At Princeton Tech Meetup, Friedman Talks Lessons Learned from Apple’s Mistakes

Photo: Lex Friedman at the Princeton Tech Meetup. Photo Credit: Marek Malkowski/
Lex Friedman at the Princeton Tech Meetup. | Marek Malkowski/

Well-known Your Daily Lex podcaster Lex Friedman, a serial entrepreneur and former Macworld writer, deconstructed Apple’s “mistakes” in a talk that was both funny and informative, providing lessons for entrepreneurs.

Friedman spoke to a packed house at the Princeton Tech Meetup, which took place at the Princeton Public Library on June 17. This meetup group has reached 3,500 members, and is now the second-largest tech meetup group in New Jersey.

Some of Apple’s mistakes, according to Friedman:

  • The “hockey puck” mouse. This mouse came out in 1998 for the iMac. It turns out that a circular mouse isn’t easy to grip or use, he said. “Apple hung onto this for two years. Customers complained and third-party vendors invented pieces that could snap onto it to make it easier to use. Apple replaced this mouse in 2000 with the Apple Pro Mouse, a normal looking mouse. “This was a case of Apple saying that the customer is sometimes right,” Friedman said.

The lesson: Don’t love your children too much. With products you create, if everybody hates it, maybe it means that they are right and you are not.

  • The iPad Side Switch. When the iPad first came out, the switch on the side locked its orientation. This was necessary because the accelerometer inside the iPad sometimes couldn’t figure out which way people were holding the device, so it switched back and forth between orientations. When the new iPad come out, Apple changed the switch’s function, making it into a mute switch to better match with the iPhone. There was no option to use it as an orientation lock. People were up in arms and Apple gave in, creating a software option so that people could either use the switch as a mute switch or as an orientation-locking device. However, Friedman explained, “I noticed that, as iPads got better, if the iPad started to flip in a way I didn’t want, it would learn quickly where to stay.” At the same time, he began getting more and more notifications while he was watching Netflix. It was the mute button that he really needed.

The lesson: The customers aren’t always right, but they think they are always right. Apple added back the capability because doing so would please the customers. “I call this a pity feature.” Sometimes adding something back isn’t a sign of defeat. It’s OK to take pity on the customer, Friedman said.

  • Ditching the floppy disk. While most wouldn’t in hindsight consider this a mistake, Apple caught a lot of heat for this decision at the time. Their competitors actually used the availability of floppy disk storage as a competitive advantage. However, “in this case, Apple was leading by example,” Friedman said.

The lesson: Tough love is hard. Sometimes you have to drag your customers along kicking and screaming. When the company came out with the MacBook Air, they ditched the DVD drive and encouraged users to buy an external optical drive. Apple was saying, “We don’t think the world is done with optical media, we’re just saying we are done with it. …We don’t think everyone has to abandon this drive completely, but we think you can make do a lot of the time without it.” Sometimes you have to hold your customer’s hand a little and say, we’re going to get through this together, Friedman said.

  • Making big changes to iMovie. The user’s iMovie experience first operated one way, then Apple changed the interface to make movie editing more like word processing, “which is it not!” Friedman said emphatically. However, something interesting happened when the installer was run. It let the user keep iMovie’s previous version.

The lesson: Sometimes you have to hold the customer’s hand for a long time. Apple said, in effect, “This is a really significant change, so we’ll let you hang onto the old version for a while longer.” The company also did this when iTunes came out with a new layout, taking away the sidebar. However, they included a button that said “show sidebar,” to help out users who had trouble with the change.

  • Apple Maps. This was a big one. “People had trouble finding places. They got lost.” Apple’s public relations people told Friedman that the more customers used it, the better Maps would get. Finally, Apple CEO Timothy D. Cook published a letter on the company’s website telling customers that they could download other map programs while Apple was improving its product.

The lesson: Let people know you are listening to them. It’s a mistake to ask people to keep beta testing something for you. It’s better to acknowledge your mistakes than ignore them. Cook gets credit for doing this, Friedman said. Not a lot of companies can afford to direct people to their competitors, but Apple was in a unique place. Friedman also talked about his own experiences at The Daily Plate (now myplate). He said that, in one case, it took him only a day to implement a feature that people were asking for, but other times features were hard to implement, and it could be hard to tell what was really wrong with the site. “Just letting the customer know that we heard them and listened to them, even if it can’t be fixed or we don’t like the idea, gives you a lot of credibility with customers. …You don’t have to recommend they use another site. Just letting them know you listened to them is enough.”

  • Ping: This was a social network for music that only existed within iTunes and at the iTunes store. The idea was that you could tell your friends about the music you were buying, but it was the wrong place, Friedman said. Everyone was on Facebook or Twitter. Apple gave it two years and then pulled the plug. Now they’ve improved it and introduced iTunes Connect, a service that works with the Apple Music library.

The lesson: Give it the old college try. Remember that sometimes you might want to fix your mistakes and move forward, but you shouldn’t judge yourself too quickly. It might take time to see that a new feature is not catching on. “Also, you can take your old mistakes and develop new ideas,” just as Apple did with Ping, he concluded.

A podcast of Friedman’s talk by Matthew Passy is available on Soundcloud.

For another take on Friedman’s talk, see this blog post by Marc Weinstein, CEO of Ascent Communications.

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