To me, the iPhone is obvious. Not that they didn't sweat the details and make an amazing, at least on the surface, UI, but the iPhone looks good in large part because Motorola, and Palm and Nokia look so bad. The Palm, when it was the original creation of Jeff Hawkins was brilliant. The visionless bean counters have been riding that now old spark of inspiration into their early corporate graves. Motorola's phones are.... painful. It is as if UI to these guys means Urinary Infection.
So the iPhone shines at least in large part because the other vendors suck so badly. If everyone else didn't suck, it would still be impressive, just less so.
And so this brings me to the fundamental question. Why does everything suck?
Now obviously everything doesn't suck, but so much stuff does suck by companies that have the money to not suck and so the question is why? There are many answers to this question. Some big picture and some pretty micro. But taking a look at Apple and the iPhone is instructive. Why is Apple so continuously able to make great products?
Steve Jobs should not be running Apple. John Sculley should. Or Michael Spindler. Or (fill in the blank). You need someone that really knows how to "run a company". Steve Jobs was pushed out of Apple and his return is an accident of history. Had he not returned, the professional managers would have killed it. It is the conventional wisdom that guys like Steve Jobs should not be CEOs. You need a bean counter. You need a glad hander. You need a manager. But not a (oh dare I say it) visionary. In the tech world that word is simultaneously both a compliment and an insult. It is only money that makes us temporarily accept that a guy like Steve Jobs, or Sergey Brin and Larry Page or Bill Gates, should be running a company. They just don't do things the "right" way - except when err... they make massive amounts of money and their "eccentricities" can be excused.
And so it goes. Unless the company gets to be incredibly successful, incredibly quickly "professional managers" come in and manage straight to mediocrity.
My thesis is this: Product companies need to be run by product people. Of course they need people who can pay the salaries and buy the desks, and manage the legal affairs, but these things do not create organizations that make great products. No single individual has all of the skills necessary to run a big company. So the question is what is really important to success and what can be "outsourced" to the rest of the management team.
To me, what the iPhone really says that is most interesting, is that there is a massive failure of leadership in the large technology companies. The fact that phones could be fixed is obvious. What needed to be done is fairly obvious. The fact that none of the multi-billion dollar companies, from Microsoft to more importantly Motorola, Nokia, and Palm could protect their multi-billion dollar businesses by doing the obvious is astonishing.
There is a major management problem in the consumer facing technology world. It is promulgated by the VCs that drive founder innovation out of management. Its promulgated by the Mckinseys of the world that view strategy in product companies as a chess game and not a process of product leadership from uniquely skilled individuals. It is promulgated by the business schools of the country that, in a self serving way, position their human output as the necessary leaders in the marketplace battle - as if you needed an MBA from Harvard Business School to realize that cell phones suck.
Product companies require a different type of leadership. Apple has it - Motorola, Palm, and Nokia don't.