Lessons From the First iPhone’s Product Development Process

You can be as innovative as Steve Jobs too.

After a decade, Apple employees are opening up about the iPhone’s development, and it wasn’t as pretty as the result.

There are far fewer genuine innovations than we think. Most of what we call innovation is actually iteration: a little advance derivative of what came before it. But Oxford dictionary says “innovation (in something) [is] the introduction of new things, ideas or ways of doing something.”

The iPhone was an actual new thing, idea, and way of doing many things. We have been talking about categorical perception and how one of the strategies to combat the negative perceptions associated with your product category is to define an entirely new product category. The iPhone did this.

We have been talking about categorical perception recently, and one of the strategies to break from the preconceptions about your product category is to innovate and entirely dissociate your product from the competition and create your own product category. The iPhone is the best example of a product that forged its own product category.

The historical context: mobile phones of 2006 sucked.

I cannot understate how much of a paradigm shift the iPhone was from the mobile phone market of 2007. It’s hard to imagine or remember but, before the iPhone, a cell phone was something you flipped open to make calls with (sparingly), and you texted your friends with a number pad if you were young or emailed your colleagues if you were established. You could get away with charging your phone once a week. Data plans were insanely expensive and, as a result, there was an awful “mobile web” in parallel with the regular web to reduce the data going through the cell towers.

There was no app store; you were stuck with the functions that Nokia, Microsoft or Blackberry gifted you unless you were really, and I mean really, motivated to side load an app. I spent an entire afternoon in university downloading a GPS app onto my desktop computer and then side loading the file onto my Nokia NGage. By the way, it didn’t show my position on a map (that would be too expensive to download), it just listed my co-ordinates, the cell tower I was connected to, and what town and state that tower was in. The application was completely useless, but it was the coolest thing I could imagine in 2007.

Pre-iPhone (2006):

  • Nokia’s Symbian was top of the market.
  • Windows Mobile was second
  • Blackberry was third.
  • Best selling phone: Nokia 2600

The best selling phone of 2006, the Nokia 2600

Post-iPhone (2017):

  • Google’s Android is top of the market.
  • Apple’s iPhone is second
  • Windows Phone is third
  • Best Selling Phone: iPhone 6S

The best selling phone of 2017, the iPhone 6S

The new paradigm the iPhone introduced was a multi-touch telecommunications device that was always connected to the internet. Virtual buttons instead of physical buttons, and ubiquitous connectivity completely changed the experience of the phone and opened it up for far more functions.

Only Apple had the brand to pull the iPhone off.

Only Apple had the brand at the time to change the industry. The iPhone came when Apple was only a few generations into the iPod which was Apple’s most successful product to date. In the famous “one more thing” keynote at Macworld 2007, there were big cheers when Steve Jobs mentioned the touchscreen iPod. There were almost no cheers when he said “internet communication device,” yet, historically, this is the most important part.

The first generation iPhone was a bad product by all measures. It had a 2.5 G antenna in a 3G environment. Its battery would barely last through the day when most mobile phones would last a week. There was no App store. And it sold for $499, subsidized by the carrier; more than twice the upfront cost people were used to paying at the time.

But Apple had so much good will and such a strong brand at the time that they could do no wrong; Leo LePorte of This Week In Tech refers to this as the “Steve Jobs reality distortion field” where rational journalists could be convinced that the simplest improvement was revolutionary.

Preconceptions about a company that changes perception? That sounds like our definition of brand. Apple’s brand was never stronger than this point in time.

Thankfully, this product was revolutionary. After it had shipped, it was commonplace to see people crowded around the few individuals who had an iPhone. People understood the concept as soon as they saw it, and they knew there was no turning back.

The iPhone’s development process was messy, and turned nasty.

Apple did not start developing the iPhone with this intent to change the paradigm. I regularly talk to product people in other companies who don’t think they have the vision of Steve Jobs. They believe that he envisioned the iPhone and wrote a very concise description of what he wanted. This is the ‘visionary myth.’

The truth is that the iPhone development started as a defensive move because the Apple executives forecasted that the iPod market would be consumed by the basic media players Blackberry and Nokia were building into their phones. Steve Jobs set up a bake off pitting different departments against each other; he had the iPod team prototype their best effort, and the Mac team do the same. Winner takes all.

The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

Steve Jobs had the executive in charge of the iPod, Tony Fadell, have his team develop a large iPod with a speaker, microphone, and cell phone radio array. Imagine a click wheel iPod that can make calls; I know, it’s rough, but they were close to going in that direction.

But thankfully what we know as the iPhone was a miniaturized version of a multi-touch computer that the Mac team, lead by Scott Forstall had already developed. They had been working on something akin to an iPad based on multi-touch technology they had received patents to through acquisition.

Even with the prototypes, it was not a clear-cut decision. The executives at Apple knew that being in charge of this product meant prestige and opportunities at Apple, and the bake off festered hostilities between Scott Forstall and Tony Fadell that boil over to this day. This final decision was only thanks to an impassioned email from Scott Forstall to Steve Jobs about the potential of an App Store; he was right, and the mini, multi-touch Mac won the support of Jobs.

For a deeper dive into the iPhone’s development process, read “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone” by Brian Merchant, available from Amazon (affiliate link.)

You can be as innovative as Steve Jobs too.

So next time you compare your messy new product development process to Apple, know that there process is just as messy behind closed doors. Apple is secretive about all their processes, but we now know that Apple test and develops many ideas, then applies a litmus test to them and either kills the projects or distills down what they are doing successfully into something really simple.

So how do you emulate Apple’s innovation of the iPhone? My advice changes depending on what stage your brand is on.

If you are a startup with limited funding and a small brand, then you do not have the luxury to go through the development process like Apple. You need two things: feedback from customers who are desperate for your product and to start building relationships with those customers. And you need to do both before you run out of money. You do not have the luxury to develop two products in secret, and distill and refine until you have a beautiful solution.

If you are a large company with an established brand, then there are lessons to be learned from Apple. Start the new product development strategically, either playing offense by moving into a new market, or defensively to protect your market as Apple did. Let the process be messy, it’s okay. I would not pit your executives against each other as Jobs did; it seems cruel and does not align with my morals. But I would have no problem with multiple teams developing multiple ideas and technologies.

A messy development process is okay as long as you distill and refine that heterogeneous mix of ideas and technology into a cohesive, useful final product.

Black and white photo of Colin FinkleColin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at Colin Finkle’s portfolio site. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter. He is also the author of the book series, the Neverborn Saga.

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