Jobs is ahead of his time in other ways too: He has taught his entire organization to play in the span of product generations rather than product introductions. Apple designers say that now, each design they create has to be presented alongside a mock-up of how that design might evolve in the second or third generation. That should ensure Apple’s continued success for a long time, aided, of course, by the tremendous momentum that Jobs’s leadership has provided the company.
I think this way of thinking about products is a big part of Apple’s secret sauce, and one of the most important things I observed working there. Apple is so good at having a “story” in mind for its products, both in the near term (e.g. “Here are the major “tentpole” marketing features for the next release…”) and the far term (e.g. “Building feature or API X will pave the way for feature Z in the next release.”). This is why Apple is so uncannily good at acting upon new opportunities in adjacent markets (when you really think about it, you can draw a direct line from CD burners in Macs to iTunes to the iPod to the iPhone)—they’re really adept at using every release not only to incrementally improve and market the product, but also to move an entire platform forward just a bit at a time.
In my experience, this is way of thinking that startups have a difficult time with. Some of it may have to do with the nature of web products, which, unlike most of Apple’s products, are updated continuously and not conceived in terms of old-fashioned “releases.” Some of it may also have to do with the somewhat chaotic organizational and market dynamics of a typical startup, which can make long term planning hard. Still, I think most startups could learn a lot from the way Apple always has both a short term and a long term story in mind for its products.