Of all the inventions of the past three decades, none has been more innovative and disruptive than the iPhone. What's not generally known, though, is that the basic design of the iPhone and its predecessor, the iPod, did not emerge from an open plan office.

Quite the contrary.

According to a fascinating look at Apple's history published in Wired, when Apple moved to its "Infinite Loop" headquarters in 1992, it specifically rejected its erstwhile open plan design in favor of private offices for everyone, arranged roughly as spokes around a large common area.

If this design sounds familiar, it's because Pixar--a company eulogized as "Creativity, Inc." in a bestselling book--structured its offices in a similar manner.

Apple has since moved on to its Spaceship headquarters, which is by all accounts a more visually attractive facility than the Infinite Loop--but it's been a transition that's not without controversy. The problem? The Spaceship, unlike the Infinite Loop, is open plan.

According to the Silicon Valley Business Bureau, "high-level Apple staffers are unsatisfied with the company's open floor plan -- which has many company engineers working at long tables with co-workers" causing some employees to insist on "their own space outside of the main spaceship-style building."

Bloomberg similarly reported that Apple's internet software team was refusing to move to the building because "the new campus will include bench seating, long work tables, and open cubicle spaces, potentially irking employees used to quiet office environments."

Assuming that Apple's engineers know better than top management what type of environment leads to innovation, Apple's showy new headquarters thus represents a classic case not the idea of "a perfect marriage of form and function" but a victory of form OVER function.

And that's not a good thing.

I've never worked at, or even been inside, either of the two Apple facilities, but I did work inside two large software organizations, one of which had a Pixar-like work environment and the other of which had a typical open plan.

The difference in programmer productivity and innovation was startling.

The programmers with private offices, though only 100 strong, re-designed and re-coded an entire operating system, with multiprocessing, while porting it to an previously-incompatible hardware platform. In 18 months. (!!!) Readers who know operating system design and development can now close their gaping-in-amazement mouths.

The programmers in the open plan environment, some 800 strong, developed a handful of substandard applications and ported some others to a different operating system. Mostly, though, they attended meetings. That group was really good at "collaboration." Creating innovative software, not so much. Or rather, not at all.

As you might suspect, there were some cultural differences that contributed to this wild disparity in programmer productivity, but there's no question in my mind that one of the reasons the programmers with private offices got more done was because the environment made "collaboration" secondary to creating.

Sadly, today's Apple seems to be retreading old ideas rather than treading new creative ground. While this decline in raw creativity pre-dates the company's move to the Spaceship (most people date it from Steve Jobs's death), Apple's late-in-the-game embrace of the open plan folderol won't help the company remain innovative.

Published on: Oct 25, 2018
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