Apple's Success Secret: It Makes Mistakes All the Time

Last Updated May 9, 2011 5:12 PM EDT

In part of the long piece that Fortune did on Apple (AAPL) -- the article itself has become a story because Fortune has posted only small parts on the Web -- Adam Lashinsky wrote of Apple's start-up nature. In the process, though, he bought into an Apple-inspired mythos and missed an opportunity to explain one thing that really does make Apple different.

The lead sentence telegraphs the myth: "Apple doesn't often fail, and when it does, it isn't a pretty sight at 1 Infinite Loop." But if you pay attention to the clues that people from Apple, including CEO Steve Jobs and senior vice president of industrial design Jonathan Ive, have dropped over the year, it's clear that people at Apple make mistakes. They do so all the time, and it is those mistakes that make it possible for the company to come up with the products that it does. Where Apple differs from other companies is in how it makes mistakes.

Apple believes in making a lot of mistakes internally. Where Apple differs from other companies is that its standard for what constitutes a mistake is stratospheric and it doesn't tolerate mistakes in public.

By no means are new Apple products right the first time out. The company will return to the drawing board to keep changing and polishing an idea until it does what it needs to do. Any engineering or design process at any company works that way. Where Apple parts ways with the mainstream lies first in its general standards of what's acceptable and what isn't, as this video with Jobs and Ive helps show:


You can argue whether the Jobsian view of perfect actually applies to what all people would like, but it clearly fits the vast number of Apple's loyal customers. As Jobs said:

We're willing to throw something away because it's not great, and try again when all of the pressures of commerce are at your back saying, "No, you can't do that."
For most companies, "good enough" rules. That's true for most consumers as well, though perhaps that's because many rarely see high enough quality to make them willing to pay more. In an interview last fall on the topic of being the boss of Steve Jobs, former Apple CEO John Sculley had an interesting observation about Microsoft (MSFT):
The legendary statement about Microsoft, which is mostly true, is that they get it right the third time. Microsoft's philosophy is to get it out there and fix it later. Steve would never do that. He doesn't get anything out there until it is perfected.
And that gets to the intolerance for making mistakes in public. Not that Apple has never made product mistakes. Flawed mortals run the company, and you don't have to look far to see evidence such as the iPhone 4 antenna problems, the recent privacy issue of stored location tracking on iPhones, and iPods that overheated to the point of physical danger to consumers. Look at what happened with Apple's MobileMe service, according to Fortune, when it got panned on launch. Jobs addressed the engineers responsible:
For the next half-hour Jobs berated the group. "You've tarnished Apple's reputation," he told them. "You should hate each other for having let each other down." The public humiliation particularly infuriated Jobs. Walt Mossberg, the influential Wall Street Journal gadget columnist, had panned MobileMe. "Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us," Jobs said. On the spot, Jobs named a new executive to run the group.
The problem wasn't having made a mistake. You can't create and improve products without making mistakes. The problem was in not insisting on fixing the mistakes at a time when they should have been obvious. Perhaps that's why other tech companies look cowardly in comparison, trying to creep along behind Apple to find the magic product features that will guarantee sales.

Competitors are used to sending out half-baked products and then fixing problems over various releases. They don't want to see mistakes in house and close their eyes to the value of making them. Instead, they want the winning answer in advance, when that winning answer is to be willing to throw out a steaming pile of crap and start over.

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Image: morgueFile user jdurham, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.