Who Designs Successful Products?

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This quote from Mark Sigal’s Ruminations on the legacy of Steve Jobs was interesting,

If this seems intuitive, and it should be, consider the modus operandi that preceded it. Before Apple, the hard truth was that the “inmates ran the asylum,” in that products were typically designed by engineers to satisfy their own needs, as opposed to those of the actual consumers of the products.

Moreover, products were designed and marketed according to their “speeds and feeds,” checklists of attributes over well-chiseled, highly-crafted outcomes. And it didn’t really matter if at each step along the value chain the consumer was disrespected and disregarded.

Is this why “the year of the Linux desktop” hasn’t arrived or why after several year of running Linux, I’ve gravitated  towards Apple products (MacBook and iPad) for consumer use–outside of work?

To suggest that engineer led products haven’t turned out well is too broad of a generalization.  This quote could also possibly be misconstrued to say that notion of Open Source folks “scratching their own itch” is misguided and cannot create something great.  The Linux kernel itself refutes that notion, though it is interesting that Linux’s greatest success seems to be at the enterprise infrastructure level and not in the consumer mass-market.

Image by Alexander Stielauvia flickr used under a Creative Commons license.

4 thoughts on “Who Designs Successful Products?

  1. Linux is too fragmented, over thousands of distros and apps and they are all reinventing the wheel, and this is why it cannot conquer the desktop.

    There are good ideas, but they rarely get to the end of their ideas. the majority of the apps feel like half baked when compared to the Windows or Apple’s competition. Only a handful of apps are good, but they still lack features when compared with the same type of products from Windows . Most of them die at version 0.nnn never making it to the final version and the worst is they don’t work seamlessly from one distro to another.

    Android is an example of how linux should be developed, they have focus, if android is good for the phones and tablets, then Linux should be good for the desktop as long as we have a focused effort, instead of having small groups of 2 or 3 developers everywhere reinventing the wheel.

    It’s a sad thing that the linux developers cannot join force together. MS is really glad that their opponents are disorganized. I still dream of the day when one charismatic person/group will join all the Linux folks together and create apps as complete and polished as those in MS or Apple products.
    Maybe Google will be the answer ?

  2. I cannot speak to your issue as it relates to linux and apple specifically as both are outside my area of expertise. When you measure success in terms of mass market appeal it may have more to do with simplicity than the greater potential of use. In my past experience I was responsible for coordinating the attack on large forest fires. Every year a staggering amount of planning is done to prepare for the big complex fire – exceeding 25,000 acres. As the orders cascade down from the incident command post to the firefighters on the ground and in the air, the orders snowball until there is enough specificity to guide the firefighters to particular points in time. The communications systems are the best that money can buy – the only problem is the detailed plans are often worthless. No plan survives a fire that creates its own atmosphere and rages uncontrolled and unpredictable. Thus, the most effective and efficient plan is the one that is simple, the one that gets to the core of the problems to be faced. The single most important task for that day and the next must be clear and concise, all else will be in reaction to the fire until it is controlled.

    The French Aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery offered this definition of engineering elegance, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. Apple products are the essence of perfection in that they are simple and easy to use. It appears from the comments above that linux is a valuable and productive piece of software, but unlike Apple it may be too complex for the average person who is more interested in satisfying basic perceived immediate needs.

  3. Perhaps you don’t gravitate towards linux products – the handheld fun toys – simply because of the idea that you might encounter the same or similar problems (too much tinkering!), and the apple products remove that possibility in your mind?

    Or perhaps it’s too difficult to switch back – they were first to market, after all, particularly in the phone niche?

    I wouldn’t say all “mass market” items, though – I think certainly cable tv/set top boxes are probably a huge exception here, along with in-car entertainment/navigation (even standalone gps’s, though their usefulness is really becoming limited to situations where your cell phone battery just won’t cut the length of time of out-and-about.) Most of that is abstracted away from us – not simply because there’s a pretty interface, but because the upgrade/installation of extras isn’t an option. It’s actually quite similar to the apple experience in the PC market for so many years – very tightly controlled.

  4. I am amazingly happy with Linux, and have been for over a decade. It’s not the “speeds and feeds checklist,” which I think reflect MS and Apple more than Linux. Instead, it’s the freedom it gives me to have a modern, fast, and featureful DE (GNOME 3) on a year-old 15.6″ laptop that cost me just over US$300. I have all the software I need, all the speed I need, and a better looking DE, as well.

    But that’s just about me.

    In a larger sense, I live outside the US, where software is relatively much more expensive, and I support nations taking control of their own software futures, building their own IT infrastructures, and growing some IT talent at home. Freedom from dependence on the U.S. is a big deal.

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