Visionary or Pragmatic?

by Greg Maletic

Concerning John Gruber’s Apple’s 1997 Tablet Concept Video post, Gruber makes the point that Apple used to make concept videos about tablet computing; now, they make for-real tablet computers. I’m not sure if he’s just making a cheeky comment about the rapid advancement of technology, or about the very nature of prototypes and the kinds of products Apple should be producing. But there’s something significant here: Steve Jobs’s Apple would never produce a video like Knowledge Navigator.

When I was a product manager at Apple in 1994-1996, MRDs (marketing requirement documents) nearly always started with the prose equivalent to Knowledge Navigator, something similar to:

Richard Sanderson sits down in his leather chair, the wave of heat from his crackling fireplace cutting through the morning chill. Richard lightly touches the screen on his Apple SuperMac 3000 and it comes to life with a soft glow.

“Something worrying you?” asks the concerned voice coming from the computer, its facial recognition capable of detecting subtle changes in its operator’s emotions.

“Oh, nothing much,” says Richard. “I’m just behind in my bill paying, and I have a presentation due this Friday on delinquency rates in New York City.”

“Hmmm…I may be able to help you with those,” says the computer’s soothing voice.

I’m not kidding: that’s what they actually sounded like, more resembling the build-up in a Harlequin romance than a technical spec. Why write like this? For one, it conjured up undeniably seductive portraits of what new technology could not just look like, but feel like. But more importantly—and self-servingly—these MRDs created their own market by hypothesizing a strawman use-case that no one wanted to refute. I mean, how could there not be a market for this product? Did you not read that description? Are you seriously telling me you don’t want to be Richard Sanderson?

But at the end of my Apple tenure, it was clear this was falling out of favor. After the failures of QuickDraw GX, 3D, Apple Guide, Newton, OpenDoc, Copland, et al, it had become abundantly clear that the Richard Sandersons of the world weren’t Apple’s savior: in fact, it had become quite clear that he didn’t exist at all.

Steve Jobs is described as a visionary. Yet he doesn’t do what most people assume a “visionary” would do, e.g., gaze twenty years into the future. He’s a visionary by way of looking into the very near future—two to three years out—and realizing what’s possible with the technology that will very-soon-be-available. He recognizes the moment at which toy becomes breakthrough, and can sense when it’s near.

“These MP3 players suck,” one could imagine him saying in early 2000. “But if we crack the two reasons they suck–low storage capacity and bad user interface–they won’t. These are problems we can solve, and soon.” And here comes the iPod. Not a do-it-all super assistant, like the Newton tried to be. Just an MP3 player, transformed from technology trick into a solution to people’s real needs.

Steve Jobs wins less because he’s a visionary, more because he’s a pragmatic.

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