Apple’s Original iPhone Was A Minimum Viable Product

Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, wrote a post at Techcrunch a couple of days ago lamenting the lean startup movement and the minimum viable product (MVP):

The problem with this paradigm is that it isn’t always the best way to build disruptive technologies, which, as Michael Arrington noted yesterday, lately seem in short supply. How many big ideas “failed fast” and were discarded just because they were half-finished?

If Steve Jobs had shipped the minimum viable iPhone, might we have concluded that people preferred a keyboard? If Tesla had manufactured the minimum viable car, would anyone still be driving it?

Maybe the reason we don’t have big ideas is because our entire approach to building them is sometimes so frugal with time, money, and belief. Lean startup techniques have revolutionized how we build software, but the lean startup has also turned the a startup’s only initial asset – the conviction that an idea will work — into a villain rather than the hero. This is why we so often see startups pivot rather than persevere.

The lean startup movement is often taken to extremes. The point is to develop the minimum product necessary to start conversations with customers. Lean startup is not a one-size fits all. It’s a determination, a very hard one at that, by the founders of the business.

Since Glenn brought it up, let’s talk about the iPhone’s first release. Glenn suggests it was not a minimum viable product. It was.

Here’s a device that had a limited number of apps, no way to load more (except as browser apps, which few were going to do), no copy and paste, no notifications, no connection to an Exchange server back-end. The entire product was a MVP trial balloon and it is easy to discern the hypotheses. Would people be okay without a keyboard? Would the full Internet really work on a portable device? Could we charge a full price for the device so we can minimize the carriers? Can we get carriers to allow us to be the ones who distribute the OS? Will people accept the phone as an app? Will people accept using the browser for apps instead of loading them onto the device like every general-purpose computing platform before it? Will people prefer to carry a single device that does everything over distinct devices like iPods?

To some of these the answer was a resounding yes. Phone as app in exchange for a full screen browser that acts like a desktop browser? YES! Single device for carrying music and have calls and messaging? YES!

And to some things the answer was no. Full-priced device? Apple issued a credit to early adopters within a month or two of shipping. It was clear Apple was going to have to follow the US standard of subsidized devices. Apps loaded onto the device? A year later we had the App Store because it was clear the experience of making browser apps wasn’t enough.

Apple used the initial iPhone to start a conversation with customers. They saw how customers were using the device, they talked to customers on tech support and watched what they posted on forums, and of course Apple leveraged the Apple Stores for detailed insight.

A minimum viable product doesn’t mean the smallest possible product, made the cheapest possible way, in the shortest amount of time. It means the minimum app that a customer will find exciting, be willing to use, and acts as a catalyst for conversations about what could be better. Sometimes that is a simple product and sometimes it takes years to get there.