When the iPhone launched, Steve Jobs introduced it as being three products in one:

  • A wide-screen iPod
  • A phone
  • A breakthrough internet communicator

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When the Apple Watch launched, Tim Cook introduced it as being three things:

  • A precise timepiece
  • A new, intimate way to communicate
  • A comprehensive health and fitness device.

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As in the Revolutionary User Interface story,  the symmetry in approach to the launch is telling, but what I want to note is that the three things which the iPhone was defined as being are no longer things that it is most used for.

Yes, the iPhone is still a wide-screen iPod which gets plenty of use but I don’t think anyone thinks that is a defining feature. It’s also a phone, but the Phone is just an app which, for me at least, is not frequently used. I communicate with my iPhone but the go-to app is iMessage or FaceTime or Skype or maybe Email or Twitter. Phone is something I use so rarely that the interface sometimes baffles me. And yes, it’s an Internet appliance. Browsing is something I do quite a bit but many of the browsing jobs-to-be-done are done better by apps. News, shopping Facebook and maps are “things which were once done in a browser.”

So I wonder whether the tentpole product-defining anchors used to introduce the Apple Watch will be faintly amusing a few years from now.

Of course, the reason iPhone outgrew its tentpoles is because of the app economy. 1.3 million apps does that to a product. When it becomes a platform a product invites collaboration on the problem of innovation. Collaborative innovation explodes the opportunity to discover new needs and uses. How, when and why people use the product changes beyond anyone’s imagination.

But this does not mean that the tentpoles used at launch are in any way in error. They are necessary to explain the value of a new category. The audience can’t be told “wait and see all the cool stuff you’ll be able to do with it”. They need to be told why it’s useful today. They speak in the language the audience can understand today. Steve Jobs could not talk in the language of apps and services in 2007. The unforeseen became the inevitable.

Tentpoles therefore don’t define the product but do provide the starting blocks from which the initial buyers make a cognition leap. And once they’re off, the others will know where to go.