Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lessons from the iPod: Talent deep and wide

The lesson from this Wired report is that it was talent wide and deep, constant communication, rapid iteration, and ready resources that allowed the iPod to be produced. This story feels true to me because it features both serendipity and a plausible process. Emphasis mine.
Wired News: Straight Dope on the IPod's Birth

... Ive told the Times that the key to the iPod wasn't sudden flashes of genius, but the design process. His design group collaborated closely with manufacturers and engineers, constantly tweaking and refining the design. ''It's not serial,'' he told the Times. ''It's not one person passing something on to the next.''

Robert Brunner, a partner at design firm Pentagram and former head of Apple's design group, said Apple's designers mimic the manufacturing process as they crank out prototypes.

'Apple's designers spend 10 percent of their time doing traditional industrial design: coming up with ideas, drawing, making models, brainstorming,' he said. 'They spend 90 percent of their time working with manufacturing, figuring out how to implement their ideas.'

To make them easy to debug, prototypes were built inside polycarbonate containers about the size of a large shoebox.

The iPod's basic software was also brought in -- from Pixo, which was working on an operating system for cell phones. On top of Pixo's low-level system, Apple built the iPod's celebrated user interface.

The idea for the scroll wheel was suggested by Apple's head of marketing, Phil Schiller, who in an early meeting said quite definitively, 'The wheel is the right user interface for this product."

Schiller also suggested that menus should scroll faster the longer the wheel is turned, a stroke of genius that distinguishes the iPod from the agony of competing players. Schiller's scroll wheel didn't come from the blue, however; scroll wheels are pretty common in electronics, from scrolling mice to Palm thumb wheels. Bang & Olufsen BeoCom phones have an iPod-like dial for navigating lists of phone contacts and calls. Back in 1983, the Hewlett Packard 9836 workstation had a keyboard with a similar wheel for scrolling text.

... Jobs insisted the iPod work seamlessly with iTunes, and that many functions should be automated, especially transferring songs. The model was Palm's HotSync software....

... "They discovered in their tool chest of registered names they had 'iPod,'" he said. "If you think about the product, it doesn't really fit. But it doesn't matter. It's short and sweet."...
Much of the talent and infrastructure described in this article is thought to still be in place - an encouraging prospect. It costs a lot to keep something like this together, few companies can manage it. I'd like to know how big Apple's development teams are.

A note on the Palm/HotSync reference. It's hard to believe nowadays, but once upon a time Palm was an example of elegant hardware and software integration. I'm glad Apple's engineers remembered the glory days of Palm, and used that as an inspiration. It is best to remmeber Palm as it once was, not the decaying travesty it became ...

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