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Technological Windows

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The concept of a ‘technological window’ is the central idea that has informed all of Apple founder Steve Jobs’s pursuits in consumer technology. Jobs articulated the concept in a 1992 talk at the Sloan school of business at MIT, saying (bold emphasis added):

I believe you can use the concept of technological windows opening, and eventually closing. And what I mean by that is, enough technology — usually from fairly diverse places — comes together and makes something that’s a quantum leap forward possible. And it doesn’t come out of nowhere. If you poke around the labs, and if you hang around the Media Lab in MIT and other places, you can get a feel for some of those things. And usually they’re not quite possible, but all of a sudden you start to sense things coming together and the planets lining up to where this is now possible, or barely possible. And a window opens up. And it usually takes around — in my experience anyway — around five years to create a commercial product that takes advantage of that technical window opening up.

Sometimes you start before the window’s quite open and you can’t get through and you push it up, and you push it up, sometimes it just takes a lot of work. It took that long you know, with the Apple II, it took that long with the Mac — took a Lisa along the way, 100 million dollars (down the drain). It’s expensive to push those windows open. (Audience laughs).

And in our case (NeXt Computers), our first product failed. We came out with this cube, and we sold (just) 10,000 of them. Why? Because we weren’t quite there yet and we made some mistakes along the way and we had to course correct. You know, Macintosh was a course-correction off the Lisa. With Apple II and Apple III, we did it in reverse, heh. (Audience laughs).

It takes around five years, or some number of years like that to realise that window opening, and then it seems to take another five years to really exploit it in the marketplace (emphasis added).

And let me give you some examples from my life. Apple II lasted 15 years. 15 years. The hardware churned but basically it was the same for 15 years. DOS, you know, DOS just passed 10 years. I don’t think anyone would disagree it would last another five. (Sotto voice) Unfortunately.

And Mac, Mac is eight years old. No question it’s going to last another four, five years.

These things are hard. They don’t last because it’s convenient or even because it’s economic. They last because they’re really hard, this is hard stuff to do!

And so when we are pushing that window open — I think with our current generation of products we finally got the window open, after six years, it’s open, we’ve got an extremely elegant implementation, we’ve got five years of work to do to exploit it in the marketplace. We’ll peak in five years. Five years from now we’ll all sit around and say, “OK, it’s time to get started on the next thing”. Maybe four years from now. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us just to move this thing out and educate the market and continue to refine it based on market feedback.

So, everything I know about technology windows that are open or are just about to open is in NeXTSTEP or we’re working on it in the labs. And these things generally don’t come along independently, they kind of — clump together, that’s been my experience. So the things that aren’t in there right now that I can talk about … there’s some video stuff that’s really interesting, there’s some security stuff that’s really fascinating that’s integrating in. But most of the core technologies in there — products are getting smaller and more portable, products are getting much much faster, but these things are well known. The products that we can give you in the next year or two are going to be running at speeds that I find hard to believe, and I’ve been doing this for awhile.

Four years after Jobs gave this talk, Apple Computer acquired NeXT for its technology — the same technology that Jobs was talking up in this talk. The software that NeXT’s team built became the basis for the new Mac operating system, called OS X, which in turn became the foundation for the iPhone OS. Today, both operating systems are known as macOS and iOS, respectively.

If we extract the claims that Jobs makes about technological windows, we get the following:

  1. The consumer tech industry is driven by ‘technological windows’, which means a very specific thing: that is, a window of opportunity opens when a number of technical innovations come together to enable a new consumer product that is a ‘quantum leap’ forward.

  2. You can’t afford to be too early to a technological window, or it takes too much effort and money. And you can’t afford to be too late, or you’re never going to win the category.

  3. You can get better at recognising when these technological windows are opening, by seeding experiments internally, or by hanging around places where new tech is developed. Jobs implies that this is a form of judgment that you can get better at (though an external observer would note that he seemed preternaturally good at it).

  4. It takes about five years to realise that window opening, and another five years to fully exploit it in the marketplace. That means roughly a 10-year upwards-sloping success curve for each new consumer tech product, with much of the product innovation occurring in the first five years, before eventual exploitation and an inevitable plateau, followed by a decline.

  5. If you operate in consumer tech, the time to start looking for the next technological window opening should occur at the end of the first five year period, when the rate of innovation and product iteration slows down.

Jobs’s career seems to broadly vindicate this model. He oversaw the Apple II, the Macintosh, the NeXTStep Operating System (then the most advanced operating system in the market, and the foundation of much to follow), the iPod, the iPhone, and finally the iPad (though you could argue that this last one was ‘exploitation’ of the prior iPhone technological window). After his death, Apple introduced the AirPods and the Apple Watch. Every single one of these products pulled together a number of disparate technical advancements, and seem to follow a five year ‘high innovation’ period, followed by a five year ‘exploitation / low-innovation’ period, give or take a number of years depending on the specific case.

We’ll take a look at a number of concrete instantiations in the following cases.


The Macintosh - Changing The Face of Personal Computing

The now legendary story of the Macintosh shaped many of Jobs’s beliefs about the game he was in.

Jobs's Second Act at Apple - The Next Big Thing

Steve Jobs had a pretty clear idea of what he needed to do when he returned to Apple. This is a contemporaneous excerpt from an interview, as told to business professor Richard Rumelt.

The Shape of a Technological Window

A look at the structure of the concept, as applied to the cases in this sequence. Read a few cases first before you read this.

The iPod - Apple's Introduction to Consumer Electronics

The iPod marked Apple's first successful (albeit tentative) entry into consumer electronics, and laid the way for future products.

 Members only

The iPhone Keyboard - Make It or Break It

Building the first iPhone's touchscreen keyboard was a make-it-or-break-it moment for the iPhone. Succeed, and the iPhone was possible. Fail, and the iPhone would've been shelved. This is its story.

General Magic - The Future, Too Early

The first attempt at building the iPhone came two decades too early.