Date posted: January 10, 2014
Written by: Rob Witman

Pontifications on Product

All of the external signs were present; Apple TV product IDs appearing in developers’ Flurry results, numerous media pieces calling for native apps (CNNMoney, Gigaom, Forbes, etc), the announcement of controllers at WWDC (via Gizmodo), and finally the Forbe’s piece on the last minute removal of an Apple TV announcement as leaked by prominent Apple Insider MG Siegler. Yet no announcement arrived and the Apple TV spent another year with minor software updates and various content improvements. Externally I felt this was the perfect year to announce native apps for the Apple TV due to the impending next generation consoles arriving in November among other reasons.

So why in the world did Apple not release this vaunted new product?  Quite simply, because it wasn’t ready.  Granted many products are released before they are ready, but when you have the cache (and cash) that Apple does, that doesn’t happen very often. 

Being a product person, it is often fascinating to watch when and how products are released.  Few companies have the flexibility to release products when they want to versus when they ‘have to’ per revenue targets or other hard deadlines.  Video games offer numerous case studies on this topic.

Take the amazingly popular and profitable Battlefield video game series.  Frankly, it wasn’t ready for release last fall, but they released it anyway.  There were a lot of factors that went into that decision, but the results were massive sales (due to the brand recognition and marketing) but extremely frustrated customers.  Economically, the decision was sound but the product suffered. 

On the other side is the highly anticipated new game called Watch Dogs.  Despite the extremely high profile of the game (it was being bundled with new game systems) they chose NOT to release it last fall.  This had severe financial implications for the team at Ubisoft, but they were open about the fact that the game just wasn’t ready.  Maybe that was due to the release of GTA V, or maybe not, either way they put it off.

In the end, both games will inevitably require numerous software updates as bugs are found and fixed so neither are being shipped in their true ‘final’ form.  Both will probably make massive amounts of money for their studies.  So which decision was right?

Considering the different goals of each it is quite easy to argue that both were good decisions.  For Battlefield it was more important to be in stores along side the latest release from their competitor for the holiday season than launching the ‘perfect’ title.  People would buy it regardless, many before anyone had played it long enough to know about the shortfalls.  Ubisoft on the other hand is attempting to launch brand new IP with Watch Dogs.  If it isn’t successful, there will be no Watch Dogs 2, 3 and 4 and thus the investment into the IP will be a complete loss versus being amortized over the entire portfolio.  As such, it was much more important that they bring a more polished game to market from Day 1.  You only get one chance to make a first impression after all. 

I could talk for hours on this subject, but to wrap it up, product releases are classic cases of engineering tradeoffs.  Those of us who love well designed products want to wait until it is ‘done’  (which is never).  The business team needs to book revenue.  As long as the product fills a customer need, they often push it out as soon as they can.  Who wins depends on many factors, most critically senior management.

In the case of Apple, Steve Jobs was a perfectionist through and through and his legacy still drives the culture today.  Products don’t come out until they are polished far beyond what other companies would release.  Being an engineering and a perfectionist myself, I can appreciate this and wish more companies could afford to be so passionate.  The Apple TV update (native apps or a physical TV or something else all together) will launch when it is ready.