Focusing is about saying no. You’ve got to say no, no, no.
Steve Jobs

Last night I spent an entire hour watching this video of a Steve Jobs Q&A with the audience at the 1997 Worldwide Developer’s Conference. It’s incredible to see Jobs so eloquently and pompously describe the future of cloud computing today before Microsoft had even acquired Hotmail.

I discovered the video thanks to a post by John Gruber reacting to Google’s announcement of Project Tango, a prototype technology that turns your cell phone into a 3D scanner.

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Gruber draws a contrast between the Apple and Google strategies of product development. Google begins with the technology, then experiments, iterates and eventually launches a “beta” product. They are essentially a research and development laboratory that occasionally launches products to support their innovation. From driverless cars to home automation to domestic robots to space elevators, Google prioritizes what could be over the user experience of their current products.

Apple, on the other hand, starts with the final product first. In Jobs’ own words:

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it.

Rather than working on dozens of experimental technologies to see what may eventually lead to a successful product, Apple starts with a clearly defined vision for the product they want to create, and then they develop the necessary technology.

I have seen a parallel in civil society. Most civil society organizations prefer the Google strategy — launching dozens of experimental, iterative initiatives to see which will take shape and eventually lead to social change. Fundar, one of the largest transparency organizations in Latin America has developed dozens of experimental platforms, as has the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness and the Smart Citizen Foundation in Chile. In the US, the Sunlight Foundation and Code for America are constantly developing and iterating various platforms.

Few civil society organizations come to mind that have adopted the Apple strategy — focusing on impact and user experience first, and then working backward to develop the necessary campaigns and platforms. From the tech-centric NGOs, perhaps Ushahidi and Mapbox (though Mapbox is a company). From more traditional NGOs, perhaps AARP and Planned Parenthood — both of which have clearly defined objectives and work to constantly refine the user experience for their members.

I’m not necessarily advocating one strategy over the other. Sometimes we need to experiment and take risks; other times we need to focus on impact and adoption.