Dennis Richie was one of the most important computer pioneers. His language, C, is at the foundation of all operating systems in common use today. If you want some code to run on every smartphone, every desktop, and every server, you write it in C. If you got rid of all the C compilers, Apple couldn’t build Mac OS or iOS, Microsoft couldn’t build Windows, and Google couldn’t build Android or their servers. It is no exaggeration to say that all the most important software in the world is written in C.
Another new pattern: the expansion of the iPhone product line down to free-with-a-contract pricing. Apple did this not by creating a new “low-end” model, but by keeping the 3GS around for another year. This move seems so obvious that I’m disappointed in myself for not having predicted it. Operations wise, the 3GS doesn’t just use cheaper components, but because Apple has been making it for two and a half years, they’ve surely streamlined the manufacturing process.
The most important cost savings is the value of simply keeping the factory doors open. For technology components manufacturers, costs break down into two categories: fixed and operational. The fixed costs can be huge. A new chip fab (factory) costs over a billion dollars. Companies like Intel spend the first several years just paying for the R&D and the factory. An Intel processor doesn’t actually start making them any money until they have a newer high-end chip, and the “obsolete” chip gets sold at discount prices. Without the fixed costs, the discount prices have a healthy profit margin.
Video game consoles are built around this model. They keep roughly the same price and the same specs over their lifetime. For the first few years, consoles are a huge bargain: the manufacturers actually loose money on them. Near the end of their lifetime, the components are laughably obsolete, but the price is justified by the huge library of video games they run. This drives their design. Hard disks were added only reluctantly, since their platters don’t get cheaper. Chips are good. And custom anything (processors, controllers, cases) is the best, as R&D is a pure front-end cost which keeps the console distinctive in later years.
Apple knows streamlined manufacturing, and it shows in the iPhone 4′s design. Using an antenna and two panes of glass for the case minimizes materials costs. As does a small battery. Small and thin, few buttons: it’s not just for looks, it’s to maximize the factory’s lifetime. The iPhone 4 was designed to be a third-world discount product. But for now, it’s cheaper to keep making the 3GS in an old factory than to put old components in an iPhone 4.
In thinking back on Steve Jobs, I remember an insight I had years ago, while he was at NeXT. Most people in the computer industry are either perfectionists or pragmatists. The perfectionists do well in academia, where it doesn’t matter that their big ideas take years to turn into practical products (think Donald Knuth.) The pragmatists do well in the private sector, where a steady stream of adequate hacks trump elegant designs. Think Microsoft under Bill Gates: they had a reputation for shipping a laughable 1.0, followed by a nearly respectable 2.0, and then kill the competition with 3.0. Compare the Mozilla Foundation, which disappeared and left MS Internet Explorer with a monopoly while they perfected their browser. Or think of well-designed but expensive SCSI disks, which got eaten alive by the inconvenient, cost-cutting ATA format. Or BSD vs. Linux. (Or both vs. GNU Herd, which never shipped.) And on and on.
Of all the paradoxes of Steve Jobs, this is perhaps the most important. He was a perfectionist who didn’t miss deadlines.
Here is my letter to my grandchildren which I wrote this summer. I’ve scrambled it to discourage you, dear reader, from reading it. So why am I linking to it? So the Internet Archive and other spiders will find it and archive it permanently. That way, once leppik.net is long gone, my descendants will simply need to know that it was there, and that the URL was http://www.leppik.net/david/7gen/1_OtherGrandchildren.html in 2012. (I hope I’ll be able to entice the spider to archive it by 2012.)