How would the iPhone innovation have happened if O365 Digital Workplace was in place?

It is now more than a decade since the iPhone was launched in January 2007. Back then, much of the technology supporting enterprise social networking and the modern digital workplace was in its infancy. Much of the benefit claimed for the modern digital workplace is from the speed of innovation i.e. new ideas to value capture, that digital workplaces can facilitate. The iPhone launch of the smartphone phenomena is arguably the greatest innovation of our time and indeed a driver for today’s digital workplaces. It therefore seems appropriate that we take a deep dive into the inside story on how the iPhone was developed. Reflecting on whether the iPhone development may have benefited from, say, the availability of the O365 digital workplace, we can start to understand the true opportunity in accelerating corporate innovation initiatives. Insights from the iPhone development have been gained mostly from Brian Merchant’s recent book on “The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone”.

3Es of Innovation

We employ a networking innovation model we call the 3Es of Innovation (Explore, Engage, Exploit) to frame the innovation process we are describing. Essentially, the model aims to trace an innovation from the explore network, where ideas are formed and progressed through experimentation to the point where more resources are required to progress. This requires the ‘Engagement’ of the resource holders. Once engagement has been achieved, a different sort of focused implementation network is then required to deliver on the innovation.

The Social Network that Made the iPhone

It would be naïve to believe that one could build the entire influence network that led to the development of the iPhone, but here is our attempt using information mined from Merchant’s insights: 


What had become apparent was that with the iPhone, the innovation was not a single Explore, Engage, Exploit flow, but more like a cascade of 3Es flows. At the top level of aggregation, we could describe the 3Es Flow as:

However, this would do an injustice to the potential show stoppers that the exploitation team had to overcome in delivering the product we see today. Each of these challenges might be described as requiring incremental innovations, but in effect they were substantial 3Es innovation flows in their own right. The deployment of the toughened Gorilla Glass touch screen; the custom RISC chip processors that enabled IOS, a cut down OSX operating system to function; a security system to withstand the some of the world’s most aggressive hackers; a 3rd Party App store that opened up a whole new software industry for App development; an integrated camera to compete with standalone cameras; the porting of Google maps to run on a phone; and the list goes on.

So, the exploitation stage resembles more of a cascading cycle of smaller scope innovation than a pristine Gantt planning chart. The Merchant book does not mention an Agile development methodology being formally employed, but an informal Agile approach is perhaps the best description of the approach, once the go ahead was given to the phone project.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good is easy. The iPhone has become the most profitable product of all time. The Bad is that the iPhone team was driven to the point where their health and work/life balance became non-existent. Shockingly, one of the iPhone team noted that 36 of his Apple colleagues have died since that period. A majority of the iPhone team no longer work at Apple. The Ugly is that many might see that this style of intense, winner takes all, development is the only way to succeed in the Tech industry. But does it need to be so?

Could the iPhone still have been developed in the Modern Digital Workplace?

Merchant’s reporting says little about the “office” systems deployed by Apple at the time, other than a comment about the huge software libraries that had been built up over time, that could be drawn on for rapid prototyping and development. No mention was made of distributed work, or working from home. The iPhone team was essentially locked up in a secured environment, not unlike secured military sites, with little if any of the comfort facilities that we see in today’s modern workplace environments. How important this tightly co-located, hot-house development environment was to the eventual success of the iPhone, one can only speculate about. Merchant mentions the lack of diversity in the iPhone team, but one can’t blame Apple for that, as it seems symptomatic across Silicon Valley.

What we can say in terms of collaboration is that the O365 inner loop, outer loop construct is somewhat supportive of the 3Es innovation model we use to illustrate the iPhone innovation.

Explore Phase

One could have imagined that the ENRI (Explore New Rich Interactions) research community would have benefited from the reach and interaction opportunities afforded by an outer loop Yammer installation. In fact, the other ‘Explore’ activities like the Gorilla Glass, RISC Chips, App store, integrated camera would all have benefited from more extensive outer loop support. One could argue that more options could have been surfaced and the required external connections made more rapidly, rather than what appears to be the more serendipitous connections that actually occurred.

Exploit Phase

As for the inner loop support provided by MS Teams (or Slack, Hipchat or similar chat-based tools) maps nicely to the ‘Exploit’ phase, where traditional project teams are employed. It is possible that Apple would have employed tools like these to help keep track of activities within teams. The Merchant book mentions an internal bug tracking, task and project management tool called Radar, which could also have been used to connect developers of the iPhone, but perhaps really only those developing software code. Team collaboration beyond software development tasks are required, however, so no doubt a chat-based tool like MS Teams could have offered broader collaborative support across teams or to individuals not directly related to the software effort, for example, human interface designers.

Engage Phase

This phase connects the explore and exploit phases. In effect, it describes the human authority granted to proceed from the exploration phase to a selected exploitation theme. More often than not for Apple and the iPhone, engagement was about getting Steve Jobs’ approval to proceed. For all large corporations there is a Steve Jobs equivalent, commonly called the ‘executive committee’, whose inner workings are perhaps less transparent than a single authoritarian leader like Jobs. What is the same though is that anyone looking to enact change in an organisation will need to understand the human influence network surrounding these key decision makers. It is this critical phase that is least supported by the modern digital workplace. For the most part, the focus of modern digital workplaces are time efficiencies, not strategic connections.

Steve Jobs

In the case of Apple and Steve Jobs, it became apparent that those that had the ability to change his mind on an important issue were more often than not those that had a long history with him. These were people with which he had developed a rare level of trust, over an extended period. Perhaps these people are not too hard to identify; internal informal networks seem to surface them well. However, in large organisations, finding a path to the ‘influencers’ can still be problematic. More likely you will need to influence more than one of the influencers as well. This is where social network analysis (SNA) comes in. To a limited degree, the O365 Workplace Analytics can infer staff connections through Email and Calendar events. Workplace Analytics targets productivity related to time efficiencies. Connections to key influencers may still be identifiable though by understanding who had shared calendar and email connections with the key influencers.

Key Areas where the Modern Digital Workplace could have accelerated the iPhone Development

I should mention here that Steve Jobs’ management style was not consistent with an open, transparent and broadly connected workplace; and he wasn’t always a great fan of Microsoft, so these comments are purely academic.

  • Expanded the reach of the ‘Explore networks’ for more extensive and diverse contributions e.g. ENRI community, iPod Extensions.
  • Potentially surfaced more options and connections to external technology providers earlier in the process.
  • Provided a more ‘inclusive’ collaboration network to a more diverse peripheral community; leading to less organisational tension/competition.
  • Provided teams with a collaborative environment beyond the traditional software engineering development environments and an ability to more effectively connect between teams.

Key Areas where the Modern Digital Workplace Would have been less than Effective

While the modern digital workplace facilitates a more connected workplace, the depth of these connections is somewhat limited. For example, the Steve Jobs’ ‘inner circle’ is an intensely human one, built up from long years of shared experiences. It is hard to see the creation of inner circle relationships like these being facilitated by anything other than extended face to face interactions. The ‘Engagement’ phase is substantially characterised by trusted human connections with the key resource holders.

While the modern digital workplace might fall short in creating these deep connections, it does play a part in keeping them connected over time. So overall, I think that the modern digital workplace and O365 would have been good for the iPhone team. If not in speeding up development, by facilitating a broader, more inclusive network, the human damage, as reported by Merchant, could have been largely avoided.



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