Doing the impossible

I just watched Steve Jobs’ MacWorld keynote from earlier today.  This is the biggest day of the year for Apple — they use this forum to make all of their major product announcements.  For weeks before the event, the Internet is abuzz with speculation about what Jobs might unveil.  And Apple’s secrecy only adds to the anticipation. (Supposedly, only about 30 people inside of Apple had seen the complete iPhone before it debuted at MacWorld 2007.)

Today’s big announcement was the MacBook Air — the world’s thinnest notebook computer.  It’s not as revolutionary as the iPod or iPhone, but it’s a big leap forward for laptops.  It’s just cool.

How does Apple consistently deliver breatkthrough products?  Products that seem to render everything else obsolete.  After all, Apple is not usually first to market — the iPod wasn’t the first digital music player and the iPhone certainly wasn’t the first smart phone.  And it’s not like Apple’s competitors don’t have the resources to create their own insanely great products.

There are a lot of answers to that question,  but here are 3 that I came up with:

1) Apple (Steve Jobs) doesn’t make compromises.  Any time you try to innovate, you will run into roadblocks.  These roadblocks can seem insurmountable.  Add ever-present time and budget pressure and the result is usually compromise.  But that’s a recipe for evolution, not revolution.  Sometimes it’s worth attempting the impossible.

 2) Apple doesn’t pay much attention to competitors.  It’s hard to create a breakthrough product when your aim is to improve on an existing one.  You have to take a step back and think about the fundamental problem you’re trying to solve.  And you have to be willing to challenge accepted conventions.

 3) Apple isn’t afraid to take risks.  For example, Apple is the only company I know of that will remove “standard features” to improve a product.  The new MacBook air doesn’t come with a DVD drive.  Why?  Apple decided that it’s not needed in today’s wireless world.  These days, lots of products suffer from feature bloat, so it’s just as important to ask what can be removed as what can be added.  If you become too consumed with achieving feature parity, you may not be able to achieve product superiority. 

Apple is a one of a kind company, and much of what makes the company special can’t be duplicated.  But I think there are some good lessons in their approach.

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