The iPod story and what we can ALL learn from it

Reading this insider recount of how the iPod came to be one cannot avoid being struck by how three keys to successful innovation were present in a big way:

  1. Leadership – Steve Jobs gave the team a goal and then the resources and freedom to work unencumbered by company politics along with a very aggressive deadline.
  2. Leveraging your strengths – There was great vision in launching an mp3 player as a means of completing a Mac multimedia eco-system leveraging Firewire technology. It would have been very tempting to look at it as a standalone gadget which was going to be the best of its kind (small and light, huge memory, long battery life, fast transfer rates). I think that this clarity about why Apple was launching the iPod made it possible for the management team to stay focused on what was important. It wasn’t about doing it all in-house to prove Apple’s superior capabilities but rather being part of a broader plan. Apple’s strengths at the time were:
    • Firewire technology which would allow extremely fast times of transferring music to the device from a PC.
    • An enthusiastic Mac community that would serve as a great early adopter to what was essentially yet another MP3 player in an already very active market. This early adoption was the basis for later adoption in much broader circles of Windows based PCs.
    • Apple’s phenomenal design and marketing. What is so impressive to me is that marketing actually brought outside consultants because the Apple team realized it had no experience selling consumer products (Yes, there was a time when this was true) which is what the iPod was. I want you to pause for a moment and reflect on the previous sentence. We are talking about Apple’s marketing department, this glorious collection of talented people that had the legacy of the “Think different” campaign and so many reasons to believe they know everything. These people had the presence of mind and humility to bring in outside help. I find this nothing short of admirable.
  3. Eliminating weaknesses – The project leaders had the authority to partner with other companies, use external technology and basically, do what it takes without being limited by company politics and power plays. This included:
    • The MP3-playing chipset (Created by PortalPlayer)
    • The iPod’s Operating system (Created by Pixo)
    • Another company manufactured the earbuds (designed by Apple though)

NIH (Not Invented Here) did not raise its ugly head for this project. Unclear whether this was intentionally instructed from the top or simply the fact that the engineering core of Apple was so tied up doing other tasks but frankly how many corporations would have avoided the hubris of trying to build it all in-house?

One final observation: You never know how things will turn out. Even though it started as a way of plugging a hole in Jobs’s strategy of leveraging Firewire technology and making the Mac into a hub for additional products, the iPod became an iconic product line in its own right. Beyond that, it opened the gate to Apple’s content strategy which began with music as it realized the potential of selling music to PC owners which they would then listen to on their iPods. This aggressive approach, openness to trying things and willingness to fail coupled with the humilty to be open to external influences is what makes great companies but on top of that, the intelligence of how the iPod was constructed with a combination of leveraging internal strengths while utilizing what was missing from external sources (technology and know-how) is what truly sets Apple apart in this case.

The writer is Duco’s chief product officer and a former vice president and head of innovation at HP. He is the author of “The PEAK Innovation principles”.