To boldly go, or the initial iPhone as a minimum viable product archetype
April 26, 2022
by Lance

One of the more central concepts in product marketing is the minimum viable product.  Especially when entering a new market, the question of what functionality to include in a product and what to leave out is critical to a timely and successful product launch. Leave out too much and the product flops.  Put in more than is necessary and costs and schedule balloon.

The second sin can in fact be worse than the first because you delay engaging real customers with a real product by bloating the requirements and hence learn more slowly what is really important. Many dramatically new products don’t become highly successful until version 2 anyhow, so better to get started sooner rather than later.

The most stunning recent example of a minimum viable product is the Apple iPhone.  While there are many marketing triumphs in the iPhone, including the fact that one cannot even activate the phone without downloading iTunes, I want to focus on the bold choices in product functionality, and lack thereof.  While a lot has been written about what was included in the product, it is instructive from a marketing standpoint to look at what is not included. (This has analogies to strategic planning, where what is not in the plan can be more important than what is.)

It is shocking to see what is not yet included in the iPhone.  I am running version 1.1.3.  I bought the very first Macintosh model ever sold. Cut-and-Paste was one of the “new” functions that really distinguished the Macintosh in my home from the lonely IBM PC XT that was sitting next to it.  Cut-and Paste worked in all Mac programs and allowed one to move text and even images (this was a long time ago) from one program to another.  Cool.  Now Apple introduces the iPhone without Cut-and-Paste!  What chutzpah.  It isn’t even in release 1.1.  Try getting some text from Mail to Notes.  No can do.

When Palm came out with the Palm Pilot over a decade ago it had an amazingly quick and universal Find function. In Mac’s today that function is called Spotlight.  Blackberry has a Find function too, of course. Yet on the iPhone you can search the Internet but you cannot search for a contact in your phone list.  You know that Find must have been planned to be in the product.  In SMS or Mail you can start to type a contact name and you see the alternatives pop up.  But not in Phone.  You can bet that engineers were working on it and it wasn’t ready.  “Ship it,” said someone with brass that dragged on the cement and emitted sparks.

My purpose is not to rag on the iPhone.  Quite the opposite.  It is a highly successful product launch that extends Apple’s business into an important adjacent space.  My purpose is to highlight the brilliance with which Apple defined the minimum viable product.  Their customers are willing to wait for key functionality to show up in return for the cool features that the product offers today in version 1.x.

One of the most important tasks of the product marketing manager is to come up with the correct definition of the minimum viable product.  The minimum viable product definition should be accompanied by a prioritized list of additional features that will increase profits and market share.  Sadly, it is easy for people to say that a product has to do everything that the competition does, but this simply isn’t true.  (Some marketing managers go further and try to superset everything that all of the competitors have even though no one competitor has all of these features.  This is particularly pusillanimous.)

Why will the customer buy your product?  And for each function that you want in version 1.0, when will the lack of these functions cause your customers not to buy?  Indeed, one of my favorite questions for new product marketing is, “if we don’t put this function in, what customers will we lose and what will they do instead?”

If Apple can launch a smartphone without Find or Cut-and-Paste, what can you cut out of your product requirements?


Addendum: As predicted, Apple continues to add functionality. Version 2 added Find and version 3 adds cut-and-paste. And on and on and on to world dominance.