An email was circulating on the internet as part of a document release related to Apple’s App Store-based suit from Epic Games. I love this email for a lot of reasons, not least because it helps you understand the reasons Apple has remained such a major force in the industry over the past decade.
The gist of this is that SVP of Software Engineering, Bertrand Serlet, sent an email in October 2007, just three months after the iPhone was launched. In the email, Serlet outlines essentially all of the core functionality of Apple’s App Store – a company that grossed an estimated $ 64 billion in 2020. And, more importantly, has allowed countless huge internet startups and companies to start based on native. build and use these apps on the iPhone.
Forty-five minutes after the email, Steve Jobs Serlet and iPhone leader Scott Forstall responded on his iPhone, “Sure, as long as we can get it all out on Macworld on January 15th, 2008.”
Apple University should offer a course for this email.
Here it is, shared from an account I like, Internal Tech Emails, on Twitter. If you manage the account, please let me know, please write on here if you wish:
First we have the outline of Serlet. There are seven sentences outlining the main tenets of the App Store. User protection, network protection, its own developer platform and a sustainable API approach. There is a direct demand for resources – whoever we need in software development – to have it delivered as quickly as possible.
It also has a clear question at the end: “Do you agree with these goals?”
There is enough detail in the brackets for an informed reader to infer the scope and hours of work. And at no point in this email does Serlet contain any ounce of justification for these elections. In his opinion, these are the obvious and necessary frameworks to achieve the adoption of an SDK for iPhone developers.
There is no elaborate rationale for every item, which is often unnecessary in an informed context and can often act as mental baggage that telegraphs one of two things:
- You don’t think the leader you’re introducing the project to knows what they’re talking about.
- You don’t believe it and you are still trying to convince yourself.
None of these are the smartest way to deploy an initial scope of work. There is enough time to concretize the reasons for those who are less in control of the larger context.
If you’re a historian of iPhone software development, you know that developer Nullriver released Installer in the summer of 2007, a third-party installer that made it possible to natively load apps onto iPhone. At the beginning of September I think. In 2008 the much more popular Cydia followed. And there were developers who experimented with this completely unofficial way of bringing apps to the store as early as August and September, like the venerable Twitterific by Craig Hockenberry and Lights Off by Lucas Newman and Adam Betts.
While there are plenty of established documents showing Steve hesitating to allow third-party apps on the iPhone, this email sets an official schedule for when the decision has not only been made, but essentially completely made. And it’s much earlier than the apocryphal discussion of when the call was made. This is just a few weeks after the first hacking third-party attempts made their way to the iPhone, and just under two months since the first iPhone jailbreak toolchain appeared.
No need or desire is shown here for Steve to ‘ensure’ that his touch is palpable within this framework. Too often I see leaders obsessed with making sure they provide feedback and input at every turn. Why did you hire these people in the first place? Was it because of her skills and her ingenuity? Your attention to detail? Your obsessive need to get things right?
Then let them do their job.
Serlet’s email is well-written and just the right size, yes. But the reaction is just as important. A demand for what is probably too short a timeframe (the App Store was finally announced in March 2008 and shipped in July this year) raises the bar – commensurate with the urgency of asking all teams to work together on this project. This is not a side street, but the foundation of a main thoroughfare. It has to be built before anything gets to the extreme.
That effectiveness is at the core of what Apple does well when it’s good. It’s not always good, but nothing is 100% of the time and the hit record is incredibly strong over a decade of software and hardware shipped. Clear, lean communication that isn’t pampered or ambiguous, coupled with a leader who is confident in their own skills and the abilities of those they hire means you don’t have to delay the process to create a record of involvement .
One cannot exist without the other. A clear, well-argued tender or project outline sent to insecure or ineffective management becomes just fodder for territorial games or endless rounds of requests for clarification. And no matter how effective leadership is and how talented your employees are, if they do not create an environment in which there is clarity of thought welcome and rewarded then they will never achieve the bold, declarative product development they desire.
All in all, this exchange is an extremely important ephemera that underpins the entire era of the app ecosystem and an explosive growth phase for internet technology. And it’s also an encapsulation of the kind of environment that has made Apple an effective and brutally efficient company for so many years.
Can you learn from it and imitate it? Probably, but only if everyone involved is willing to create the necessary environment to promote the key elements above. Nine times out of ten there is dying management, an environment that discourages blunt position-taking and a muddy path to the exit. However, the tenth time you get magic.
And, hey, maybe we can take this opportunity to do the next meeting by email?