Want To Create A Breakout Product? Start With A Narrow Focus

One thing we've learned from Apple over the years: Roll out a limited product and expand it later.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in January 2007, he famously described it as being a combination of just three things. "It’s a widescreen iPod, a revolutionary phone, and a breakthrough Internet communicator." Though every journalist and Apple enthusiast in the audience (myself included) was won over by Jobs’s masterful presentation, by the time we stepped into the light of day, glaring holes were evident in the iPhone. Why didn’t it have 3G data? Where was real support for corporate email? And why couldn’t you write real applications for it?

On closer examination, it seemed Apple had blundered in its product strategy. Most famously, CBS MarketWatch’s John Dvorak claimed that Apple should cancel the iPhone before it shipped even one unit. How could a device with this many missing pieces ever succeed?

We know the rest of the iPhone story. Over the next four years, Apple has systematically added every single feature that it left out of the original iPhone while moving more than 100 million units. This slow and steady rollout of new features has been so successful that few remember that the App Store, now a central piece of the iPhone’s appeal and marketing campaigns, was not included in the original product.

What the media took for missing features or technical incompetence was actually a series of strategic choices that Apple made to scale down from all of the possible things a smartphone technically could do to the handful of things that the iPhone could do better than any other product on the market—media playback, visual voicemail, and multitouch web browsing.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
There is no more exciting or rewarding activity a technology company can tackle than the development and launch of a new technology platform. There is also, however, no strategic move as risky. All too many new platforms, particularly in the technology industry, die out with their very first, unsuccessful product. It is therefore incumbent on great leaders to figure out what to include in that first product and what to leave out.

Oddly enough, seemingly under-powered and narrowly focused technology platforms tend to outperform their more broadly aimed peers. The Nintendo Wii dramatically outsold powerhouses like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 for years. The Amazon Kindle is the market leader in e-readers. The original Flip handheld video camera began outselling much more full-featured camcorders shortly after its launch. And Apple’s "big iPhone that can’t make phone calls," the iPad, quickly seized more than 80 percent of the share in a tablet category that also includes devices capable of running all of Windows.

In technology, simple beats complicated in almost every case. Apple’s disciplined approach to product development with the iPhone is a textbook example for how to launch new technologies strategically.

Why do so many companies give in to the lure of more?
Despite the astounding success of the iPhone, many companies choose to launch new technologies in a fashion that is diametrically opposed to it. Somewhere along the line, the idea takes hold that releasing a product that tries to do everything, even if it doesn’t do many of them well, is the best way to drive growth.

It is the desire to leave options open that ironically closes down options for many otherwise promising technologies. Companies fear that their new offerings will be labeled one-trick ponies if they carry too much focus. Yet trying to be known for too many things at the outset is likely to earn you the distinction of being a no-trick pony.

Research in Motion has, unfortunately, demonstrated precisely how not to launch a new platform with its PlayBook tablet. What could have constituted the future of the company will be remembered as a fiasco. Announced in the fall of 2010, the PlayBook was positioned as a more business-oriented competitive response to Apple’s iPad. RIM executives proudly touted the many features it possessed that Apple’s offering lacked: cameras, Adobe Flash compatibility, multitasking, support for business tools like Microsoft Office.

RIM’s devotion to outdoing the iPad in both consumer and business functionality led RIM to try to do too much, leaving dozens of critical features half-baked. Worse, by the time it shipped, Apple had added to the iPad the most important of the features RIM promised in the PlayBook. While the PlayBook is still technically on the market—as of this writing—it has failed to so much as make a dent in iPad sales. Sprint even canceled its plans to carry the device shortly after launch.

Launch with a focused product, then extend it.
When launching a new technology, it’s far better to constrain the capabilities of your big new idea—even if it’s an artificial constraint—than it is to over-promise and under-deliver. Being selective about features at the outset does not rule out later functionality or prospective customers.

The original iPhone was a very limited product—it only did three things. But it was built on top of iOS, a technology platform whose potential is still just beginning to be realized. Big platforms grow from little, focused products. Even if the geeks of the world think otherwise.

Pete Mortensen has a particular talent for articulating and expressing social, design, and business questions, and finding the answers. A journalist by training, he has written and edited for numerous publications, including Wired, BusinessWeek, Design Mind, Spin, Huffington Post, and the Windsor Times. He is a lead blogger for Wired’s Cult of Mac. Pete is also the co-author of Wired to Care, a critically acclaimed book about the connection between empathy and business growth. Pete holds a dual bachelor’s degree in journalism and English literature from Northwestern University.

[Photo by modenadude]
[Front Photo by varun mehta]

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  • Pete Mortensen

    DN, I don't think that anyone would disagree that the Apple of the 1980s and early 1990s made terrible product planning decisions on a regular basis. But that's also a critique of a different company than the one covered in this article.

  • dn

    A slow rollout of new features is really a form of planned obsolecence.
    I noticed Apple doing this in the first Mac, then called a Lisa, that cost 8k
     or 10k and was very underpowered and really couldn't do much.Years  later my Centris kept showing a screen message, "out of memory",  again not enough horsepower. I've used pcs ever since.
    Apple could only pull this off because of so many ga-ga consumers who have had a notion that they just couldn't be without apple products.

  • Pete Mortensen

    Distribution? The iPhone was only available on AT&T, which many saw as a fatal flaw. 

    Brand? Apple had never made a phone before. Shouldn't a strong brand like Nokia have swamped them?

  • Guest

    You missed the two key ingredients for success of the Iphone...distribution and brand.  This article is half baked.

  • JamesofNW

    Peter - It is Steve Job's presentation style to focus on the 3 key areas of the product.  It is not by any stretch of the imangination that the first iPhone only do 3 simple things.  What you shoul have written is that "Want to create a breakout product, start with focus on simple things that people always wanted and make them work insanely well.".

  • Cameron

    Peter, you totally missed the point of the article. Just because you can have 'marketshare' as your ultimate goal, doesn't mean you should. Apple has built a stable brand more valuable than any other, while a revolving door of new fish fight over the remaining red ocean markets.

    Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, have all in succession tried to play the marketshare game and have slowly faded into genericness because competing at that price point does not allow them to offer anything unique or noteworthy.

  • Vickie Gray

    I love it! This is what we tell our team clients. It's such a struggle to believe one great thing will be better than lots of mediocre things until you show an example like the iPhone.

    Thanks for this.

  • Peter

    I agree with the premise of this article. But you're ignoring the fact that Android has eclipsed iOS, which is at least part in due to Apple's draconian control of it's products. Yes, Apple remains the most valuable company in the world, largely on account of it's intense focus. It works, yes, but it also opens the door for competitors. Again, I agree with the premise, but only mentioning RIM and not Android leaves a hole.