11:46 AM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans

Global CIO: Inside Steve Jobs' Head: The Supremacy Of Software

Jobs reveals some of the strategic thinking that's made Apple perhaps the most innovative and wealthy company on the planet.

Some day in the not-too-distant future, business-school professors who actually know what they're talking about will challenge their students to think about corporate strategy in these words uttered this week by Apple CEO Steve Jobs:

"You're looking at it wrong. You're looking at it as a hardware person in a fragmented world. You're looking it as a hardware manufacturer that doesn't really know much about software, who doesn't think about an integrated product, but assumes the software will somehow take care of itself. . . . And you assume that the software will somehow just come alive on this product that you're dreaming of, but it won't."

But. It. Won't.

Those words capture the major challenge facing both CIOs on the customer side and CEOs on the IT-vendor side: how do they shift their worldviews, rapidly and profoundly, from one focused primarily on infrastructure and architecture and servers and storage and networks and devices, to a new worldview concentrated on the power and value and potential of deeply integrated and optimized software?

Back to Jobs: "And you assume that the software will somehow just come alive on this product that you're dreaming of, but it won't."

I hope you're all laughing at the foolishness of your humble correspondent, and that this has all been obvious to you for years, because that would mean this industry over all is farther along the path to new innovation and prosperity than current signals would seem to indicate.

In too many cases, we are stuck today still "rubbing sticks together," as Oracle executive VP John Fowler recently said about the degree to which IT vendors and their enterprise customers are fully harnessing the raw power of the technology at hand.

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We're still taking hardware that's immensely capable but built for general purposes and pairing it up with software that's highly sophisticated but built to run on multiple types of hardware with approximately the same level of pretty good but not great performance.

Jobs is saying—and business schools will one day teach—that we are tackling the problems of tomorrow with the outlook of yesterday:

Fairly generic hardware slapped together with fairly generic software. And Jobs is also saying that that approach will yield fairly generic results, which is a polite way of saying it'll deliver outcomes straddling the line between average and mediocre.

Does that fairly generic approach sound like the right way to handle the rapidly escalating challenges your company is facing in reinventing customer engagements, rebuilding global supply chains, re-imagining what your company could be like if you could harness the power of predictive analytics, and operating at the hyper velocities and volumes of your customers and partners?

Or do those modern types of high-scale, real-time business requirements demand an equally modern approach to the technology systems that power them, one in which software and hardware aren't just slapped together but are instead highly engineered and optimized to deliver unprecedented levels of performance and speed to match the unprecedented demands of today's global economy?

I'm going to focus here on Jobs' comments but also note that I'm fully aware that he's incredibly subjective on anything having to do with Apple's business. After all, it's his job to lead Apple and convince the world that he's got a better mousetrap, and Jobs has demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for fulfilling that mission.

But even a cursory look at Apple's real-world track record will reveal an astonishing range of achievements and innovation and level of customer engagement and loyalty that is unequalled in today's business world. So on that basis of proven achievement, Jobs has earned the right to be heard—not to be granted some mantle of infallibility (he didn't know what back-dating stock options was all about??), but to be heard in light of his company's performance and its paradigm-shattering products and approaches.

Here's Jobs on why software—and a new way of thinking about software—will be the biggest challenge for BlackBerry maker RIM. After noting that RIM sold 12.1 million BlackBerries in its most recently reported quarter while Apple sold 14.1 million iPhones during a comparable period, Jobs pinpointed the differences in how the two companies think about software as the defining competitive issue:

"We've now passed RIM, and I don't seem them catching up with us in the foreseeable future," Jobs said during the analysts call. "They must move beyond their areas of strength and comfort and enter the unfamiliar territory of trying to become a software-platform company.

"I think it's going to be a real challenge for them to create a competitive platform and also convince developers to create apps for yet a third software platform—and that's after iOS and Android," Jobs said.

"With 300,000 apps in Apple's App Store, RIM has a high mountain ahead of themselves to climb."

And while Jobs was certainly not dismissing RIM as a significant and viable competitor—although he sure did brand them as second-team followers—he seemed to be saving most of his powder for Google and its Android platform. In also relegating them to also-ran status, Jobs once again brought his entire analysis around to the primacy of software: how it's written, how it's marketed, how it's integrated, how it's delivered, and how it's consumed.

And at least according to Jobs' account, Apple and the iPhone are going to trounce Google and Android, as we analyzed in a column yesterday called Global CIO: Steve Jobs Declares War On Google, because Android's approach is "fragmented" while Apple's is "integrated":

"Unlike Windows, however, where most PCs have the same user interface and run the same apps, Android is very fragmented," Jobs said. "Many of Android's OEMs, including the two largest—HTC and Motorola—have decided to install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience."

As a result, Jobs said, "the users will have to figure it all out. Compare this with iPhone, where every handset works the same."

And Jobs then offered a striking example, saying that when a Twitter reader called TwitterDeck introduced its Android app, the company had to "contend with more than 100 different versions of Android software on 244 different handsets," a situation that Jobs said presents "developers with a daunting challenge."

In addition, he said, "Many Android apps work only on select Android handsets running select Android versions. And this is for handsets that have been shipped less than 12 months ago. Compare this with iPhone, where there are just two versions of the software: the current one, and the most recent predecessor to test against."

On the distribution, marketing, and consumption side, Jobs also hammered away at the Google approach, saying apps will be splintered across four different online stores, which will require customers to "search among them to find they app they want" while also forcing developers to do more work in order to "distribute their apps and get paid."

All in all, Jobs said, the Google/Android approach "is going to be a mess for both users and developers." Apple intends to avoid stepping in that mess, he said, by sticking with the integrated approach: "We think our developers can be more innovative if they can target a single platform rather than a hundred variants. They can put their time into innovative new features rather than testing on hundreds of different handsets."

That's his real focus, isn't it: create business models that allow your people to devote the overwhelming majority of their time to create customer-centered excellence rather than in being tied to internally driven busywork that might or might not have an impact on customers.

And finally, on the subject of 10-inch tablets versus 7-inch, here's a classic bit of Jobs wisdom: insightful, untraditional, somewhat wise-ass, and ultimately intensely rooted in the Apple vision of brilliantly integrated systems predicated not on selling more hardware or software but on dazzling users.

And while I'm not saying this comment will destroy the market for 7-inch tablets, it sure will raise some brutal questions about it:

"Well you could increase the resolution of the display to make up for some of that difference," Jobs said about the limitations of 7-inch screens.

"But that would be meaningless unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that users can sand down their fingers to about one-quarter of their present size. Apple's done extensive user-testing on touch interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff.

"There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touchscreen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them. And this is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps."

In closing, before we put the lid back on Steve Jobs' brain, take one last look at his point about perspective and point-of-view with which we opened this piece:

"You're looking at it wrong. You're looking at it as a hardware person in a fragmented world. You're looking it as a hardware manufacturer that doesn't really know much about software, who doesn't think about an integrated product, but assumes the software will somehow take care of itself. . . . And you assume that the software will somehow just come alive on this product that you're dreaming of, but it won't."


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GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO,
or write to Bob at [email protected].

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