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The iPhone as a Minimum Viable Product Archetype

Posted on Sunday, Feb 24th 2008

By Lance Glasser, Guest Author

One of the more central concepts in product marketing is the minimum viable product. Especially when entering a new market, the question of what functionality to include in a product and what to leave out is critical to a timely and successful product launch. Leave out too much and the product flops. Put in more than is necessary and costs and schedule balloon.

The second sin can in fact be worse than the first because you delay engaging real customers with a real product by bloating the requirements and hence learn more slowly what is really important.

The most stunning recent example of a minimum viable product is the Apple iPhone. While there are many marketing triumphs in the iPhone, including the fact that one cannot even activate the phone without downloading iTunes, I want to focus on the bold choices in product functionality, and lack thereof. While a lot has been written about what was included in the product, it is instructive from a marketing standpoint to look at what is not included. (This has analogies to strategic planning, where what is not in the plan can be more important than what is.)

It is shocking to see what is not yet included in the iPhone. I am running version 1.1.3. I bought the very first Macintosh model ever sold. Cut-and-Paste was one of the “new” functions that really distinguished the Macintosh in my home from the lonely IBM PC XT that was sitting next to it. Cut-and Paste worked in all Mac programs and allowed one to move text and even images (this was a long time ago) from one program to another. Cool. Now Apple introduces the iPhone without Cut-and-Paste! What chutzpah. It isn’t even in release 1.1. Try getting some text from Mail to Notes. No can do.

When Palm came out with the Palm Pilot over a decade ago it had an amazingly quick and universal Find function. In Mac’s today that function is called Spotlight. Blackberry has a Find function too, of course. Yet on the iPhone you can search the Internet but you cannot search for a contact in your phone list. You know that Find must have been planned to be in the product. In SMS or Mail you can start to type a contact name and you see the alternatives pop up. But not in Phone. You can bet that engineers were working on it and it wasn’t ready. “Ship it,” said someone with brass that dragged on the cement and emitted sparks.

My purpose is not to rag on the iPhone. Quite the opposite. It is a highly successful product launch that extends Apple’s business into an important adjacent space. My purpose is to highlight the brilliance with which Apple defined the minimum viable product. Their customers are willing to wait for key functionality to show up in return for the cool features that the product offers today in version 1.x.

One of the most important tasks of the product marketing manager is to come up with the correct definition of the minimum viable product. The minimum viable product definition should be accompanied by a prioritized list of additional features that will increase profits and market share. Sadly, it is easy for people to say that a product has to do everything that the competition does, but this simply isn’t true.

Why will the customer buy your product? And for each function that you want in version 1.0, when will the lack of these functions cause your customers not to buy? Indeed, one of my favorite questions for new product marketing is, “if we don’t put this function in, what customers will we lose and what will they do instead?”

If Apple can launch a smartphone without Find or Cut-and-Paste, what can you cut out of your product requirements?

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I’m an big iPhone supporter. I’ve not bit the bullet yet, although I held an iPhone for over an hour on launch day. The lack of cut and paste was one reason that I didn’t buy the phone that very day. I’ve been surprised by how long it has taken Apple to bring this very important functionality to the iPhone.

This phone from Apple is clearly the best phone on the market bar none. For me there is not even a second runner up. I’m shocked at what the competition has to offer over a year after Apple announced the iPhone and its’ functionality.

I love the web browser experience on the iPhone, at least compared to anything else that is available any any other phone or PDA type device. Much ado was made about the lack of 3G connectivity on the iPhone. That lack pales in comparison to the missing cut and paste.

The visual voicemail is also such an impressive feature, one wonders why it took so long to get it on a phone in the first place. I still only get to most messages quite a bit after their urgency has passed. Messages pile up so quickly, that it often becomes impossible to check messages until when they are no longer important. Visual voicemail alone makes the iPhone worth every penny.

Add cut and paste and find, plus better integration between the phone and notes, and you’ll have the perfect complement to any busy professional, which will pay for itself in improved productivity in no time flat.

The lack of cut and paste delayed my buying decision so long, that I may not purchase until the G3 phone is out. I won’t be waiting for the G3 so much as the cut and paste and call/email/notes integration that will have real impact on productivity just as visual voicemail already does for so many.

In closing, you asked a very good question. Who do you leave out when you cut Cut & Paste. Unfortunately, the answer is that they left me out. I can’t wait to have my very own iPhone. I could care less about the eye candy, although I love to own products with great design. What I do want is the great improvement in my daily interactions with my phone and the usefulness of this activity and the improvements in my productivity that arise from well thought out design and user interface.

I predict that Microsoft, and probably Nokia and RIM and others also, will throw devices at us with features, but without the workflow user interface improvements. Even those future products will fall short of the improvements already present on today’s iPhone. There will be no contest in usability when improvements to iPhone are factored in. Two of the most important improvements, besides the additional software that will come from the upcoming SDK, will be the additions of cut & paste and of find.

I can’t wait. I would have guessed that I would have waited this long.

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