“There’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product”

Steve Jobs in 1995:

There’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.

Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.

This is why almost all successful startups have founders who understand business, design, and technology. Product development is the process of navigating a maze – not three separate mazes, but a single maze that intersects all these functions. The people navigating the maze need the full authority of the company behind them.

FiftyThree

Steve Jobs predicted that tablet computers would become so dominant that “PCs would become like trucks” – special-purpose industrial devices. Skeptics replied that tablets were only useful for consumption and not creation and therefore couldn’t replace PCs, to which Jobs said:

We are just scratching the surface on the kinds of apps for the iPad…I think there are lots of kinds of content that can be created on the iPad. When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report, I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s 1 percent of the time. The software will get more powerful. I think your vision would have to be pretty short to think these can’t grow into machines that can do more things, like editing video, graphic arts, productivity. You can imagine all of these content creation possibilities on these kind of things. Time takes care of lots of these things.

History supports Jobs’ argument. In the past, new user interfaces led to new categories of creation applications. Back in the 70s and 80s, when computers had text-based interfaces, word processors and spreadsheets were invented. In the 80s and 90s, when computers had graphical interfaces, presentation and image editors proliferated. Jobs was simply predicting that historical patterns would repeat.

Today we are announcing that Andreessen Horowitz is leading a $15M Series A investment in FiftyThree, a company whose goal is to build the essential suite of mobile tools for creativity. You might know FiftyThree as the company behind the iPad app Paper. Paper has been embraced by millions of everyday creators, and has won dozens of awards (including Apple’s App of the Year). It is also one of the top grossing iPad productivity apps ever. But this is only the beginning of FiftyThree’s ambitious plans.

The FiftyThree team spent their careers working on breakthrough computing projects, including lead roles on Office, Kinect, Sonos, and the Xbox. Particularly relevant was a project they led at Microsoft called Courier that has been widely praised as a visionary take on tablet computing (unfortunately, Courier was never brought to market).

FiftyThree didn’t need to raise money, but decided that the opportunity was so large that it made sense to accelerate their efforts with additional capital and resources. They’ll be expanding their engineering teams in New York and Seattle, and will broaden their offerings across software, services, and hardware.

I first met the founders in New York in 2011, and have since spent a lot of time with them. I’m convinced that they are one of the most innovative design and engineering teams in the world. In the past, they reimagined how we play games, view images, listen to music, create documents, and more. With FiftyThree, they are rethinking the very way we create and collaborate on ideas. I couldn’t be more excited to be involved.

Embrace the medium

An obvious but surprisingly under-practiced design principle is to “embrace the medium.”  Applied to software, this means building applications that take advantage of the strengths of the platform instead of trying to mimic the strengths of another platform.

iPhone and Wii games provide many stark abuses of this principle. Call of Duty is perhaps the single best franchise on the XBox and PS3, but the Wii version is almost unplayable.   They basically just did a straight port of the game, with worse graphics and using the Wiimote as a shaky aiming device.  It’s not an accident that the best Wii games are made exclusively for the Wii (and that most of those games are made by Nintendo itself).

iPhone games are perhaps even worse violators of the “embrace the medium” principle.  Recently I was thinking about downloading Madden 2010, but as soon as I saw the screenshots I knew I’d hate it:

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 8.03.58 AM

You can see they are trying to force the XBox/PS3 control scheme onto a device with completely different set strengths and weaknesses. The iPhone’s strengths are:  touchscreen, gestures, accelerometer, networked, always with you. Its weaknesses:  no buttons, small screen, poor graphics/processor (compared to consoles).  The best games – Flight Control, Spider, Rolando – are designed from scratch to take advantage of the iPhone’s strengths.  Take Flight Control as an example:

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 8.10.04 AM

You guide the planes by mapping their routes with your finger.  It’s such a simple, elegant and fun game, and one that could only exist on the iPhone.  It embraces the iPhone-ness instead of fighting it.