When Apple released the white iPhone 4 in April, a lot of people were scratching their heads. Others simply snickered. The product suffered a 10-month delay and a string of broken promises from Apple that it was "coming soon." That's not like Apple, which is usually as efficient as a blood-thirsty dictator.
At the time the white iPhone arrived, most in the tech industry were expecting the next iPhone to be released just a couple months later in June/July, since that's been Apple's pattern for the past four years. In retrospect, the launch of the white iPhone in April along with the launch of the Verizon iPhone in January should have been clear signs that pattern wasn't going to continue this year. The current expectation is that the next iPhone will arrive this fall, potentially sporting Verizon LTE 4G connectivity.
The change in release schedule has certainly given the white iPhone 4 a longer shelf life. But, the significance of this product has nothing to do with the fact that it will likely be on the market for just 5-6 months. It's about the power of "No."
This email promotion for the white iPhone 4 even has Apple poking fun at the delay. Photo credit: Apple
The power of 'No'
The significance of the white iPhone 4 is that Apple didn't release it until it got it right. The company apparently said "No" to the product over and over again because it wasn't quite right and Apple felt that customers wouldn't have been happy with it.
Apple has never specifically said what problems it had with the white iPhone. Its primary statement was a terse press release on June 23, 2010 that stated, "White models of Apple's new iPhone 4 have proven more challenging to manufacture than expected."
However, the most common theory is that the white iPhone 4 suffered from light leakage, due to the fact that white materials are a little more transparent than black. It sounds like Apple experimented with different materials, pigments, and designs to make it look right so that it didn't turn yellow instead of white.
In the grand scheme of things, that doesn't sound very important, and it isn't. But, what is important is that Apple said "No" to the product repeatedly, swallowed its pride, and endured ridicule over the delay. Apple waited until it got it right, or at least right enough.
The same can't be said for many Apple competitors recently. Google, Motorola, and Verizon released the Xoom before the Honeycomb UI was finished and app developers had time to rework their apps. Research in Motion released the BlackBerry PlayBook before Flash, the Android emulator, and several promised apps were ready. Last fall, Samsung released the Galaxy Tab before there was even a version of Android that worked well on tablets. This week we have another good example with Nokia announcing the Nokia N9 running Meego, an OS that Nokia has spurned in favor of Windows Phone 7. Why even release a product running a platform that you don't intend to support in the years ahead?
I review a lot of products every year — most of the best products in tech. However, I also have a lot of products that come across my desk that I never review because they aren't finished or because they are obviously patchwork products designed by committee or because I simply want to ask myself, "Why would anyone actually release this?" or "Who would use this?"
Steve Jobs on "No"
In recent years, Steve Jobs has famously said, "I'm actually as proud of many of the things we haven't done as the things we have done."
Jobs has said this numerous times and to various audiences. However, this is not a recent conclusion. If you go back to when Jobs first returned to Apple in the late 1990s, he loudly proclaimed that the key to turning things around at Apple and releasing better products was learning how to say, "No." Here's what Jobs told the audience at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in 1997:
"When you think about focusing, you think focusing is saying, 'yes.' No, focusing is saying, 'no.' You've got to say, 'no, no, no, no, no.' And, when you say 'no,' you piss off people and they go talk to the San Jose Mercury [News] and they write a shitty article about you. And, it's really a pisser because you want to be nice... So, you take the lumps, and Apple has been taking their share of lumps for the last six months in a very unfair way and has been taking them like an adult, and I'm proud of that... But, focus is about saying 'no' and the result of that focus is going to be some really great products."
The lesson here is not that companies should always wait until their products are absolutely perfect before they release them. If that were the case, very few products would ever make it to market, and many of them would be too late to make a difference. The key is knowing when a product is perfect enough and when you should hold a product for improvements versus releasing it to get it in the hands of eager customers. That's the hard part, but it's also the thing that great companies do well.
Another tech company other than Apple that may get it right in 2011 is HP. Since the company bought Palm last year, it has been working on a tablet that marries the goodness of webOS with the tablet hardware expertise of HP. The HP TouchPad officially arrives on July 1 and the company has taken some heat for the extended delay. But, CEO Léo Apotheker recently said, "We will not release a product that isn't perfect." Given the trail of incomplete tablets that have littered the market so far in 2011, that could bode well for the TouchPad (look for TechRepublic's full coverage of the TouchPad next week).
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.