Fast Robot Prototyping

Fast Robot Prototyping

I suggest designing robots using the lessons from this article.

Things would actually happen, rather than incremental improvements.

...anyway... here's the contents of the article...


Conventional wisdom says its strategy is wrong, yet it keeps turning out great products. TIME looks inside the world’s most innovative company.

By Lev Grossman

This is partly a story about a company called Apple Computer. It’s also partly a story about a fancy new iPod that plays videos as well as music and that could dramatically change the way people entertain themselves. But it’s mostly a story about new things and where they come from, about which there are a few popular misconceptions.

Stop and look at Apple for a second, since it’s an odd company. It has been around long enough and has a high enough profile that it’s easy to forget that. While most high-tech firms focus on one or two sectors, Apple does all of them at once. Apple makes its own hardware (iBooks and iMacs), it makes the operating system that runs on that hardware (Mac OS X), and it makes programs that run on that operating system (iTunes, iMovie, Safari Web browser, etc.). It also makes the consumer-electronics devices that connect to all those things (the rapidly multiplying iPod family), and it runs the online service that furnishes content to those devices (iTunes Music Store). If you smooshed together Microsoft, Dell and Sony into one company, you would have something like the diversity of the Apple technological biosphere.

Why would anybody run a business like that? If you follow conventional wisdom, Apple is doing it all wrong. Try to do everything at once, and you won’t do anything well. Worse, the way Apple operates is not how you’re supposed to foster innovation, or not in the U.S., anyway. Under the traditional, capitalist, Adam Smithian model, new and better things arise as a result of freedom and open competition, but Apple is essentially operating its own closed miniature techno-economy. What is this, Soviet Russia? Why not license Mac OS X to Dell, see what hardware it comes up with and let the market decide whose ride is flyest? Is Steve Jobs afraid of a little healthy wrasslin’ in the great American bazaar?

And yet ... this is the company that gave us three of the signature technological innovations of the past 30 years: the Apple II, the Macintosh and the iPod. In the past six weeks alone, Apple has shipped three impressive new products: an ultra-tiny iPod called the nano, the video iPod and a nifty feature called Front Row that lets you run your computer from across the room, lying on a sofa, clicker in hand, without crouching over a keyboard. That is cool stuff. So, where does it all come from?

Ask Apple CEO Steve Jobs about it, and he’ll tell you an instructive little story. Call it the Parable of the Concept Car. “Here’s what you find at a lot of companies,” he says, kicking back in a conference room at Apple’s gleaming white Silicon Valley headquarters, which looks something like a cross between an Ivy League university and an iPod. “You know how you see a show car, and it’s really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory!

“What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse.”

When Jobs took up his present position at Apple in 1997, that’s the situation he found. He and Jonathan Ive, head of design, came up with the original iMac, a candy-colored computer merged with a cathode-ray tube that, at the time, looked like nothing anybody had seen outside of a Jetsons cartoon. “Sure enough,” Jobs recalls, “when we took it to the engineers, they said, ‘Oh.’ And they came up with 38 reasons. And I said, ‘No, no, we’re doing this.’ And they said, ‘Well, why?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m the CEO, and I think it can be done.’ And so they kind of begrudgingly did it. But then it was a big hit.”

There are two lessons to be drawn from that story: one about collaboration, one about control. Apple employees talk incessantly about what they call “deep collaboration” or “cross-pollination” or “concurrent engineering.” Essentially it means that products don’t pass from team to team. There aren’t discrete, sequential development stages. Instead, it’s simultaneous and organic. Products get worked on in parallel by all departments at once—design, hardware, software—in endless rounds of interdisciplinary design reviews. Managers elsewhere boast about how little time they waste in meetings; Apple is big on them and proud of it. “The historical way of developing products just doesn’t work when you’re as ambitious as we are,” says Ive, an affable, bearlike Brit. “When the challenges are that complex, you have to develop a product in a more collaborative, integrated way.”

Everybody you meet at Apple will echo that precise sentiment, in almost machine-like unison. Not only have they all drunk the Kool-Aid; they all have the same favorite flavor. They’re on a hot streak, and they know it. (“The Sony guys are over there across the street with binoculars,” jokes a senior vice president. “They rented space on the fourth floor.” High-tech trash talk!) It’s almost eerie: Apple employees all like one another, and they have a strong sense that they are the chosen of the earth, and they’re not going to be a jerk about it, but all others who dwell on this mortal coil are missing out by not working here.

The second lesson of Jobs’ parable is about control, and to that extent, it’s a lesson about Jobs himself. He is one of the technology world’s great innovators but not because he’s an engineer or a programmer. He doesn’t have an M.B.A. either. He doesn’t even have a college degree. (He dropped out of Reed College after one semester.) Jobs has a great native sense of design and a knack for hiring geniuses, but above all, what he has is a willingness to be a pain in the neck about what matters most to him.

Sure, Jobs is perfectly pleasant to be around. And he pays attention to what you’re saying, but if he disagrees with it—if, hypothetically, you’re maybe airing a pet peeve about the fact that iMacs have all their ports in the back, where they’re hard to get at—he’ll come storming back and hammer at you until you change your mind or at least shut up. When he generously introduces you to the guy who runs Apple’s iTunes development team, Jobs makes it clear that you’re welcome to meet him but you can’t print his name. Jobs doesn’t want competitors poaching his talent. “You can mention his first name but not his last name,” Jobs says. “How’s that?” It’ll have to do. The guy’s name, by the way, is Jeff.

In other words, Jobs is into control. In itself, that is of no real importance, except that in a lot of ways, Apple is an expression of Jobs’ personal ethos. One reason Apple makes its own hardware and software is that when Jobs goes to the trouble of creating a piece of software, he doesn’t want it running on hardware built by a bunch of dudes he doesn’t know and can’t fire. He wants it on hardware he makes himself. How else can he be sure that every little thing integrates together the way he says—nay, insists—it should?

He needs that control because he is fastidious about technology the way a gourmet is fastidious about foie gras, and he recognizes that in an increasingly networked world, in which gadgets can’t just do their own thing but have to talk to one another, that conversation will go better if Jobs has scripted both sides of it. “One company makes the software. The other makes the hardware ... It’s not working,” Jobs says. “The innovation can’t happen fast enough. The integration isn’t seamless enough. No one takes responsibility for the user interface. It’s a mess.”

That isn’t the only way to run a business. Look at Microsoft. Bill Gates focused on operating systems. He didn’t worry about hardware. He gave Windows to anybody who could pony up a licensing fee, and he let them worry about hardware. Result? He devoured the market and made the biggest killing in the history of killings. Apple kept its Mac operating system on Apple hardware almost exclusively. It may have won a moral victory—or a technological one or an aesthetic one. But business-wise, it got the bits kicked out of it.

But Jobs doesn’t care just about winning. He’s willing to lose. He has done it often enough. He’s just not willing to be lame, and that may, increasingly, be the winning approach. The iPod proved that design and ease of use are at least as important as increased functionality, and the iTunes Music Store proved that goes for smoothly integrating physical devices with online services too. “I think the definition of product has changed over the decades,” observes Tony Fadell, vice president of engineering in the iPod division, who played a key role in conceiving and building the first iPod. “The product now is the iTunes Music Store and iTunes and the iPod and the software that goes on the iPod. A lot of companies don’t really have control, or they can’t really work in a collaborative way to truly make a system. We’re really about a system.”

That’s one aspect of control. Here’s another. What Jobs has accepted—the truth that he’s willing to face and others cower from—is that new things don’t want to be born. Innovation causes problems, and it’s much easier simply to avoid it. In fact, it’s downright tempting. Other guys may give in to that temptation but not Jobs. He’s smart, but more than that, he’s willing to be the guy who looks over your shoulder and tells you you’re not going to make your dinner reservation tonight because you’re going to be here at the office, thinking different.

Here’s the end of his parable, the story of what happened after Jobs got the iMac launched. “The people around here—some of them left,” he remembers. “Actually, some of them I got rid of. But most of them said, ‘Oh, my God, now I get it.’ We’ve been doing this now for seven years, and everybody here gets it. And if they don’t, they’re gone.”

If jobs, say, ran a hedge fund or an army platoon, that talk would not sound so blunt. But because he looks and acts like such a cool guy—this is the guy who put Lennon and Gandhi on thousands of billboards—the words are bracing, to say the least. And yet that approach produces shiny, innovative things like the new iPod. Even though it costs the same ($299) as its immediate predecessor, which Apple introduced only 15 months ago, the new iPod has more memory (30 GB as opposed to 20 GB), and it’s thinner (0.43 in. [1.09 cm], as opposed to 0.6 in. [1.52 cm]). Plus, it plays video. The screen is just 2.5 in. [6.35 cm] diagonally, but because it’s extremely bright and very sharp, it looks bigger than it is. It’s the kind of thing you could definitely imagine being unable to live without.

There are other portable video players out there, but none look as nice or are as easy to use as the new iPod. And it works well—seamlessly, as Jobs would say—with the iTunes Music Store, which gives users a quick, legal and reasonably cheap way to buy video content (which so far consists of music videos, some charming Pixar shorts and a few TV shows from the abc network, including Lost and Desperate Housewives). That is the kind of integration that Apple’s approach makes possible.

Right now, nobody disputes that digital music is the future and that Apple is the gatekeeper. If it becomes the gatekeeper to portable video, well, then, golly. Video is the blood and the lymph and the lingua franca of contemporary culture. Music is important, of course, but the scale is different. In a typical week, a top-selling album may move 300,000 copies. A top-rated TV show can draw an audience of 30 million. Add to that movie trailers, animated shorts, old syndicated shows, dvd-extra-style exclusives, and the entire television industry, which is hungry for new kinds of revenue, is going to have to reorient itself. And maybe a few other industries besides (cough! porn! cough!) The new iPod’s potential is so huge, it inspires even Jobs to a burst of understatement. “There is no market today for portable video,” he says. “We’re going to sell millions of these to people who want to play their music, and video is going to come along for the ride. Anyone who wants to put out video content will put it out for this. And we’ll find out what happens.” Yes, we will. We’re all coming along for the ride, and we all know who’s going to be driving
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