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Strive for great products, whether by copying, inventing, or reinventing

This last weekend, I watched Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (It’s available on iTunes for $3.99 rental). It’s great for many, many reasons, and I wanted to write an important point I seized upon during the talk. Here’s the link, if you want to watch it yourself.

Let’s start with an important quote:

“Insanely great”

That phrase is one of the most confusing things about the Apple philosophy, and I think it is commonly misinterpreted. Product designers often use it as an excuse to endlessly work on their product, with no release date or eye on costs. It becomes the reason why people want to focus on building completely new products and avoid copying competitors.

Apple has done a lot of stealing and reinventing
Yet in the interview, Steve Jobs has lots of interesting anecdotes:

  • Apple copying the graphical user interface from Xerox PARC
  • The famous quote, “Great artists steal.”
  • How NeXT was building web products, same as everyone else

He says all of this, while at the same time criticizing others for lack of taste and insulting their product quality.

Great products, regardless of source
To me, the way to reconcile this is that Steve Jobs cares first and foremost about great products. Sometimes the way to get there was to steal. Sometimes you reinvent and reimagine. And sometimes, you have to invent.

The point is, building a great product is about curating from the entire space of possible features you could build. Shamelessly steal ideas when they are the best ones. Ignore bad ideas even if they’re commonplace. Don’t think you have to build something totally different to make a great product.

I think this has matched with Apple’s strategy towards their most recent generation of products – though they didn’t invent the GUI, the mouse, the MP3 player, downloadable music, the laptop, or the smartphone, they’ve build some of the best products out there. (I’ll give them a lot of great for the iPad though, which is truly a new invention)

The craving for novelty in Silicon Valley
So for all the product managers and designers out there – if you are finding yourself wanting to do it differently just because, or trying to find novel solutions just because, then maybe your priorities are not in order. The goal of building great products is for you to deliver something great to the customer, not to impress your designer friends on what new layout or interaction you’ve just developed.

Make it insanely great, even while you copy, steal, reinvent, or invent whatever you need to make that happen.

Anyway, it’s a great interview and I think everyone involved in tech products should watch it.

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