.


I think one of the reasons is the rarity of Steve's insistence on building technology that works for people. Just reading the industry commentaries about Apple products shows this clearly. The complaints are universally about "speeds and feeds," complaining that this phone has a bigger, higher-quality display than the iPhone or that tablet is available in a 7-inch form factor, missing the only thing that matters: how the product works as a whole. This is why the iPhone is the most popular phone in the US and the iPad is really the only tablet that matters.

So, farewell, Steve. You have inspired me and I am grateful. My commitment is to apply what I have learned from your approach.

Thank you.

Steve Jobs is Right (Again)

Yesterday, Steve Jobs directly addressed the YouTube videos, press reports, and bloggers who have been reporting on signal strength loss with the new iPhone 4 (I'll address the iPhone 4 in a focused post early next week). He was 100% right in what he said, and I'm appalled by the response from both the mainstream media and the tech bloggers--both of whom I expect to know better and behave with better integrity. So, what is he right about?

He's right that:

  1. The press and many others can't stand it when a person or company performs well and consistently. They tear others down in an effort to look good. What do you call people who behave that way towards others?
  2. Every wireless device is effected by being close to a bag of salt water like a human body.
  3. Apple made it's biggest mistake by having the spot that's most effected by the touch of a hand be marked by the black line between the two antennas.

You know from reading this blog that I think success is to be celebrated, not destroyed, so you can imagine how I feel about the ridiculous attacks on Apple and Jobs by the press and bloggers. But, that's how they sell ads, I guess. What it means for you is the same as it does for most so-called news outlets: take it with a gigantic grain of salt!

What you may not know about me is that my engineering background is in analog electrical engineering. When everyone else in my class in the MSU Engineering College was focused on digital systems, I was working on antennas, transmission lines, and cellular radio technologies. Recently I have returned to work in that area of engineering (primarily with 4G networks), and I can claim far more expertise than the riffraff who have been writing about "Antennagate." As a result, starting with the announcement of the iPhone 4 (in fact, from the photos and dubious article published by Gizmodo of the iPhone 4 before the announcement) I expected that the less-knowledgable would grab onto the external antenna as a bad idea.

But, it was a good idea. And Jobs is right: every wireless device is impacted by proximity to a human. Unfortunately, the FCC creates tests that don't do a reliable job of representing real-world use scenarios. And to add to that, the manufacturers have to comply with the FCC requirement often to the detriment of performance.

Lastly, completely unintentionally, Apple happened to mark the weak spot with the black band at the bottom of the iPhone 4. With the design of the antenna and that obvious black line, curious amateur engineers would bridge the two antennas with their hands to see what happened. What they found was that the device's signal was negatively impacted.

Of course, it's not for the reason that they think. It's not the bridging of the two antennas. If it was, turning off the signals to the second antenna (which is Bluetooth, GPS reception, and WiFi) would eliminate the issue. But, that's not what happens, because that's not the real issue.

I'll post my specific thoughts about the iPhone 4 for business use early in the week next week. In the meantime it is vitally important to understand that most of the people writing about this situation have absolutely no idea what they are talking about, are more concerned with controversy and page views than truth, and do not look at devices as tools but rather as collections of features.

None of which is helpful to you as a person looking for a tool for your business. More about the iPhone and business next week. In the meantime, post your thoughts in the comments...

Here are a few posts from other places on the iPhone 4, so-called "Antennagate," and more rational commentary:

Inside Apple’s Actual Distortion Field: Giant Chambers, Fake Heads, And Black Cloaks

Radio engineer: Consumer Reports iPhone 4 testing flawed (u)

FaceTime and Why Apple’s Massive Integration Advantage is Just Beginning

Total Recall Or Total Bull? Some Perspective On The iPhone 4 Antenna Frenzy

The Anandtech iPhone 4 Antenna Review