Traction and Doom

21 July, 2013 01:44PM · 11 minute read

Much has been written about when companies are doomed and who has traction in the market with what. This is my attempt to bring order to that chaos as it relates to Apple and a few other tech companies.

For a product to initially succeed it must solve a problem.

The Wii solved two problems: 1) Games traditionally required excellent finger-eye co-ordination and took lots of practice; 2) Games were marketed to gamers not families. By introducing a wireless, motion-based controller Nintendo opened up gaming to those people that had never picked up a game controller. Now people could interact in a far more natural way and most games were designed to NOT have to use a D-Pad or small buttons. Nintendo bundled Wii Sports with their product to guide developers in how to make the best games for their new platform. It was easy to use, fun, about sports that many people had played, and required little to no finger-button co-ordination which levelled the playing field with traditional gamers (compare and contrast the audience with the XBox and Halo).

The iPhone solved three big problems: 1) Laptops were inconvenient for accessing the internet outside the office/home even though they were portable; 2) Mobile phones used ‘overloaded1’ keys to for data entry into SMS, Notes, and emails increasing the learning curve for new users; 3) The very popular iPod music player required people to carry/keep charged an additional device with them for their music. Perhaps there are more, but those two are key. At the time there was always Blackberry and there was always WAP and the Palm Treo was also popular. Neither experience was even remotely close to that on a laptop/desktop web browser at the time. The ‘full web’ experience was only possible by developing a low-power native web browser for the new product: Mobile Safari. The timing of the iPhones initial release if anything was too early: the initial EDGE data (2G) was very slow and to get reasonable page load times it leaned too heavily on WiFi that was not heavily deployed at that point. Thankfully the second generation model had 3G and with enough networks around the world supporting 3G data, page load times became acceptable. Solving the data entry problem required nothing more than a brilliant soft-keyboard. Nothing short of that would solve the key overloading problem. One key, one purpose, but fully configurable based on the application and input field that was currently selected. Predictive text and auto-correction that worked well were also key and add to that a disappearing keyboard when not required and a massive amount of extra space was freed for applications to use in its absence. On the keyboard front the iPhone delivered.

Once we have these building blocks the rest are “me-too” items: Camera-phones existed (the initial iPhone camera wasn’t particularly good - my Nokia N73 at the time had a better camera); Better email existed (some would argue that Blackberry email is STILL a better experience); Contact management existed through syncing (Activesync/sync-services with many major phone brands at the time); Map services and mobile phones that could store and play music also existed. Of these only music was a significant step ahead of the competition as the iTunes library was formidable at that time. No longer did people need to carry a separate device to listen to their favourite music and for existing iPod owners the existing ecosystem integrated perfectly with the iPhone. Offline maps had existed for several years on competing devices and were in many ways practically better than Apples solution as they didn’t consume download bandwidth and were always there irrespective of your physical location. The downside was the expense in both storing the maps data and purchasing it. On the iPhone it was essentially free.

If one needs more proof where Apple saw the key features with the original iPhone then consider: Apple’s initial camera sensor was cheap and unrefined and GPS was not included which would have shown intent to push the Maps as a priority. Clearly Apple did NOT see these other pieces as key, and with time they were proven to be correct.

Identify the Barrier and Remove it

Nintendo made it easier for people not versed in gameplay to enjoy family games on their TV and Apple made it easier for people to access the internet without a computer and allow quick and easy data entry into their mobile devices and eliminate an additional device. They identified the barriers and then removed them. That is what primarily drove their successes, at least initially.

The Weight of Learned Behaviour

Innovation is at odds with the experience of learned behaviour and known user interface paradigms. The trick is to push the user down a less familiar road but one that leads to a better place - not just a different place.

Many have speculated regarding why Microsofts “Metro” interface first seen on the Zune and then morphed into Windows Phone 7, 8 and now Windows 8, has not been a resounding success. Whilst it is quite excellent in many important respects it is perhaps TOO different from that which people are used to considering for the desktop that means people trained in the paradigms of Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 will struggle initially. Where’s the red “X” to close the window? For that matter, where the heck is my START BUTTON?? Resistance was always going to be high but then Microsoft is playing the long game. They recognise they must innovate in usability and their user interface but the massive weight of learned behaviour in their own customers is a difficult obstacle to overcome.

Metro on mobile devices has not taken off very much either. As on Windows 8, Metro offers a great way to consolidate your notifications/updates in tiles that are actively refreshed (Hubs). This makes communicating with other people quicker and simpler for many by changing the access hierarchy for information, but apart from this it adds little else. The market seems to have decided the effectiveness of this as a whole but the question is why? Some pundits assert that it is simply a bad design, but I think that’s the dismissive and misses the point. The problem that Microsoft faces is that people have been trained from the Desktop that Applications are the doorway to data. One uses Skype to call people; Word to write documents; Excel to write spreadsheets and so on. Certainly the files and folders metaphor confuses the issue slightly, but selecting a file isn’t viewing or editing it but rather selecting which program to use to work on it (if more than one option even exists). On the web we visit a website to communicate with friends starting with MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and so on. When Apple made the iPhone it knew that it had to be consistent with that and continued the “app” paradigm.

We have been well trained to view the data of our lives using the application as a window. Take that window away and we feel lost - even if the new road leads to a better place the discomfort drives us to not take that road if there is not another compelling enough reason to unlearn what we have already learned.

Innovative Products Won’t Always Win

No matter how good your product is; no matter how innovative; sleek; beautiful or trendy it may be, it is all for nought if it does not provide a compelling reason for people to use it. Conversely because a product does not succeed does not mean it wasn’t innovative: the Palm Pre (and WebOS) is a recent example of this and in some ways so is the Metro user interface. So many words are spent deriding one design over another but fundamentally the debate is flawed. Products succeed because they fill a void that existed in the market for a significant proportion of the populace. Such products were not immediately intuitive to all of their users and yet they succeeded. The point is that the problem they solved was enticing enough for the users to learn new behaviours and interfaces to access what this product made possible. In time, their learnings gain momentum in the populace, and shared knowledge drives momentum which drives more success. In my mind, that is traction.

Spinning The Wheels

Every company and individual desires some degree of success - the definitions for which vary of course, but suffice it to say when developing a product people and companies want to understand if/how their product will gain traction. In other words, which are the problems that most need to be solved and can they make something that solves those problems. The problem is that there IS no easy way to know. Steve Jobs at D2: “I’m as proud of the products that we have not done as I am of the products we have done.” Apple test extensively in-house and assess their own creations amongst themselves. If they fail to find their own product useable or useful in addressing the gap it was intended to, they kill it and move on. This type of iterative development takes big budgets, lots of time and a willingness to accept you’ve made a mistake, but the end result is that they only ship that which they believe is both usable and useful. All too often I have observed products being shipped that simply get shipped because they were “done” not that they usable or useful. Milestones and management wanting to save face, protect completion bonuses or recoup investment costs. “We’ve just spent $1M on this we need to recover some of that cost…” is an understandable sentiment. Throwing it against the wall and seeing if it sticks is fine but to use the entire market to witness your success or failure is just foolhardy. Reputation matters and Apple understand this. For humans it seems it is easier to remember a lesser failure than it is to remember a bigger success and that’s a problem.

Perception of Quality Affects Judgement

Young start-ups with no products in the field have no choice - they must press ahead with their product to the market and be judged. Those larger companies with existing product revenues and success do not need to be so hasty. Focus on product quality is always touted by companies but the number that truly mean it is much less. On-going successes (even those that are far between) with good quality products lead to consumer confidence that the company in question creates good quality products (even when they have flaws). No one is perfect and no company gets it right all of the time however if such a well-respected company releases a product with several flaws, brand loyal customers may well overlook them, but release a second, then third flawed product and the loyalty disintegrates quickly. Many companies have been through this rise and fall including Sony, Nokia and perhaps someday Apple (not a clairvoyant). If history tells us anything it’s that no success lasts forever.

Initial success does not equate to long-term success

Breaking into markets with revolutionary products is very hard and doesn’t happen often but when it does, keeping the first mover advantage can be very difficult. In order to stay ahead it is critical to find an aspect of the product or service that is difficult for competitors to replicate and hope that it is a key feature consumers want (presumably the company in question thought about this back during their initial brainstorming phase). The ongoing success of the iPod was ensured because of the iTunes music store that was the largest digital music store in the world. This also gave a leg-up to the iPhone, iPad and AppleTV. As Amazon and Google both catch up, Apple is now off pushing different boundaries. They know they can not remain the biggest in town forever. With iOS, Googles competition with Android is fierce and to many onlookers Google has already beaten Apples offerings in the mobile space in terms of popularity. Apple recognise this and are working on new products as they should. Despite their initial success with the iPhone, that success was never going to last forever.

The final flaw in prevalent thinking is that this could mean Apple is doomed. If all Apple was doing was iterating its iPhone a bit at a time and absolutely nothing else, then I’d probably agree. They aren’t. The new Mac Pro shows they are still pushing the limits of convention. Apple has pre-announced a new product category. They aren’t relying on existing products and they are continuing to iterate and search for the next big problem to solve. A while back I was worried. I’m not anymore. Apple don’t rush their development process and they only release when they are ready. Some people see time-gaps between products as Apple being lost and unable to innovate. The truth is that Apple are holding their nerve and only releasing what they believe will improve their existing market traction when they are ready to do so. Apple is so very very far from being doomed.


  1. Saying a button is overloaded is analogous to one key has several personalities like on a standard PC/Mac Keyboard, on it’s own, 1 = ‘1’ but when holding Shift-1 = ‘!’ instead. On a traditional mobile phone the number 1 was also A, B or C or even punctuation marks making it more difficult to learn. [return]