Why Apple doesn’t do “Concept Products”

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Everyone has a favorite “concept car.” Whether it’s the ’54 Firebird, ’64 Stiletto, ’80 Epcot or ’88 Sunraycer, these “flights of imagination” all have one thing in common: they weren’t for real.

General Motors had no intention of selling these cars, or cars that were close in form or function. They were largely “concepts” detached from reality or economics. It’s even debatable if they have advanced the art and science of producing cars in ways measurable by subsequent sales. In fact, over the years, while GM was busy creating concept cars, its Asian counterparts were working overtime selling cars that real customers here and elsewhere actually preferred to purchase. After losing over $50 billion in the last three years alone and its debt closing on junk rating, analysts are now wondering if the once-mighty GM will be able to avoid bankruptcy at all.

The “conceptualizers”

Certainly, GM is not alone. Other technology giants like Microsoft and Nokia have also had a penchant for concocting concept products that never see the light of day in the marketplace. Bill Gates & Co, for example, have for years been showing off all-digital concept products from kitchens and mediarooms to bedrooms:

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One of the latest Microsoft concept products is Surface. Microsoft first announced this bathtub-size “product” in 2007 and promised to ship it by the end of that year for nearly $10,000. Hotels and casinos were cited as early adopters. The product never shipped in 2007. So far the only public sightings of Surface have been a unit at Harrah’s iBar and 12 AT&T cellphone stores. To confuse matters, Microsoft is also rumored to position Surface as an interface to its pricy, enterprise-oriented BizTalk Mapper modeling/rules engine platform and recently demonstrated the same touch interface wrapped around a 3D surface in Sphere.

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Another flashy concept product is the Nokia Morph, the self-cleaning, self-aware, self-preserving, self-charging, semi-opaque and semi-flexible mobile device that the company hopes to integrate into handheld devices in seven years. (This from a company that hasn’t even been able to answer the multi-touch iPhone challenge in nearly two years.)

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Why bother?

It’s quite easy and fun to dig up “concept products” that really have no hope of turning into real, shipping products. Why then do commercial entities bother to produce them often at great expense?

Although Nokia and Microsoft gave us an endless supply of concept products over the years, they haven’t produced, for example, anything like the TiVo, the iPod, the iPhone, OS X, the iTunes App Store, or created brand new user experience paradigms, transformed calcified markets, captured the imagination of people, and so on. They didn’t have the organizational and intellectual discipline to go from concept to product.

As a test, it’s hard to remember a single groundbreaking or even a moderately inspiring product that actually shipped during Nathan Myrvold’s long reign as the head of research at Microsoft. That hasn’t apparently dampened the adulation he gets as a billionaire genius jetting among the world’s glitterati today. But there does appear to be a weak correlation between a company’s ability to churn out concept products and its ability to design, manufacture and profitably sell products based on those. So why bother indeed?

Corporate image maintenance? Design experimentation? Employee morale boosting? Market-direction manipulation? Simple trial and error? Marketing ploy? Many such reasons are often cited. But are they sufficient and commensurate with real or imagined benefits?

As a contrast, let’s take the outfit that has been voted as the “most innovative” company by BusinessWeek and Fortune many times, Apple. Hasn’t Apple produced in the late ’80s perhaps the canonical concept vision in technology, the Knowledge Navigator?

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Yes. And that was the last such concept piece coming out of Cupertino, certainly since Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997. Why hasn’t Apple, the most innovative and visionary company in computing, produced a single concept product or vision in over a decade? Because, to paraphrase Jobs, real artists ship.

What’s wrong with Apple?

Why would a commercial entity like Apple produce a concept product? Apple is likely generating more concept products and visions than any other technology company for internal use. When Apple wanted to get into retail stores, for example, Jobs had Ron Johson build a fully-functioning, real-size prototype and tore it down at the last minute to rebuild a new one. Why didn’t Apple release the “concept store” to the then-deeply-skeptical press in order to “demonstrate visionary leadership”? In a similar situation Microsoft likely would have.

Product design, above all, is a bet. Apple understands this better than any other company. In iPhone: The bet Steve Jobs didn’t decline, I explained just what a huge bet the iPhone project was to Apple in 2005. It was a bet-the-company kind of bet. One that Nokia, which has sold hundreds of millions of phones over many years, never took. Neither did Microsoft. They would just as well release annual concept products to the public in order not to go through the pain of taking a bet.

Apple bet the company to single handedly change the industrial design of mobile devices, how we interact with them, the balance between carriers and manufacturers, mobile application vending, etc. Indeed, it simply redefined what a mobile device is to become. Apple did this not with a concept product, but by betting its own billions on a shipping product. This, of course, is nothing new to the company that also gave us Apple II, Macintosh, iMac and iPod…all without concept products.

Doesn’t Apple get it? Aren’t concept products the ultimate sign of getting and shaping the future?

Real artists ship, dabblers create concept products

Pretenders don’t quite understand that design is born of constraints. Real-life constraints, be they tangible or cognitive: Battery-life impacts every other aspect of the iPhone design — hardware and software alike. Screen resolution affects font, icon and UI design. The thickness of a fingertip limits direct, gestural manipulation of on-screen objects. Lack of a physical keyboard and WIMP controls create an unfamiliar mental map of the device. The iPhone design is a bet that solutions to constraints like these can be seamlessly molded into a unified product that will sell. Not a concept. Not a vision. A product that sells.

It turns out that when capable designers are given real constraints for real products they can end up creating great results. In Apple’s case, groundbreaking products like the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone. Constraints have a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the fundamentals, whereas concept products can often have the opposite affect.

Concept products are like essays, musings in 3D. They are incomplete promises. Shipping products, by contrast, are brutally honest deliveries. You get what’s delivered. They live and die by their own design constraints. To the extent they are successful, they do advance the art and science of design and manufacturing by exposing the balance between fantasy and capability.

But, concept products never killed anybody

Perhaps. But they can sure lead designers astray. Concept products grant designers a break from constraints, economics and, ultimately, reality. The internets are full of concept phones, for example, that bend and morph, change functionalities and appearances, weigh nothing but defy breakage, project ethereal 3D images, seem to communicate at the speed of light and laugh at material science limitations of ‘ordinary’ phones:

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How else are we going to advance product design, you might ask. Not by pretending that there’s free lunch for designers. Designers shouldn’t be encouraged to simply assume somehow constrains magically will disappear: mobile devices, for example, will somehow be powered by Herculean power sources that then make possible most of the other flights of imagination found in a typical concept phone.

At the end of the day, we have to confront the question of why companies like Nokia can sell hundreds of millions of phones and produce many concept products, but it takes Apple — a company that doesn’t do concept pieces — to shatter the market with a single product introduction.

Commercial entities have no advantage in releasing concept products the likes of which they hope to subsequently sell. If the conceptual piece truthfully captures their “best” it can only tell their competitors how advanced they are and where they fall short. If it camouflages their true capabilities in an effort to mislead their competitors, then what value is it to others? In fact, the intention to mislead competitors is really the only effective reason for a commercial entity to publicly release concept products.

Apple would gain nothing from telegraphing its intentions and capabilities by releasing public conceptual products. The company is being more than prudent by not displaying their unconstrained fantasies to competitors, media, investors or customers.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, this inexorably leads us to Kontra’s law:

A commercial company’s ability to innovate is inversely proportional to its proclivity to publicly release conceptual products.