Less Than Ideal

Most of us know the feeling. You've got your shiny new Apple device on your wrist, in the bag that’s slung over your shoulder, or perpetually within reach on the nearest flat surface. You just bought this device recently, and you love it. Without a doubt, there is no list to create, message to read, or search to perform that your new digital toy doesn’t get the first crack at. It can seemingly do just about everything that it’s older siblings can do- and the two of you are still honeymooning, after all.

This eagerness to investigate the features and functionalities of a new device is normal. As a relentless early adopter, the uncharted waters of a new Apple device or operating system is about as exciting as my day-to-day life gets. But eventually the exploration concludes, and the device settles somewhere into my daily life or workflow.

But how do I decide when to use one device instead of one of the others that I carry? “First World Problem” that it may be, this is one of those modern conundrums that is not easily answered.

Just ask Apple's Senior VP of Marketing, Phil Schiller.

As part of a recent piece for Medium’s Backchannel column, Steven Levy interviewed Schiller and this very topic came up:

Schiller, in fact, has a grand philosophical theory of the Apple product line that puts all products on a continuum. Ideally, you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line.

“They are all computers,” he says. “Each one is offering computers something unique and each is made with a simple form that is pretty eternal. The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often. The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad, and it should be always trying and striving to do that. The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook. Like, Why do I need a notebook? I can add a keyboard! I can do all these things! The job of the notebook is to make it so you never need a desktop, right? It’s been doing this for a decade.”

Now, I can only reasonably assume that Phil Schiller he has contributed mightily to all of the Apple products and campaigns that I’ve enjoyed over the years. For that reason alone, I’m a big fan of his work. You could say that I’m generally in his camp, so to speak. But this meandering quote of his- as well as the preceding “philosophical theory” that Levy attributes directly to him- jumped off the page, distressing me the moment that I read it.

Phil Schiller with John Gruber, June 2015. 

Phil Schiller with John Gruber, June 2015. 

There are two distinct (though related) parts to this excerpt that we should take a look at. First, the notion that “Ideally, you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible”. To be fair, again this is not a direct quote from Schiller himself. Further, beginning the sentence with “Ideally” does operate as a bit of a comprehensive disclaimer. However, I feel that the glorification of “smallest possible” has lead Apple down the wrong path in recent years. In other words: disclaimer or not, there's been a lot of smoke coming from this fire lately.

Apple has always been aggressive about displaying core functionality in their product lines, whether in the name of design elegance or in service to the agenda of a future product line. But more recently, Apple has been quite brazen in it's introduction of compromises to the functionality of products in the name of “thin”, when further thinness is simply not an ideal worth chasing. Beyond that, there’s a deceptive fallacy that this philosophy perpetuates: that using the smallest gadget you own to do as much as it can possibly do is in a user’s best interest. Anybody who has sworn off performing any number of common actions on their Apple Watch (with their iPhone in their pocket, no less!) knows that the “use the smallest gadget” approach, if generally adhered to, will cause a lot of frustration.

On to the second part of the excerpt from Levy’s piece, which is Schiller’s quote about “the job of” each product category in Apple’s growing line of gadgets. Here, he basically says that the reason for each product line’s existence is primarily to replace the need for each subsequent, physically larger product. With all due respect to Schiller, I actually cannot believe that this quote made it to print. In a piece that mostly feels like it could have been written by Apple PR itself, the statement feels wildly out of place.

A little background: One of the triumphant moments in Apple history was the unveiling of the first iPhone, in early 2007. This was the scene for perhaps Steve Jobs’ most memorable stage appearance. Ever the showman, Jobs famously opened the preceding by claiming that he was there to announce three new devices- A great cell phone, their best iPod yet, and a powerful internet communicator. Only to reveal, of course, that Apple had rolled all 3 of these devices into one, the iPhone. He masterfully combined a flair for the dramatic with good, sound, Marketing 101. He was there to show off his new baby, but he wasn’t going to let the moment rob him of the reason he was really there that day: to tell the world what this device was going to do better than any device before it. With the iPod already a runaway hit in millions of pockets worldwide, and laptop computers the dominant means to accessing the internet, Jobs made sure to communicate where the iPhone would fit into their lives.

STEVE JOBS, JANUARY 2010.

STEVE JOBS, JANUARY 2010.

Again, in the lead up to the iPad launch, Jobs told the New York Times that Apple’s new tablet would have to “be far better at doing some key things” in order to establish it’s niche between the iPhone and the Mac. During his 2010 introduction of the iPad, he used on stage props to emphasize the contextually unique nature of the iPad's feature offerings when he sat down in an overstuffed black leather chair to perform his demo.

This is not only nothing new to Apple, but it is still practiced today. In the days following last fall’s Apple Watch announcement, analyst Horace Dediu of Asymco wrote a memorable piece in which he points out that Tim Cook went right back to the Jobs playbook as he introduced Apple's first wearable device:

Tim Cook, September 2014. Steve Jobs, January 2007.

Tim Cook, September 2014. Steve Jobs, January 2007.

Of course, the reason iPhone outgrew its tentpoles is because of the app economy. 1.3 million apps does that to a product. When it becomes a platform a product invites collaboration on the problem of innovation. Collaborative innovation explodes the opportunity to discover new needs and uses. How, when and why people use the product changes beyond anyone’s imagination.

But this does not mean that the tentpoles used at launch are in any way in error. They are necessary to explain the value of a new category. The audience can’t be told “wait and see all the cool stuff you’ll be able to do with it”. They need to be told why it’s useful today. They speak in the language the audience can understand today. Steve Jobs could not talk in the language of apps and services in 2007. The unforeseen became the inevitable.

Tentpoles therefore don’t define the product but do provide the starting blocks from which the initial buyers make a cognition leap. And once they’re off, the others will know where to go.

Again, establishing and reiterating a product's Job To Be Done is neither new or all that innovative. It's the job of a marketer to understand this, and communicate it effectively.

Unfortunately, I don't believe that Phil Schiller was properly prepared to explain, in a nutshell, what each of Apple's product lines excel at. In fact, it's a fool's errand to even attempt to do so. The bottom line is that it is the responsibility of the user to determine the best handful of duties for each new device in his or her lineup. There is no right or wrong set of activities for an individual to undertake on any given device- and certainly, it's not decided by something so arbitrary as the size of the device. To each, their own.

With the arrival of the iPad Pro, there is yet another new device to choose from. As always, one would be wise to go into that decision trying to gain an understanding for what that device might be able to better than one of the products they are currently employing. What one would like for this product to do for them- not whether the task at hand could possibly be performed by the "smallest possible gadget" they can find.