Robert V. Binder

Steve Jobs’ Product Design Philosophy and Systems Engineering

October 7, 2011  |  Blog, Business, Software Products

Steve Jobs and NeXT computersSteve Jobs’ genius was in conceptualizing unique interfaces and packaging that resonated very deeply for large numbers of customers, and in the second half of his career, combining this with a business and operational model that generated huge returns to shareholders and delighted 100s of millions.

During his interlude with NeXT, he focused on internals: the NeXT Step OS (later Open Step) and an application development suite. I developed NeXT apps from 1992-1998. The usability of these tools was truly amazing — unmatched to this day, but they were also notoriously buggy and maddeningly incomplete. Worse, they lent themselves to creating a Big Ball of Mud faster than any other software development stack I have ever seen. The slogan “They’re objects — it just works” along with the Jobs “reality distortion effect” came to be a standing joke.  Jobs brought the NeXT Step platform along when he rejoined Apple. Several years later, it was the core of the new Mac OS X — aka Tiger, Leopard, etc. Its NSObject and Web Objects frameworks are derived from NeXT Step, with the benefit of 15 years of debugging and rearchitecting.

Jobs’ view of technology was complex. He was not a “nerd,” in that he advocated or developed technology for its own sake. He did not happily wallow in minutiae. Instead, he grasped both details and essential capabilities and used them as elements of a vision. He was shrewd in seeing possibilities, as when he convinced Xerox to let him adapt their Icon/GUI interface (this deal has seemed to me on a par with the Dutch buying Manhattan for $24.) He understood that like ugly aircraft, ugly artifacts do not perform or sell well. This was more than just a sales strategy — I believe he had a unique ability to form deep design visions driven by a passion for technical aesthetics, not unlike, say, Beethoven. He couldn’t abide inelegant and ugly solutions, even when that meant sub-optimal business choices. In the last ten years, I believe that Jobs found a groove — he led the creation of elegant and beautiful products that were also huge economic successes.

Despite this virtuosity, I do not see much in the way of software engineering tools or methods that warrants emulation. However, that is irrelevant. The important take-away  for the software/system engineering community from Jobs’ achievements is that extraordinary results can never be merely the result of tools and methods;  a deep and aesthetic vision driven by focus and the will to get it built is necessary, and rare.


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