On The Guts of a New Machine (Part One)

11/30/2003

I’ve been reading The Guts of a New Machine, the latest (and longest) article on the iPod perpetrated by the New York Times. It’s an interesting article that does the journalistic job of covering a variety of angles well while trying to find some unifying theme – but that makes commenting on it in general almost impossible. It itself has no thesis – no argument to make. So instead of addressing the piece as a whole I’m just going to jot down a few thoughts that occurred to me as I read specific chunks. I’m going to do this in multiple posts as it should make commenting more practical.

On rapid product development and coherent product vision

“The iPod came together in somewhere between six and nine months, from concept to market, and its coherence as a product given the time frame and the number of variables is astonishing. Jobs and company are still correct when they point to that coherence as key to the iPod’s appeal; and the reality of technical innovation today is that assembling the right specialists is critical to speed, and speed is critical to success.”

This chunk of the article (not a quote from anyone) interested me, because of the perceived dislocation between speed, the right staff and coherence. The process seems to me to have been successful in producing something coherent and clean almost because of its brevity. In my experience, three months is about as long as you can reliably expect any individual person to care about their part of the project more than they care about anything else – even if they’re given total free space not to have to think about anything else (multi-tasking is the evil enemy of creativity in my opinion). Only clear delineations between stages in a project (and strong management over those transitions) can really help maintain people’s levels of constructive engagement if you need a project to go any longer.

When I see the iPod and hear the time it took to think through it, I can almost smell the initial back-to-basics workshops, the brainstorming around what MP3 players could and should be at their core. You can feel the desire to understand something – grasp a vision – and the reason that sensation still sits at the heart of the thing is that there wasn’t enough time for that vision to erode before it got to market. The iPod’s design to me isn’t really about simplicity or coherence at all, it’s about getting to the essence of the thing and sparsely sketching it out without letting the cruft or baroque tendencies unfold. Where human beings are involved, design is a process in time, and the quality of that design can be affected directly by too-little time, too-much time, and not know what to do with the time you have.