The Benefits of a Blank Slate

nails chalk boardWhen it first launched, I couldn’t figure out how Apple was positioning the iPad. Was it meant to be a laptop replacement or a complementary device? It was meant for more casual usage, but then why make iWork (Apple’s Office semi-equivalent) one of the initial apps? Others complained about its lack of a camera and various other features that are de rigueur on conventional computers. But the sales figures speak for themselves: Despite the ambiguity, there is clearly enough core value to the product that people will pay for its benefits.

The iPad shows the value of launching a product that is a blank slate. It’s physically a blank slate, but also conceptually it’s open to interpretation. The lessons to take away are to have the discipline not to over-determine or over-spec products when feeling out a new category. These are the keys to reducing the risks of trying something new.

Some may say that Apple could be lackadaisical about determining the intent of the iPad because they have blindly loyal customers that will buy anything blessed by Steve Jobs. That may have been true in the past, but Apple today is a mainstream consumer brand, and many of its customers today are not its traditional niche base. They buy based on perceived value, some of which is functional value (what it does for them) and some of it emotional value (how it makes them feel).

It takes great discipline — not lack of it — to leave a product so open to determination by consumers and, in Apple’s case, developer partners. The typical temptation is to button up the product definition very precisely so that you know exactly how to pitch it to consumers and retailers, and how it stacks up against the competition.

This doesn’t mean you should aim to launch vanilla products that lack clear value propositions. There still needs to be a hook to generate interest, but when you’re entering or creating an emerging category that’s still in flux, you should not prematurely shut down options.

In the iPad’s case, there has been considerable interest from verticals such as healthcare and retail. If Apple had over-constrained the iPad it may have missed out on people outside its traditional markets seeing the opportunities with the device and feeling like it was open enough for them to try out experimentally.

Likewise, it takes great discipline to leave features out of a product. I’m sure Apple knew full well people would complain about features that seemed “easy” or “cheap” to include, like a camera. Yet they got left out anyway. Most companies would add them in, with the assumption that the more features there are, the more potential customers product might attract.

This may be fine when doing an incremental product in an established category, but when trying to enter or create a nascent category (such as tablet computers) it is often a better strategy to launch something more minimal that takes less resources and time to develop and support, and then carefully pay attention to market feedback to shape the next generation offering. If you can de-risk even further by shifting risk burden to partners (such as app and accessory developers), so much the better.

Remember Webvan, the dotcom-bubble company that tried to reinvent grocery shopping with home delivery? It so overbuilt a custom warehouse and delivery infrastructure that it couldn’t survive the lower-than-expected demand. In contrast, Twitter has succeeded with an open and minimalist approach similar to Apple’s. Its customer base has largely determined Twitter’s purpose and functionality through demonstrated usage. If you’re paying attention, it’s like free market research.

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