Five years after Steve Jobs: An Apple with the courage to say 'No'
AppleInsider may earn an affiliate commission on purchases made through links on our site.
Five years ago today, Steve Jobs passed away — just one day after Apple introduced Siri on the new iPhone 4s. While the pundit press immediately dreamed of a rapid collapse of Apple in his absence, instead the company Jobs cofounded spiraled upward to become the largest and most profitable ever. Why were they all so very wrong?
Steve Jobs and the Confident No
Prior to his premature passing, Jobs impacted an incredible four decades of the PC industry. In the 1970s, he played an oversized role as a young, newly minted executive in the sprouting of Silicon Valley. He witnessed— and materially participated in— the birth of an entirely new personal computing industry. He observed first hand what worked and what didn't when selling technology products to mainstream users.
In the 1980s he continued to grow up alongside the PC industry. Faced with looming competition from an entrenched IBM, he drove the underdog Apple's ambitious level of investment in the Macintosh. That new computing platform delivered an entirely unique set of human interface guidelines that defined the "right way" to present information, to respond to a human user and to provide feedback. It also defined wrong activities: it said "No" to developer "freedoms," tightly reining in platform behaviors to establish a consistent, intuitive way to work for users.
The Macintosh also said No to a variety of legacy layers. It said No to standard 5.25 inch floppies and wasn't compatible with earlier Apple II software or the emerging definitions of the IBM PC. It initially said No to the command line as a fall back to using the Mac Desktop.
Jobs' "courage of conviction" in a variety of decisions related to the Macintosh and its future led to a solid user environment for desktop publishing but eventually met with resistance inside Apple, where Jobs' convictions on how to invest the company's profits and how to sell new hardware weren't unanimous. By 1986, Jobs chose to leave Apple and start over on a project he could more completely control: NeXT.
At NeXT, Jobs— along with a lot of engineering talent poached from Apple— boldly charted a new future for workplace computing using powerful, networked systems featuring sophisticated software development frameworks running on a solid Unix foundation into the 1990s. NeXT relaxed some No decisions from the Macintosh era (like the Unix command line), but advanced a variety of even more courageously bold design choices.
As a smaller player in a restricted market (Apple effectively limited NeXT to selling mostly to higher education), it was harder for NeXT to confidently and successfully express No in terms of design. But in 1996, when Apple acquired NeXT and brought Jobs back home to Cupertino, Jobs regained the ability to define a confident definition of product and platform that liberally said No.
Saying No is critical to good design and engineering.
Saying No is critical to good design and engineering. Without a confident courage backed with informed conviction, products can lack clear definition and purpose. The 1990s Apple was already suffering from a Culture of Yes, where products like the Newton (and even the Copland future of Mac OS) were enthusiastically agreeing to lots of objectives without being able to complete them. No isn't just negative, it's formative. Saying No means you can concentrate on a limited number of Yes features. No is an expression of mature restraint.
Contempt for Jobs, and afterward
Jobs' charisma and confidence in delivering products that were not afraid to say No attracted lots of criticism from detractors, particularly those who supported rival firms promising an ability to say Yes to everything.
Since Jobs' death, tech punditry has constantly hammered Apple for doing— or not doing— what, in their opinion, "Steve would have done." However, across the last two years of Jobs' life, the tech media almost unanimously criticized every step Jobs made, ranging from a contemptuously skeptical reception of 2010's iPad that was so ignorantly dismissive of Apple's new tablet that Jobs would later confide to his biographer that he was left feeling annoyed and depressed— to the extended, contrived "scandal" of AntennaGate that desperately aimed to derail iPhone 4 later that same year.
Across 2011, they took gleeful delight in prying into Jobs' failing health as he struggled with cancer, posting photos backed with their personal speculation of how soon he might die. Make no mistake, the punditry serving the commodity PC industry loathed Jobs as deeply and as blindly as American conservatives hate Hillary Clinton. They even employed the same playbook: a snowstorm of invented scandals absurdly named after Nixon's Watergate, personal scapegoating vilifications of blame for every ill in the world (including suicides in China), and trolling health concerns.
However, as soon as Jobs actually passed away, they immediately spun around and pretended to respect his accomplishments, with the transparent purpose of suggesting that without him, Apple would quickly run out of ideas and die itself.
Suddenly, 2007's iPhone and 2010's iPad were the only accomplishments Apple had made in recent history, and there was no evidence of a new form factor with the power to similarly revolutionize the world. And without Jobs, how could there ever be a new one?!
This was, of course, just another lie. Jobs didn't single handily invent the iPhone and then sit down to hand-draw the iPad as an encore. As was long rumored— and then actually revealed in court documents— teams at Apple had initially developed a "Safari Pad" prototype first, but then adapted that technology to deliver a new class of smartphone, which the company realized it could more effectively bring to market and sell.
The revolution of iPhone and iPad were not two genius hardware form factors that could never be duplicated again. Both were simply marketable instances of a new kind of technology portfolio Apple began building on the foundation of the Macintosh and its NeXT-derived development platform.
The bold step was the development of a mobile-first technology platform: iOS. It had a clear strategy, it had strong definition, and most importantly, it was not afraid to say No.
Steve Jobs greatest accomplishment was not a series of remarkable hardware product introductions
Steve Jobs greatest accomplishment was not a series of remarkable hardware product introductions. It was instead a continuum of regimented platform development working to make practical application of the most promising technology advances as they became available. It just so happened that the Macintosh was followed by NeXT and the iMac, iPod and MacBooks and then iOS devices. It was all a stream of technology investment that flowed toward where the puck was headed: first in office desktops, then as portable devices, then as mobile devices.
Apple is now evolving to deliver ultra-mobile wearables with Apple Watch and AirPods. The company isn't lacking a Jobs-worthy vision for the next new hardware shape. It has distilled and cultivated the very thinking that delivered all of those examples of success that occured under Jobs' direction. And central to that vision is the ability to say No.
My name is No. My sign is No. My number is No.
When Jobs introduced iPhone in 2007, he highlighted three key features: a "revolutionary mobile phone" that also combined a "widescreen touch-control iPod" and a "breakthrough Internet communications device."
That was marketing. What actually made iPhone radically different from previous smartphones was that it made an ambitious leap in computing sophistication, packing more processing power and system memory than anything from Nokia or Samsung or Sony or Palm or Blackberry or Microsoft, and loading a powerful computing platform with the capability to run an actual web browser and desktop email that no other maker had considered feasible given the limited processing power on existing mobile phones.
What Apple managed to shoehorn into the tiny device was impressive, but even more "courageous" were the bold decisions on "features" Apple expressly opted to leave out. This included a variety of industry checkboxes that everyone else had deemed essential for selling phones. This was particularly emphasized by PR journalists tasked with carrying the water of Apple's competitors.
iPhone omissions included a lack of support for BlackBerry Enterprise Server messaging or the signature Blackberry physical keyboard that RIM had popularized (both of which had converted business users into "crackberry" addicts). It also included no support for the WAP "baby Internet" of simplified, mobile-only websites (nor Japan's own i-mode baby Internet) and made no pretext of ever running existing mobile software created for Sun's JavaME, Adobe's Flash Lite, Nokia's Symbian, PalmOS or Windows Mobile.
At the time, virtually every "smartphone" was trying to run JavaME and many had licensed Flash Lite. Palm had even jumped ship to bundle Windows Mobile on its phones in a bid for relevancy in the enterprise. Here was Apple with a device that not only snubbed the status quo in smartphones, but even failed to support GSM's vision for MMS picture messaging and the entire global deployment of CDMA, hailed as the future of mobile networks.
If we weren't today looking back with perfect hindsight, it might seem hard to believe that a company the size of Apple back in 2006 was aiming to gut the entire mobile industry with a disrupting product that didn't do any of the things that seemed— by way of assumptions grounded on rival vendors' marketing— essential at the time.
Saying No was core to the successful launch of iPhone
However, saying No was core to the successful launch of iPhone because it enabled Apple to focus on differentiating features rather than being consumed with trying to maintain parity with the shifting specifications of its rivals. The allure of iPhone was the magical speed and simplicity of its multitouch user interface, the capacity of its Mail, Safari and Maps client apps, and its extension of the iPod ecosystem as a music and movie player.
iPhone wasn't Apple's first No
Years earlier, Apple had launched iPod, featuring lots of No as well. It purposely didn't play Windows Media DRM, even though the commodity chips it used had the ability to do this. As a result, the popularity of iPod meant that iTunes and DRM-free sources of music and videos would sustain not only iPods, but also ensure that compatible music and movies remained available for Mac users. Microsoft had been working to wield its PC monopoly to make the Mac irrelevant as a media playback system, but iPods and iTunes broke right through that strategy.
Similarly, if Apple had saddled iPhone with compatibility for Java applets or Flash content, it would have been held at the whim of Sun or Adobe, a history Apple had already experienced on the Mac— where an alarming number of security flaws and performance issues were rooted in its support for Java and Flash plugins that Apple couldn't force its users to live without. On iOS, Apple could start over and do things right. Priority number one: no dependance on incompetent partners' middleware platforms.
This "new" mobile platform strategy had been core to Jobs' vision for decades. At times it had appeared to be a mistake, and was widely considered to be a core reason for NeXT failing to accomplish much commercially over its first decade. However, in hindsight the work done at NeXT was far superior to the parallel developments at Apple, where from 1986-1996, Jobs Strategy of No was replaced with a new Culture of Yes, Sure, Why Not!?
After Jobs, Apple turned strong Yes
While today's pundits seem to think that Apple and IBM remained enemies right up until Tim Cook forged the Mobile First partnership for iOS Apps in 2014, the reality was that Apple began working on how to make Macs more "Yes" in a variety of ways in the late 1980s. It worked to make the Mac desktop run on top of Unix machines, and partnered with IBM on a series of levels ranging from PowerPC chips to the OS/2 Microkernel to Taligent software development frameworks to Kaleida Labs multimedia.
The Post-Jobs Apple worked on its own vision of making Macs run old software next to modern new software; considered running multiple platforms (Unix, MacOS, OS/2) on the same hardware; layered various strategies for electronic messaging, group chats, modular software, media sharing and networking ideas, even advanced research into virtual reality and the organization and indexing of data for V-Twin search.
Between 1986 and 1996, Apple released various small batch hardware products that it struggled to market and sell in sustainable quantities, and it eventually worked with licensee partners to co-develop Mac and Newton-branded devices, ranging from wireless tablets built by Motorola to Mac-based game console boxes built by Bandai. If this all sounds familiar, its because the non-Jobs Apple is virtually identical to today's Google: the epitome of Yes-Yes, as the search giant demonstrated yesterday.
All that Yes nearly killed the old Apple. In trying to do everything, it was accomplishing nearly nothing. It was spending millions on research and technology but was unable to effectively bring much of it to market. Further, its shifting strategies were turning off third party developers and rendering it as unfit for use in the Enterprise, where random roadmap changes are a liability, not a feature. These are all problems Google's Yes-Yes! Android also suffers, for the same reasons.
By 1996, Apple was facing a serious strategic crisis. A series of chief executives had aimed to sell off the company as a technology portfolio to IBM, Sun or Oracle, or to simply slash through the wasteful spending that was getting the company nowhere (which is exactly what Google has been doing over the last couple years). In parallel, Jobs' NeXT offered Apple an alternative: a streamlined future strategy for rebuilding the Mac into a modern platform consumers would want to buy.
Jobs brings Apple back with a strong No
Getting Apple back on track would require discipline and focus. Jobs famously slashed away Apple's clones, the company's own confusing array of Mac models and sub-brands, and terminated all sorts of internal developments ranging from QuickDraw 3D to PowerTalk to the "Yes, to everything" Newton tablet. The remaining focus allowed Apple to target what consumers were actually ready to buy: the luggable new iMac, an easy to use PC for accessing the Internet; revamped, sleek new PowerBooks for powerful mobile computing; and a few years later, the very mobile iPod for taking music on the go.
As the 2000s began, the new Apple made its first major misstep: the PowerMac G4 Cube, a throwback premium 1990s desktop computer offered to a market that was not only being rocked by the 2001 Dotcom Collapse, but was also decisively going mobile. Fortunately for Apple, the company did largely recognize the clear and incessant march toward mobility. Desktop PCs were not the future. Apple also muddled through the Mac mini and Xserve and Mac Pro, but didn't make any of those smaller products central to its computing strategy.
Sales of iPods and PowerBooks, augmented with increasing sales of consumer iBooks and then MacBooks, had primed Apple to focus on integrated software and hardware targeting mobility, via battery chemistry, efficient computing and a reduction of size and weight. There were lots of No decisions enabling that focus on mobility.
Apple could have just scaled down the mobile Mac slightly to deliver the same thing that Microsoft and its partners had been working on: Pocket PC PDAs with Compaq and convertible laptop-tablets with Samsung (below). These products were heavy, thick, expensive and not very powerful, but dutifully bundled a stylus pen just like the Newton had a decade prior. They were Yes to the core: everything anyone could ask for. Tech media pundits incessantly praised them despite their limited utility and unclear value.
In stark contrast, Job's Apple of No worked to strip down the Mac platform and build a core new mobile-centric user interface driven by multitouch rather than a keyboard, trackpad or 1990s stylus. At the same time, it leveraged powerful NeXT development frameworks to enable very light and efficient devices to run powerful desktop-class apps.
However, Apple's first prototype for a new, highly mobile tablet capable of running Safari (but not all Mac legacy software) ran into its own No: it wasn't clear who would pay for it. It was, however, becoming clear that if the device could be made even smaller, it could be paired with a phone and iPod features to make a very powerful new class of smartphone. Rather than being seen as a not-very-powerful Mac tablet that couldn't run Mac software, it could be a very powerful new iPhone mobile enough to carry anywhere, at all times.
That was the birth of iPhone, but more importantly it was the birth of iOS.
No vs Yes
Apple's effective use of No to reach engineering milestones resulted in a deliverable, salable smartphone that was strongly differentiated from its competitors. After the iPhone appeared, Microsoft's Windows Mobile partners— including Samsung and HTC— scrambled to polish their basic devices and claim some Yes connection to running Windows desktop software (they couldn't) or providing a stylus (a liability, not a feature). Many of them then turned to Symbian, hoping Nokia's basic PDA platform could launch a defensive strike.
By the end of 2009, all existing software platform alternatives to iOS were facing extinction. A variety of failed Windows Mobile and Symbian licensees decided to try supporting Google's Android, which delivered the closest approximation of an iPhone-like product. However, Google, like the previous decade's Apple, was all about Yes rather than making strong technology leadership decisions.
Android worked to be all things to anyone, promising that software could be found anywhere and liberally passed around without any pesky centralized security of a Walled Garden. Yes to trackballs and the stylus and physical slide out keyboards. Yes to carrier restrictions on WiFi. Yes to cost cutting by manufacturers installing paltry RAM or faking hardware features to save money.
Predictably, the Yes Android campaign ended in lots of broken promises. But while Google was trying to help foreign manufacturers copy the iPhone, Apple was working to develop a new computing form factor that leveraged many of the advantages of the iPhone with the greater canvas of a tablet. After proving successful, Android cloners tried to copy iPad too, with an expanded Yes strategy that heaped contempt upon Apple's intentional lack of support for Adobe Flash.
Google said Yes to Flash, Yes to multiple windows, Yes to lots of ports and removable memory cards and Yes to detachable battery packs. Rather than copying iPad's success, Android 3.0's tablet focus was a huge and embarrassing flop throughout 2011. Today, after years of Yes tablets, Android still has no real platform strength in tablet apps and the enterprise shuns Android tablets as solidly as it rested oddball Mac users in the 1990s.
In parallel with Google, Microsoft tried to reestablish a market for Windows Mobile and also said Yes to a more mobile Windows for tablets. Yes to no compromises. Yes to Intel desktop chips, and Yes to ARM chips. Yes to Surface RT tablets that couldn't run legacy Windows apps.
Customers said yes to Apple's No and no to all the Yes products.
Apple's iOS says Yes only when it can
Apple's willingness to say No is not an arbitrary gimmick. Many of the No decisions evident on the original iPhone were later changed, as circumstances and market power enabled Apple to expand its functionality and broaden its availability. That included adding subsequent support for MMS, BES, CDMA and many other examples.
The evolution of Apple's iOS platform has also enabled smaller format tablets like the iPad mini after initially settling on 9.7 inches as the optimal format for tablet apps. Apple also expanded to a larger iPad Pro, but only after it has developed sufficient technology to support selling a larger format and supporting third party development. Apple did the same with larger iPhones in 2014, making the move only after high quality screens, faster Application Processors and development tools were in place to support a 5.5 inch iPhone.
The continuing development of the platform technologies in iOS are also enabling ecosystem expansions with Car Play and HomeKit, and new platforms for Apple TV and for Apple Watch, both of which expand the demand for iOS Apps and related Services.
Unsurprisingly, Apple is still getting considerable flack for making bold No decisions, such as the loss of an analog headphone jack on iPhone 7— a casualty of the decision to deliver robust IP67 weatherproofing, to expand upon haptics and 3D Touch and to double down on wireless audio distribution through enhanced Bluetooth or AirPlay.
Every year since Jobs' passing back in 2011, Apple's tenacious grasp of the overriding principle of learning to say No in engineering decisions— where the advantages of doing so outweigh the drawbacks of maintaining the status quo— has resulted in incremental progress unimpeded by the boat anchors of legacy and the albatrosses of Yes-Yes decision making among rivals that has not resulted in similar commercial success.
Steve Jobs may not have made all the same decisions currently being made by today's Apple, but he'd no doubt be impressed to see the results of others applying his experience gained across decades of learning how to build "insanely great" products that aren't afraid to say No when necessary.