Outsiders Can't Define Apple's New Products: Opinion

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Real innovation, done in great secrecy at Apple (AAPL), is a messy business.

There is considerable trial and error. There are dead ends, and there is usually great difficulty creating, in hardware and software, the dream at hand. Especially if the dream is big enough.

And then there are the outside observers who have no clue how hard the process is. One of the difficulties many face when analyzing Apple is a set of misperceptions on how science, engineering and product development work.

How Apple creates products is described by Leander Kahney in his excellent 2013 book: Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products. The chapter on the development of the first iPhone is especially informative, and I recommend it for everyone who follows Apple.

In that chapter, Kahney describes how several iPhone prototypes were built. The first, led by Tony Fadell, was a telephone grafted onto an iPod, and it didn't pan out. Another prototype went through many iterations until the design was just right. Just weeks before final design, Steve Jobs insisted on a glass, not a plastic display. All along the way, there was some yelling in the hallways and the product manager once slammed her office door so hard, it jammed and locked her in.

At his Macworld presentation in January of 2007, introducing the original iPhone, Jobs showed this graphic (below) of how an iPhone should not be designed.

Courtesy of YouTube.com

Little did the community know that there was, in fact, a vaguely similar prototype, according to author Kahney. Innovation is a constant invitation to, and a flirtation with, disaster.

Outsiders don't understand that. It doesn't help that a lot of our popular culture's perceptions of creative genius comes not from first-hand corporate experience (because exciting new products are developed in secret) but, rather, from movies and TV.

Genuine innovation isn't a flash-in-the-pan fantasy. It isn't just one individual dreaming up something cool and then cooking up the hardware and software in mere minutes. Rather, it's figuring out how to solve a real human problem, exploring every nuance of the ergonomics, then sweating bullets for months and months, likely years, by trial and error to instantiate something that not only works beautifully but meets Apple's high standards.

All this must be in a marketable, manufacturable product that's supportable and can make money.

That's generally understood by technical people, but it doesn't often show up in the popular analysis of Apple.

There's another important aspect here. Expert Apple observer John Gruber has nicely described the process of working backwards from the desired customer experience to the development of supporting technology. This fundamental approach is occasionally missed by some corporations, those that typically start with what can be easily and quickly done in technology, and then they try to market that which they threw together. That's pretty easy to do, but it's not Apple's way nowadays.

When observers fail to truly understand a fundamental problem and define the desired customer experience first, they end up, in the absence of expertise, defining the technology on behalf of Apple. They practically write the feature list for Apple because that's all they can think of in a vacuum. Then, it's tossed around in the Internet's echo chamber until it seems so very reasonable.

When Apple does finally ship an innovative product, it so flies in the face of the spec sheet the journalists have written for Apple that there is a tendency for it to be roundly condemned, mostly out of the same misunderstanding and hubris that led to the bogus feature lists. Then, it takes weeks for the expert Apple observers to explain to everyone the essence of the product and why customers are standing in line for it.

It's fun to speculate and think about what might be nice to have in an iWatch, some other wearable device, or a next generation Apple HDTV. But the speculation can't be taken too seriously. When Apple's enormous expertise finally delivers that which we didn't realize we needed until it shipped, it probably won't be what was expected.

At that point, we'll all be reminded that outside observers don't design Apple products. Perhaps, for a moment, some will reflect on why they ever tried.

At the time of publication the author was long AAPL.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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