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What The AEC Industry Can Learn from Steve Jobs, Master of the Interface

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(ENR) In 2005, the late Steve Jobs told Time Magazine, “One company makes the software; the other makes the hardware…It’s not working! The innovation can’t happen fast enough. No one takes responsibility for the user interface. It’s a mess.”

Replace the words “software” and “hardware” with “design” and “construction” and Jobs could just as easily have been describing the AEC industry today. The industry should study his solution.

Jobs left us with several remarkable concepts, including how to integrate others’ inventions in uniquely delightful and simple ways, and also with the realization that one can far better innovate superior and unimagined solutions for customers by “walking in their shoes” instead of asking them what they want. But perhaps his most significant—even fanatical—commitment, throughout his career, was to control the entire user experience across hardware, software, product design, and service—even down to selecting the quarry from which to mine the marble for Apple’s stores.

The Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christiansen, is well known for writing about disruptive innovations and the inability of incumbent managers to adopt better ideas, all the while doing precisely what their stockholders expect of them. Less known is Christiansen’s exploration of integration across product interfaces. He observed that when interfaces are “not good enough”, customizing solutions that integrate across components win out. But over time, when interfaces become clearly understood and standardized, the most efficient creators of the components interfacing with each other wrest the value stream from the integrators, resulting in the greatest rewards migrating to the lowest-cost producers.

In the early 1980s, the interfaces between hardware, software, etc. were “not good enough” and Jobs originally prevailed and grabbed the value stream with a customized solution controlling all aspects of the computer experience. It was the only way to ensure that all components worked seamlessly together.

But as the interfaces improved and components were standardized, manufacturers began competing on price, allowing the Wintel platform to prevail because of its unique position in the value-chain and enabling the lowest cost assemblers of computers (Dell, Compaq, etc.) to surpass Apple. In fact, Apple nearly went bankrupt in 1996.

The market reversed in the late 1990s when the interface between networks, devices, and content became “not good enough.” Apple prevailed once again, in part, because it was first to streamline the interface once more.

In the AEC industry, the interfaces (between architect, contractor, subcontractor, etc.) are clearly “not good enough.” We can learn from Steve Jobs' example.

For instance, estimating practices, design details, means and methods, etc. are hardly standardized, impeding our ability to efficiently analyze and estimate BIM models.

Practitioners and customers are constantly experimenting with new contracts and delivery methods, hoping to improve predictability and eliminate the massive waste and strife. IPD is just the latest method to get everyone to work collaboratively, attempting to align incentives using contracts.

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