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The Secret To Apple's Long-Term Success? It Always Prepares You For The Future

Robert Hoekman, Jr. identifies three signature moves that have led to the company's astounding success.

With the next update of iOS to version 5 on October 10th, it’s going to happen again: Apple is going to invent the future by reinventing the past. And we’ll all be ready for it because Apple has spent years preparing us for what happens next. It’s part of the company’s modus operandi—a part so subtle it goes mostly unnoticed.

This time around, Apple is reinventing the way its own software updates are delivered by way of an invisible feature called PC Free, which allows iPhones and iPads to update themselves via Wi-Fi, without every needing to be connected to a PC. Put another way: Apple will enable most people to make the iPad their one and only computing device (well, besides the smartphone in their pockets).

This announcement, however, sent no shockwaves through the tech industry. Why not? Because it’s the inevitable next step—the one that comes after all those other steps Apple had us take before now that made it seem inevitable.

See, Apple does two things over and over again that almost no other company does, and they add up to a decent chunk of what leaves so many of us mystified by the company’s design prowess.

[Fast forward to 4:55 to hear the part about PC Free]

1. Design Sideways

While most companies scramble to map feature to feature against their competitors, Apple often (and consistently) beats out its competition doing something far too many company leaders exclude from their product roadmaps: Besides designing forward, Apple designs sideways. Where others add, Apple overhauls. Where others spit shine, Apple reinvents.

Take launching an app, for example. In the early days of OS X, we launched our applications the old-fashioned way: Either by hunting through a series of system folders or adding shortcuts to them to our desktops, a cheat that prompted the constant reorganizing of that precious home base. Rather than clean this up through a Windows-style mega menu, Apple created the Dock: one-click access from an always-on well of apps. Later, they offered a way to expand folders from the dock for quick access to the files buried within them.

But the best sideways move? With the introduction of iOS devices, minus the need for a barren desktop, Apple brought apps out into the open. They’re all displayed as tiles on the main screen of your iPhone.

[Fast forward to 2:00 to see the part about Launchpad]

Once everyone was good and comfortable with that paradigm, it retrofitted OS X Lion with the same design under the name Launchpad, thereby reinventing the desktop app-launching model once again. To top it off, they were able to position Launchpad as a new feature when it’s really the overhauled version of an old one. Sideways equals better.

But the main benefit of this tactic is revealed through another bit of strategic wizardry.

2. Design (for) the Future

To design the future, you must first design for the future. Apple had to make us love digital music through iTunes before it could make us love an iconic but feature-weak MP3 player that put it to good use. It had to teach us to love gestural interfaces on our phones before we could fall in love with a touchscreen tablet. Build the stairs and we will climb.

While other tablets have struggled in the market for years, frightening people away with their counterintuitive interaction models and unclear benefits, Apple spent two years teaching us to love touchscreens and the app model so that when iPad was launched, there was no learning curve. The iPhone removed the mystery of a tablet computer and made buying one an easy decision. (An iPod Touch with a large screen, an eReader, and HD-quality games that I already know how to use? Yes, please.) And by moving the iOS desktop design into OS X, Apple makes it easier for non-Mac users to become part of the "I bought a Mac!" crowd; when you’re already familiar with much of the interaction model by way of your phone or tablet (or both), the shift to a new desktop OS becomes a less frightening proposition.

3. Untethering

Driving all this, of course, is an irrefutably strong vision. Above all, Apple succeeds by untethering itself from the binds of what’s possible now and catching the tailwind of its own infinity-and-beyond vision of the future, redesigning the old in a way that prepares us for the new. Each step sideways is another step forward. Each step forward is a step closer to Apple’s vision.

Now, with iOS 5 and PC Free, Apple takes a small step with the impact of a giant leap: It gives us a mobile device that requires no mothership. Steve Jobs likely imagined this future years ago. The mass of us have just finally become ready to live a life untethered.

Apple planted a seed with the invention of the iPhone. That seed grew into the iPad. It borders on poetic that with the next iOS release, Apple will cut the cord, both proverbial and literal, and free these devices from their mother Macs once and for all.

Fly, little bird, fly.

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  • Andrew Norris

    Here's an article out today about my point that other companies have products just as good, but it's really apple's brand / image that gets in the way of  sales
     well worth a read. they are pretty innovative and i like them, but they are only a little bit better than the rest. items like the doc items being always there for example is nice, but not that big a deal. The trouble is when you are taken in by the brand you start to believe it. There was a study out recently that many people have a similar area to religion / god light up in the brain when they think of Apple. With all respect Robert I would love you to have that test done, and see how you come out? Go on, it will be fun? I dare think perhaps even most of this article only really makes a lot of sense to those whose brain lights up like god when they think of apple. If you think of Apple that way you will most likely tend to think that the recent success levels are due to them having way superior products and being go good (god like) that they must have planned every bit of it, step by step. And of course just because someone produces a youtube video citing evidence does not make it true, there are many you tube videos citing evidence that man did not land on the moon, that 911 was all planned by the evil US government so they could attack Iraq for the oil, and so on... 

    It's a real effect known to psychologists. Just  like when people are in love, they see the other person through rose tinted eyes. 

  • Damiön la Bagh

    Amazing how brainwashed you are. Not one of those features is innovation. I mean come on- tabbed browsing (Mozilla), full featured mobile web browser (with tabbed browsing) Opera before the iPhone existed!! Pull down menu from the top (Android), Share screen directly over wifi to the tv (Samsung and Sony), Start your phone directly from the box without having to connect to a PC or Mac (Every other smartphone on the market!!!).

    Credit for those innovations needs to go where they are due. Apple fans, it's great that you have your religion, but please stop rewriting history!

  • johnastj

    Some folks seem to think that the premise of this story—that apple has a long-term vision and is working toward preparing its users for it—doubtful. Here's some evidence that they've had some very focused things in view for a long time: (1987!)

    We've got the gestural language in place as per this article, the personal device, t, the touch screen. We've gotten a lot closer to an integration of functions that this presents. The big bit still not in place: Natural Language recognition hooked into that integration of function aka "personal assistant." (Easily the most difficult of the original vision to provide...we've got such a high expectation of language based on how we already use it. Arguably _the_ human ability.)

    Ta Da: Upcoming Siri and Nuance integration: There is no doubt Apple is working on this. The main question in my mind is whether the processor power will be there to make this effective. (But those huge Apple servers w/out clear function? hmmn) If the new chips can handle it we'll see the first recognizable implementations  of this in iOS 5. Apple won't ship it until their vision for the use case is implementable.

    But it is surely waiting in the wings.

    NO, Apple didn't think up any of the original visions. But from graphical OS to touch OS they've been _the_ relentless visionary implementers. Their vision has become the vision; our reality. The evidence is pretty strong that they have had a vision of where they are going and have laid down the path needed to get there. I don't see any reason to look further for the company most likely to integrate natural language into GUI touchscreens....

    langiappe: Apple is doing the same to developers, maybe even more noticeably,...think about the way they push folks into using tools and developing for layers above  the particular chip core or even chip type. The purpose there begins to be visible with putting the bus interface onto thunderbolt. It's not done with natural language based assistants. :-) That's only the software side.

  • Andrew Norris

    Of course you need to think ahead. The article did make me thin though. But let's not forget the power of brand on today's consumer. Many of them (like mugs in my  view) will pay a fortune to have ripped jeans that are no better than jeans from walmat. Just keep yourself in shape and you will be looks miles better / cooler than most people in those jeans. Most of Apple's success comes from the iphone, yet most iphone buyers have never used a mac. 

    The brand is so powerful than in the Uk at least (where I am) it is consistently voted the coolest / best brand by a poll that questioned the whole population. I suspect similar in the US? That's big. 

  • wesroberts

    Being a leadership mentor/organizational designer for an exceptional grouping of humanitarian NGOs who creatively serve our world need on four continents, I will use this line from your excellent Fast Company article on Apple.  That travels well for any group that is hoping to change the future and make a difference in our, the arts, education, medicine or NGO.  Thank you!

    To design the future, you must first design for the future.

  • Andrew Norris

    Hi Robert thanks for the reply. I feel you are missing my point. I was saying the strength of the brand has been the KEY part of their success. Of course  this has to be backed up by a good product, that is very obvious. 

    The article seemed to be saying the key is about planning these side steps way in advance by breaking the user into them. This is what prompted me to say the key was really about the strong brand. Whether or not the strength of the brand came about more by accident than design is hard to be sure of.

    I think rather than planning Apple is noticing what is working and amplifying it.  I cannot be certain, but myself I don't think they planned to put touch on other devices so they could break people into it in future. I think they tried it, with some vision, noticed it worked, and thus made use of it.  

    It has almost taken me in now I am using an apple full time in my work. It just feels like more attention has been paid to the OS to make it smoother, cleaner, nicer looking, and having everything consistent. More thought has been put into little details such that everything works as I would expect. Knowing that most people have never tried it perhaps just make me like it more! It's easy to like the underdog as they somehow still seem to me (at least until they get a more deserved slice of the PC market). 

    Even programming in objective C has grown on me, after cursing having to learn it in the early stages. 

    All the best, Andrew. 

  • Mark Von Der Linn

    I wonder if it's not so much that Apple is training/molding us a product at a time, but rather they are discovering what people really like to use, ie, what is the best interface for the average human (given the current state of tech). I think it's probably some of both.

  • Dan

    Apple sells two products;
    The secondary product is consumer electronics that are polished, minimalist and intuitive, often gain "first to market" status and cater to users whose primary concern is probably not computing and specifications driven technology but a perceived means to "keep up" in an increasingly busy world.
    The primary product is an ideal. This is the most dangerous and ultimately most profitable product because once someone has bought an ideal they will defend their decision relentlessly, to admit that Apple and their  products may not be all that they say they are is to admit that you are wrong and easily fooled.  

  • Boregardless

    I admire Apple's work.  I appreciate Robert's summary.

    If it were only as easy as following 3 steps.

    One of my designs actually took 3 decades to accomplish "Designing the Obvious".  It is just damned hard to actually reinvent-innovate a truly new answer that really actually delivers a major accomplishment.

    I can remember designing sailboats when I was younger and the (alcoholic) Chief Engineer would say "Why are you just sitting there staring?"  You said you were going to get that design done."

    Given the very large number of choices in such a complex endeavor, one must mentally narrow the important choices, each of which is measured in shades of grey with respect to each other and in total represent probably millions of possibilities.

    The moral of the design world:  Simplify.  Work, work, and more work, until you simplify to the extreme extent you can figure out that will work and then put on some branding and fluff.

    Fascinating world this design stuff.

  • Alxm356

    Cliff, so true! Jobs, Wozniak and Wayne did not invent the computer obviously. They simly made it
    interesting. Interesting enough to excite the imagination and creativity of everyday people. Allowing for an ease of access of the activities and interest we engage in daily. Along with pleasing design, forward thinking concerning  consumer electronics, their original take on computers  and  killer advertising, they aquired a reputation that inspires devotion. Of course we can critisize any and every aspect of their operations, as we can any of the other tech companies . And of course there exist aspects of new and ground breaking technology on the desk, computers and whatever device one uses to R &D technology, of every related person  engaged in this endeavor. And we all know the real definition of advertising. With this said, has Apple created a culture or cult? The products work. Are they perfect, do they work for everyone and are they the inventors of said technology? Who cares! They bring the technology to the market place. It is easy to use and the masses like it. Hey, that's using imagination, to take what is or what can be, creatively and dynamically. Do we need a Harvard education to do this? we all should be so driven. 

  • Robert Hoekman, Jr

    Yes, Apple has a strong brand. But brand goes far beyond style and "looking cool" (as one commenter put it). Its brand is backed — driven — by well-built products. And well-built products with a high degree of usability and an appealing aesthetic perform better than those with lesser quality. Don Norman talked about this extensively in his book, "The Design of Everyday Things."

    To consider brand as Apple's primary cause for success is to devalue the meaning of "brand" and discredit the company's forward-thinking team of committed designers.

    I am a fan of Apple's work. No doubt. But the points raised in this article stem from my the things I've observed and know about Apple. Many of the things we see today are born from ideas developed years ago. That Apple walks its customer towards it one step at a time is clear evidence of a strategy to achieve its long-term vision. Again, tablet makers struggled for years. It wasn't shiny hardware alone that made the iPad the key to massive shift from the desktop to mobile devices, nor is it any singled iDevice that has done this. It's a platform. It's a focus on a whole suite of products and how they work together, not any product in isolation. 

  • Andrew Norris

     I have to agree. Branding is how they do it. I do think the commenters sometimes know more than the original article writers, and that's what I love about the internet. @Herm:twitter Yes the hardware looks good and makes you feel good, but is not that part of the branding and its effects? I.e. the brand is about looking good/ being cool.I think the good brand was created possibly by accident, they needed to be different than PCs ans were expensive so went for style to stand out. And the original ipod just made their brand, that has been the KEY part of their success ever since. They noticed it and have milked it so to speak. 

  • Andrew Norris

     I'm an insider too, apple developer, iphone developer. but the article does not make perfect sense to me I must say, as most of the others.  

  • Steven Leighton

    Didn't I just read, here yesterday, that Apple was no longer producing good design? That they'd gone Disney-ish? That Apple was, in a way, turning into comfort food for boomers?

  • Former Apple HI Designer

    Apple does great work, but they sometimes get credit today for work that was done earlier. Like any good designer they often pick up earlier work and improve it. We should all be doing this. But you can only do this if you know about the earlier work. Here's a bit of that history. FYI, I worked at Xerox in the 1980s and Xerox in the 1990s.The Dock comes from NeXT, which copied it from Xerox's IDE (aka Mesa Development Environment). NeXT has their first building a couple of blocks from PARC, and at least a couple of guys from Xerox were early members of NeXT. Stacks ("a way expand folders from the dock for quick access to the files buried within them") derives from the Apple ATG Piles project done in the late 1980s. Apple's ATG (Advanced Technology Group) had a lot of good ideas that didn't get transferred into products until years later. Even now there are key ideas in the Piles work (and patent) that aren't in anyone's products.

  • Keith

    Title and premise of this article are great, but somehow the details didn't seem to reinforce the idea... it just gave us examples of cool stuff they've done. Would love to see another take at this same idea Robert... or I'll volunteer to write it!

  • Andrew Norris

    Summing up  my comment below. So it's much more about branding than whether people have been introduced to these features before and part of some kind of brand plan by apple to break them in over the years.  

  • Andrew Norris

    This article is ok but I think it's probably much more about Apple having created such a strong brand that they are then able to introduce new elements and not have people off. It really started with the ipod having the music connection (trendy / cool) - and having a cool design. And being expensive when it came out - thus also adding to it being desirable.

    I for one love how they have got people to purchase apps in the iphone store. 

    Other companies did not have such a strong brand and so it was harder for them to introduce devices with features that may put (a large part of) the population off. 

    Most people are not going to invest in a new expensive product that has new unproven features. But with Apple they will. The fact these features occurred previously in other Apple products will help, but the point is even there, they had to be new some time. And Apple has a brad that says, look we do well at the new, we did it with the original ipod, you can trust us.