The Tick-Tock of Apple

The term “tick-tock model” was made famous (at least to nerds) first by Intel:

With a “tick” cycle every couple of years, look for Intel to advance manufacturing process technology and continue to deliver the expected benefits of Moore’s Law to users. The typical increase in transistor density enables new capabilities, higher performance levels, and greater energy efficiency—all within a smaller, more capable version of the previous “tock” microarchitecture.


In alternating “tock” cycles, expect Intel to use the previous “tick” cycle’s manufacturing process technologies to introduce the next big innovation in processor microarchitecture. Intel microarchitecture advancements seek to improve energy efficiency and performance, as well as functionality and density of features, such as hardware-supported video transcoding, encryption/decryption, and other integrated capabilities.

In short, revolution, then evolution.

Of course, this is how Apple works, too.[1] The company introduces something new, then iterates on it for several years. After a few rounds of upgrades, it jumps forward in a big way.

This strategy gives companies like Intel and Apple time to both refine existing ideas and to come up with new ones.

A lot of companies — namely Apple — also uses this philosophy across its product line. It focuses on one product, leaving the others ones hanging for a time, then coming back around to them.

Sometimes, this leads to issues.

In April 2007 — two months before the original iPhone shipped — Apple announced that Mac OS X Leopard would be delayed. Here’s David Chartier, writing for TUAW:

Apple has just issued a press release statement announcing that Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard has been delayed until October. The reason? iPhone: “we had to borrow some key software engineering and QA resources from our Mac OS X team, and as a result we will not be able to release Leopard at our Worldwide Developers Conference in early June as planned.” However, Apple will still be displaying a “feature complete” version of Leopard at June’s WWDC event, and will be giving beta versions for developers to take home and help put the finishing touches on.

In late 2010, the company held an event named “Back to the Mac,” in which Steve Jobs and company showed off OS X Lion and the then-new MacBook Airs.

While Apple explained the event’s name as the company “bringing back” iOS features to the Mac, I think that most Apple-watchers knew what was really going on: that the company’s focus has been on iOS most of the year (with the iPad being released that spring), and that things were cycling back to the Mac.

With Apple’s hardware releases basically on a fixed schedule for several years now, the easiest place to see this is with Apple’s software.

Just look at the relationship between Mac OS X and iOS to see this. On a slower release cycle, OS X often plays second fiddle to its mobile cousin. iCloud is much more integrated in to iOS at this point, with Lion only enjoying a few more features than Snow Leopard and MobileMe customers did. If the iPad 3 is really getting ready to be announced (alongside with iOS 5.1, I’d be willing to bet), I think we’re in for some Lion/iCloud improvements sooner rather than later.

I think a lot of people look at this and think:

Apple has more money than just about any other entity on the planet. Why not just hire some more engineers?

As Merlin, Dan and Marco discussed late last week, more people isn’t always the solution. Hell, sometimes, more people isn’t even a good solution.

Apple obviously knows this. Even though it is a huge company, it acts like a small one. Everything goes through a very small number of people at the very top. It’s a bottleneck, but it’s a bottleneck by design. Apple keeps a firm hand on the throttle, and would rather move too slowly, or in just a singular direction, than too quickly. While it can be frustrating as a customer, it’s what keeps Apple products great.

Apple’s focus is limited, but intense.

  1. I wrote about this at length back in 2010.  ↩