The tradeoff between backward compatibility and innovation

Thu, Mar 25, 2010


Steve Cheney has a thoughtful piece up detailing the inherent tradeoff faced by tech companies when it comes to balancing backwards compatibility and innovation. Cheney writes that Apple in particular has been able to strike a workable balance that gives it enough room to move forward without the risk of alienating its existing user base.

The most intelligent companies put incredible strategic thought into what features to include during the architectural and design phase. In general there is an inverse relationship between how feature-rich a product is and its ability to be backward compatible from generation to generation. This is one reason Apple’s products are so minimalistic. This design philosophy keeps feature-bloat in check, and helps platforms to evolve compatibly with the previous generation. This concept also explains why Apple tends to keep a tight control on their platform.

It also illustrates why Apple tends to introduce features into its products at a steady and measured pace. For Apple, it’s all about utility, not how many features you can cram into a press release. Apple, for example, took its sweet time before implementing cut and paste on the iPhone – but when it finally got around to doing it, the implementation was spot on. Consumer purchasing decisions aren’t based on extensive spec sheets, but rather, are the result of how a product ultimately works.

Cheney concludes:

Apple gets lambasted continually by the press for leaving out features that people ‘need’. The reason is intimately tied to their perspective on user experience and backward compatibility. The reality is it takes unbelievable engineering and a vision to move a platform forward while at the same time making sure things don’t break. Apple has mastered this—it’s part of their DNA and design heritage, and it’s why they will likely continue to be a dominant platform company.

Perhaps it won’t be too long before people look back and laugh at the notion that people once assumed that they needed Flash.


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