The PLM State TBT: What PLM Vendors Can Learn from the "Apple Approach"

September 07, 2017 By: Stephen Porter

Welcome to this week's TBT blog post, originally published in 2011.
This is a good follow up to our series on the PLM Vendor Code of Conduct,
and once again, begs the question, "Why not?".


I hate Apple. It is not a violent hate…more of a simmering dislike. It's like someone is having this really cool party and I am not invited. I just don't fit in. I am not hip enough to get the Apple vibe. I have tried to like their products but for some reason they just don't work for me. I find myself looking for pulldowns or buttons to do the things I want and they are just not available on Apple. I also find myself offended by the closed aspects of the products. I like to be able to use different technologies together and Apple frowns upon this. I believe the collective intelligence of the market can be more powerful than the capabilities of a single company. At the same time, I am somewhat envious and impressed by the success that Apple has achieved and I wanted to understand it better. To this end, I loaded up Walter Isaacson's biography, Steve Jobs, on my Nook (note I am having similar feelings of aversion toward Amazon these days) and dove into a fascinating depiction of a very complex man who was the driving force behind Apple's success. Steve Jobs was a complicated, driven individual who refused to compromise on the products he developed. While I don't agree with the manner in which he went about things, it is hard to argue with the end results. This article will review what elements of Apple's product development philosophy and execution product lifecycle management (PLM) vendors could learn from and how PLM software could be improved per the "Apple" approach.

I read a very interesting article last week about Jobs written by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker titled "The Tweaker"In the article, Gladwell debunks the myth that Jobs was some sort of "large scale visionary or inventor". Instead, Gladwell's contention is that he was more of a "tweaker", meaning, he would take other people's ideas and turn them into something better. Gladwell believes that being a “tweaker” can actually be more valuable than being an inventor. He cites different examples including the steam engine and how “tweakers” quadrupled the efficiency, thus making it much more useful. Jobs is famously credited with the design for the Macintosh mouse and the icons on the screen, right? Actually, he borrowed the characteristic features after visiting the engineers at Xerox’ Palo Alto Research Company (PARC). By making a deal with Xerox, he was given permission to peek inside the greatest minds in his field, and in return, he provided some favorable pre-IPO stock pricing to Xerox. The point is, he took their ideas and made them better. When Xerox tried to productize the PARC, the product failed, but obviously the Apple II and the Macintosh were very successful. The reason is Jobs’ attention to detail. This excerpt from the article captures it pretty well:

“I'll know it when I see it.” That was Jobs’ credo, and until he saw it his perfectionism kept him on edge. He looked at the title bars—the headers that run across the top of windows and documents—that his team of software developers had designed for the original Macintosh and decided he didn't like them. He forced the developers to do another version, and then another, about twenty iterations in all, insisting on one tiny tweak after another, and when the developers protested that they had better things to do he shouted, "Can you imagine looking at that every day? It's not just a little thing. It's something we have to do right."

The takeaway for PLM vendors is to spend more time focused on the user experience, and rather than trying to reinvent the whole paradigm, put their energy into refining the experience of the user in a very deliberate way. Most PLM systems today are very crude from a user interface perspective and could be improved significantly. Obviously, some are better than others but if companies would adopt Jobs’ single-minded demand for excellence, I think the adoption rates and productivity gains offered by PLM could increase exponentially.

Another interesting topic for discussion is Jobs’ need for control of all aspects of his product. He refused to allow third-party hardware to run his software, and when Apple developed the IPod, it took three people over six months to finally prevail on him to release ITunes on Windows. His commitment to the closed system was as famous as was Bill Gates’ opposite approach. Which way is better and how does this apply to product lifecycle management? There have been numerous discussions about the benefit of turnkey PLM versus collaborative models with multiple applications working together. There have been strong arguments on both sides. I think this discussion mirrors some of the factors that came into play with both Jobs’ and Gates’ approach. Another article by Bianca Bosker of the Huffington Posts discusses the contrasting style and abilities of both technology titans. She references Isaacson as saying while Gates was “conventionally smarter”, Jobs was able to marry “emotion” and “aesthetics” to technology. The main theme of the article is about the different styles, and the interesting fact is that eventually both Jobs and Gates acknowledged that each approach has merit. I think this is true in PLM as well. Fully functional turnkey PLM that controls all data management and process can be very powerful. The ability to provide a consistent interface and control mechanism throughout a company has merit. On the other side of the coin, being able to allow different organizations to use tools that are ideally suited for their requirements and to have applications that integrate these applications together to allow all users to work effectively can be just as worthwhile. It is really up to individual companies to decide which approach works best for them. The fact they have that option is important and I think PLM vendors need to be able to accommodate both approaches.

In conclusion, I don't think that I will ever be able to appreciate the Apple approach as an end user of their products. I am wired differently I guess, and have too much history in the PC world. That doesn't prevent me from admiring a well-run company that has executed flawlessly on their product development process, supply chain, and end products. Apple is a treasure and I hope that future leaders of Apple and other companies will learn from Jobs’ example and take the positive elements of his approach and apply them elsewhere. In the end, our creativity and energy will be what differentiates our products and solutions from others and I think PLM could benefit from some of these elements in future products. While I am not an Apple lover and I am typing this blog on my Dell computer while reading emails and listening to music on my Samsung Galaxy phone, I do salute the fact that Apple has achieved great things and I am sad about Steve Jobs untimely departure from this world.