This is a post I have been planning for some time. It’s important because of the way Apple has made their fortune over the last four decades. I’m not going to begin discussing solid supply-chain economics, a lesson they learned in the 1980s era when manufacturing crashes and industrial firms were all playing catch-up to “Kaizen” and “Just-in-time” strategy. I won’t delve into the recent Apple cash management victories, with solid debt principles, product launch timing and an $80+ billion war chest. I’m not even going to wax poetic about the incredible mind that was Steve Jobs, and how we miss him. These are all true, but they’re not the real story.
I’m going to draw your attention to Time Machine. This simple innovation is exactly how Apple Computer beat the bigs. It’s how a group of guys and girls from simple beginnings got to become that American fable of building a better mousetrap, founding a company in the “garage” and going on to superstardom and independent wealth.
Time Machine is the story of how something people do regularly with computers became simple, without technology innovation (although that followed) but simply with an analogy.
In the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, backing up files from a personal computer, or network of computers, was an ugly endeavor. Leading vendors offered great leaps forward in storage capacity: Terabytes of information could be saved to tape, disc, or off-site server farms. The problem was, no matter how often you remembered to back up, or automated the process, it was a technical nightmare. Special interfaces were required, and the media you saved to had to be labeled, catalogued and libraried. This sounds like it could be an orderly process, but the devil wasn’t in the details. It was in the one time you needed to restore from backup. This almost never worked.
It wasn’t the users that failed this, or the sysops who were tasked with the backups, or even the companies like Iron Mountain or Western Digital that were providing the highly complex data solutions. It was the system itself. People had to determine which of the last 2 or 3 backups had the version of their files, and often one of those hadn’t run right, so restoring from saved versions just didn’t match up, and could take hours or days in larger organizations.
Apple defeated this problem with an analogy. Instead of making users bend to a complicated catalogue system, they changed the inner workings of their technology to a simple mental understanding. By giving users an in-operating system dial to “travel back in time” to see what files were in a folder, Apple made this easy. It is this same understanding of what users want that forces them to test, test, and test again the methods for user interface in their iPhone, iPod, iPad, and computers. There is plenty of highly technical custom possibility beneath the surface, but for most users, Apple makes it easy on us. If you shake the iPhone when iTunes is open, you get a random playlist. This is something humans understand, without needing to “learn” the interface.
Can we take a step back from our own daily walk and ask, “what do the customers want?”
That’s when we can really break through our own pattern.