It Just Works
- August 8, 2011
- 1 Comments
The phrase “It just works” didn’t first come into use during Apple’s WWDC 2011 keynote in June. I first heard the phrase with respect to software when I was taking a NeXT programming class (cs193e) at Stanford – Julie Zelenksi, our lecturer, had three phrases that stuck with me for life:
- “Right?!” – affirmation, agreement, eliciting agreement, filler, etc.
- “That’s a feature” – when confronted with a bug or lack of a feature… obviously meant in jest.
- “It just works” – describing the magic of many of the object oriented techniques we used in class – reflection that just worked, prototypes, messages, Interface Builder and AppKit.
(I wouldn’t even claim to be there near the beginning – these phrases had the well-worn comfort of years of personal use even the very first time I heard them.)
At WWDC, Steve Jobs trotted out the phrase again, as a worthy successor to recent superlatives like “magical” and “amazing”, and it caught the attention of journalists (Philip Elmer-DeWitt has a great collection of quotes from some of the best articles covering the WWDC). But as MG Siegler notes, it isn’t an accident when Jobs picks a catchphrase like this. It is intentional choosing and repetition to enforce a message. I don’t doubt for a second that the *internal* messaging behind the scenes at Apple was similar, with Steve Jobs demanding that iCloud services “just work” without requiring explanation as to why or how. Its a perfect kind of demand – no, don’t tell me the 15 reasons something doesn’t quite work the way I want – just make it work.
But there’s never been a time when so much of the new stuff I look at is so very far from being ready for mass consumption. Sometimes it’s a tad quirky; sometimes I can’t get it to work at all. And when I call the manufacturers for help, they’re often well aware of the problems I encountered.
The pressure Apple is putting on other handset and computing manufacturers is causing them to release buggy, beta product. And their primary software partner this time around is a company that mostly ships products in Beta status (Google):
One notable example was Motorola’s Xoom tablet, which arrived back in February with rain checks for three of its notable features: 4G support, Flash, and support for its MicroSD slot. Today, some owners have the update that enables MicroSD, others don’t, and everyone’s still waiting for the overdue 4G upgrade. Sounds like a beta product to me.
Contrast to what Apple is attempting to do – “it just works.” As MG put it with respect to iCloud:
With iCloud, Apple is transforming the cloud from an almost tangible place that you visit to find your stuff, to a place that only exists in the background. It’s never seen. You never interact with it, your apps do — and you never realize it. It’s magic.
Exactly. The cloud is in the background rather than front-and-center. And while Google provides for a good cloud experience for technophiles like myself, the cloud *is* the experience, via the browser. Apple wants the cloud to be invisibly supporting what you do with your devices – devices Apple sells.
This focus on simplicity has benefits. iTunes may not be the prettiest software from a firm known for good design, but “it just works” – and it appears to be the first platform approaching 1 billion users in a logarithmic way even as it passes the 220 million mark. iOS’ growth curve is following an even steeper trajectory. The market seems to be saying that “it just works” matters.
MG Siegler follows up with:
And the truth is that this is the point where we may really start to see some truly fundamental differences between Google and Apple after the past few years going head-to-head with feature matching. Apple is going after consumers who have absolutely no idea what the cloud is, and don’t care. Apple is saying they shouldn’t care. It all just works.
Actually, it isn’t just targeting consumers who have no idea what the cloud is. It is also targeting technophiles who just frankly are tired of dealing with everyone else’s beta software. At some point we want tools that “just work” so we can get our own, more interesting, technical work done. If anything, the most advanced technical people I know are even *more* appreciative of the magic behind the black box.
But lest you think that Apple has given off the feature-matching in favor of the iCloud, Marco Arment reminds us that actually, the feature completeness efforts of Apple are like a steamroller:
Every time iOS or the iPhone is updated, Apple picks away at that list. They started with the big ones: purchase price, 3G, GPS, copy and paste, advanced security features, Exchange, multitasking. More recently, they added Verizon support, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them quietly hit Sprint and T-Mobile in the future, picking away at that list even further.
With iOS 5, they’ve hit tons of relatively minor shortcomings. Notifications. Quick camera access and a hardware shutter button. Wireless sync and backup. They’ve even added a preference to have the camera-flash LED blink on new notifications, supposedly as an accessibility feature, but also conveniently to appeal to BlackBerry owners addicted to that blinking LED.
Apple has steamrolled over almost every meaningful advantage that competitors have. And they’re not stopping.
I think Marco is right. Apple started with the differentiating NEW features (integrated iPod functionality, and touch screen interface) and then rapidly added to its arsenal (3rd party apps, cut-copy-paste, multi-tasking, etc.).
This is just further evidence, if that was required, that Simplicity is a great design principle. If calling it “it just works” helps drive the point home and make it an easier rallying point, I’m all for it. BPM and enterprise software vendors take heed- we all need a bit more “it just works” in our software experiences. This logic also needs to inform consulting firms – we need to treat usability and user design as a first class citizen – but failing that, we consultants need to ensure that our processes “just work” for our audiences…