Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On Concept Videos

When John Gruber called Microsoft's "Future Vision" video 'futuristic bullshit', Joey deVilla suggested that he wouldn't say the same thing about Apple's "Knowledge Navigator" video. I disagreed in the comments, but decided to write the long form response here.

I disagreed in part because I suspected that John Gruber would, in fact, say the same thing about Apple's Knowledge Navigator, AT&T's "You Will" and similar efforts (and he has).

But mostly, I disagreed because I felt that these kinds of videos, while interesting, are a distraction from going out and executing. The work of speculating about the distant future, and particularly the work of creating a polished concept that you can share with the world about the distant future is, at best, a tangent from the work of delivering innovative products today and tomorrow, and at worst, an outright distraction.

I'm not suggesting that Microsoft, Apple and other companies shouldn't spend any time putting thought into future interaction models. I'm just suggesting that they should do so in a particular way, heavily loaded towards the relatively near term, increasingly light on effort as you get farther out into speculative territory, and always focused on what that means for your product development in the near and medium term.

In order to innovate, you need to look ahead. You can't just focus on incremental enhancements to products you already have -- evolutionary improvements will lead you to local maxima, but not to product breakthroughs. So if you want to develop innovative products, you need to use your creativity and imagine where your company and your products might head. You can even talk about that with other people in your company and your industry. You don't need a polished well-produced video to do that.

Based on your vision of the future, you can set long-term goals for research and acquisition, long-term investments, decide if you need to invest in speech recognition and natural language processing, new materials, or CNC machines for milling aluminum.

You're also going to look at the medium term to decide if you should plot a course directly to the end goal, or if the products you can deliver in a few years look very different from the ones you're heading for in the long term. You might start out with a vision for a tablet but decide to deliver a phone first.

But even this kind of creative imagining can only take you so far. You need to focus most of your energy on the next product development cycle (or two). You need to design and deliver real products that real people will buy, not videos for products you aren't even working out. Figure out what you can build now or build soon, and get started on it. Real artists ship.

Of course, concepts may take shape during product development. If you need to build a number of mutually-conflicting prototypes to experiment with the form factor of the iPad, or you decide to kill a tablet project because you're not happy with your results, these are both product development decisions based on prototypes that may have made sense for those companies.

You might notice that Microsoft had been publicizing its Courier concepts where Apple hadn't breathed a word publicly about the iPad. John Gruber argues that Apple users the attention it gets for real products:
Apple today would never release to the public a concept video speculating on what sort of products they might be making 10 or 20 years from now. The attention of the public and the media is a rare and precious commodity. Apple today uses what attention it gets to focus on actual new products, ones that you can go out and actually buy and use.
There's something to that stance, although it's also true that in Apple's case, third parties fill the void and release rumours and patents so that interested Apple fans can spend all day reading about concepts that might never be real. Apple isn't doing that, but the net effect is perhaps not as different as one might like to believe.

In any case, making prototypes and exploring paths that you decide not to release aren't what I'm objecting to. It's spending effort building documents and videos about technology you haven't really considered building, started building, or even worked out the details for. That's not product development. It's not even science fiction. It's fantasy.

As fantasy, I found each of these reasonably interesting. I liked the AT&T "You Will" ads, but I don't think they helped AT&T build new products or convinced me to give AT&T any money for its current products. I liked these the way I liked Minority Report (except, well, Minority Report had a real storyline, and better acting, and ...)

If the companies developing these concepts were doing it to add some verisimilitude to a movie set in the future, I'd be ok with that.

If your business is spinning a compelling fiction, then go ahead and publish your fantasy of future technology. If your business is making and selling software and hardware to real customers, then I urge you to spend very little time writing fantasies and spend as much time as possible developing hardware and software that you can sell.

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