Focus

(yes, this is an old topic, but I’m a slow blogger. Anyway…)

Of all the material that came under the spotlight shortly after Steve Jobs’s death, the most interesting one I’ve seen by far was his WWDC keynote from 1997 :

Let’s recap the situation : Apple is months away from bankruptcy, Gil Amelio is the current CEO, they’ve just bought NeXT and Steve Jobs has returned as “advisor”.

At the WWDC (that’s the Mac developers worldwide conference), Steve Jobs walks on stage and instead of doing a presentation, offers to take questions from the audience. And his answers have made me realise why the guy really was completely different from the other tech CEOs that run other IT companies.

Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting moments (time indications are approximative) :

4:00 – explains how he thinks that there’s a market for great products. Not “fancy products with an apple logo on them” – great products. Products that stand above the others in term of quality. All other companies do market studies, try to offer a variety of products tailored to each market segment… He wants Apple to do differently.

5:00 – “I know some of you worked on stuff that we put a bullet in the head of” : the way he acknowledges that is rather uncommon in my experience. Most would try to weasel around the issue and soften the blow. The reason he doesn’t is not because of his usual callous approach, it’s because he’s able to justify it with what comes next : “Focus is saying no”. This will echo to any developers who’s been involved in a project that has fallen to feature bloat. Raise your hand if you’ve met many managers with this kind of mindset. I haven’t.

10:00 – at this point he acknowledges that Apple should no longer reinvent everything, as they had done in the past. Pick the right elements (i.e. the Unix core technologies), figure out what they need to turn them into a product that is really better than the competition. And they did just that.

13:00 – “using computers not for computation intensive tasks, but as a window into communication intensive tasks” – coming from NeXT, he describes what his experience was using an OS which had the network built in from the start. A familiar vision to any Unix user, something very remote to Mac users at the time. In more ways than one, he also describes what cloud computing is aiming to bring to everybody now.

He also mentions gigabit ethernet, which will only be deployed 3 years later.

16:00 “what is really exciting to me is to look at that personal computer, and take out every moving part except the keyboard and the mouse”. That’s the Macbook Air, right there, which would be released 11 years later, in 2008. There was also the failed Sun/Oracle Network computer in between, but Apple pulled it off.

19:00 “Apple is vertically integrated – makes the hardware, the software, the marketing experience”. To this day, nobody else than Apple has this, and few still understand how fundamental a strength this is for them. So he got that while the PC world has the advantage of economies of scale, they can’t match Apple’s reactivity and ability to provide a much more seamless experience.

22:00 let’s not forget this is a developer convention – here he explains how cool the NeXTStep development platform is. Nothing special in itself, except that I don’t know of too many CEOs of IT companies who can convincingly sell a development environment to an audience of experienced developers. The part about “managing complexity” (at 25:00) really hits home.

41:00 “the way you get programmer productivity is not by increasing the number of lines of code per programmer per day. That doesn’t work. The way you get programmer productivity is by eliminating the lines of code you have to write. […] the goal here is to eliminate 80% of the code you have to write for your app”. Another thing that not too many tech managers get (although more do nowadays than back when this was recorded). That’s why he chose Objective C over C++.

01:01 About the Newton. “Most companies can be successful with 1 stack of system software. Rarely can they manage two and we are going to succeed at managing two during the next several years with MacOS and Rhapsody. I cannot imagine being successful at managing 3”. Let’s recap : this is still MacOS 9. Rhapsody, which will become Mac OS X, is in its infancy. So Apple will have to manage those two. The 3rd one is the Newton OS, therefore that will have to be shut down. Again, focus.

In a few years, once OS X is well established, they still will release the iPod, which did have its own (very simple) OS.

“Do you have a newton ?” asks a guy – He replies he bought one of the early ones, thought it was a piece of junk and threw it away, same with a Motorola Invoice. He grants that the new Newtons may be a lot better, the guy suggests he tries one, but he stops the argument with this : “the high-order bit is connectivity. It’s being in touch, connected to a network”. He then explains that using infrared to transfer data from your organizer to your computer when you get back is not what he wants. “If somebody would make a thing where you’re connected to the Net at all times… I’d love to buy one”.

Again, 1997. The Net is mostly accessed through modems. DSL is in its infancy. Wireless data access hardly exists at all. Yes, the concept itself is obvious, but at this point it’s clearly many years away… 10 years away, to be exact, when he took the stage at MacWorld and started with those words : “we’re gonna make some history today”. Others had implemented that concept before them (Treo, Blackberry), but they set the bar on how to do it.

Name one IT company which could see and plan 10 years ahead, and successfully achieve those plans. That’s focus.

5 thoughts on “Focus”

  1. “High-order bit”, I think, not “bid”. He seemed to use that term quite a lot as a cute way of saying “most important thing”.

    If this is the video I’m thinking of — and I admit I haven’t re-watched it — then one thing I thought was interesting was the question and response about OpenDoc, which he had just effectively canned. (If you remember OpenDoc, it was a fairly complex, open-standard component embedding protocol developed by Apple with IBM as an alternative to Microsoft’s COM.)

    A questioner asked about OpenDoc, and his reply said two things: it had some technological flannel about how one might be able to do similar things with other technologies such as Java; and it suggested that OpenDoc was largely irrelevant to users anyway.

    What I found interesting and typical about this was the way the broad statement could be spot on (OpenDoc was indeed largely irrelevant to users and a technical distraction rather than a desirable goal for a company in Apple’s position) at the same time as the detail being so wrong: his answer about Java made no sense at all. (Of course there was probably a third aspect not mentioned, which was that working with IBM and open standards bodies didn’t appear to be a productive use of the company’s time.)

    We see this in hindsight as cutting through the detail, getting to the point, envisioning the future, understanding the things that really mattered, etc.

    But how would you tell the difference at the time between Jobs and some equally charismatic but essentially clueless leader? I know I have listened to many business leaders produce compelling, but difficult to substantiate, talk about the future and how to get there, while misunderstanding or misrepresenting technical details in a way that infuriated me as a developer and made it very hard to trust any of the broader things they said. What would I have thought of Jobs, if I had been there as an Apple developer?

    1. (thanks for the “bid/bit” correction, I fixed it).

      Regarding his reply on Opendoc, here’s a transcript of the end of his reply (the bulk of which was actually the “Focus is saying no” statement) : “… I thought it was great technology but it didn’t fit. The rest of the world isn’t gonna use OpenDoc. And, I think it’s a container strategy and there’s some stuff in the Java space that’s much better. Even the OpenDoc guys were basically trying to rewrite the whole thing in Java anyway, which was a restart. So, it didn’t make sense”.

      Not knowing much about OpenDoc (the Wikipedia entry links it to Microsoft OLE, not COM), I have no idea what Java technology he could be referring to. I wouldn’t be so sure his answer didn’t make any sense. Note that he didn’t say it could be replaced by Java itself, as you seem to think, but by “some technology in the Java space”.

      Now as to how to tell at the time if the guy has a clue or not, I suggest you watch the presentation. If I had been among the audience at the time, I’d have been thrilled. Note the clapping when he says “good engineering, bad management”.

  2. Incidentally, with regard to

    “… the goal here is to eliminate 80% of the code you have to write for your app” … That’s why he chose Objective C over C++

    Would this be a good time to point out that the C++ to Objective C conversion in your earlier edenx update post somehow managed to produce more than double the amount of code, in both line and character counts?

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