Ken Kocienda

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Ken Kocienda contributed to Apple’s Safari web browser and the iPhone keyboard as an Apple engineer. He’s also the author of Creative Selection. Our notes will be from his 2019 conversion with a16z’s Frank Chen.


Until 2003, Mac computers used Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It’s helpful to remember that Microsoft was to the 90’s technology economy that Amazon is today, only bigger. Brian McCullough wrote in How the Internet Happened, “The research was a surprising reminder to me how much everything in the 90s was in relation to what Microsoft might do.” Tim Wu compared the Seattle company to Kronos. Microsoft was also a character in The Startup, like a Smaug in Seattle.

So, Steve Jobs wanted a browser.

Kocienda was hired in 2001, the same year as the initial iPod release. What did it feel like to work for Jobs?

“Steve was very clear to us at a very early stage in the process that he wanted the best experiences out to customers. That was it.”

“Steve thought we were going to need a compelling argument, and for it to be compelling it had to be simple.”

What’s simple? Ease.

Renee Mauborgne created a buyer utility map and encourages business to “uncover the hidden pain points” and ask, “Across this buyer experience cycle, ‘What’s the biggest block to simplicity for our users?'”

If Apple had a web browser it would immediately have the default advantage, but it also had to be good, and that meant fast. Fast was Jobs’ focus, “Most of the time he would just tell us, ‘I want a great browser and it’s got to be fast.'”

Apple, said Kocienda, was this wonderful combination of top-down leadership and bottom-up contributions.” This support is often missing in floundering organizations. On the Wharton Moneyball podcast, two professors noted the lack of leadership in professional sports.

“It really does take the buy-in from the top for that to be the case. The coach needs to know the GM has his back and the GM needs to know the owner has his back.” Cade Massey

“I’ve always argued that this is the reason coaches seem so risk-averse in their decision making. If they make an unconventional move, especially in a high leverage situation – the decision was correct but the outcome doesn’t work out – it’s all on them.” Shane Jensen

Apple was not like this. Demos were – maybe still are – big at Apple and were conducted between the directly responsible individual (DRI) and Jobs. This was the bottom up portion. As Ray Kroc wrote, “It has always been my belief that authority should be placed at the lowest possible level. I wanted the man closest to the stores to be able to make decisions without seeking directives from headquarters.”

Ken said people would bypass their boss to pitch to Jobs because they were the person who’d worked on a project. Was it intimidating? Yes. Were you ready? Yes. “Even when you get asked a difficult question you’ve been thinking about it and have this background of context.”

Kocienda said Jobs was like an editor. “He created the assignments and then gave them out to his staff and evaluated the work that came back.”


The iPhone’s code name was Purple and it was a tough nut to crack. The problem at first was differentiation. “We had nothing to show for our phone to compete with the Blackberry.” Don’t forget, this phone was so addictive people called it the ‘crackberry’. How do you compete with that? Start with something that works, then break away.

Kocienda and the Safari team used an open source code base as a surrogate and created something of their own. Copying works so long as it’s only a catalyst. Guy Spier noted this when he wrote, “For me, the (lunch with Buffett) lesson was clear. Instead of trying to compete with Buffett, I should focus on the real opportunity, which is to become the best version of Guy Spier that I can be.”

Investors can copy Warren Buffett and have great results just like technology manufacturers can copy one another, but they’ll never exceed the original. Apple needed to make a better phone. Apple needed to make a phone without keys.

This again takes top-down cultural support. Kocienda told Michael Covel, “It’s hard when you’re shown something new and different, particularly if you have a psychological, emotional, or financial investment in the status quo.”


This is the reason the best ideas are fragile, and why Sam Altman explained to Tyler Cowen, that Y Combinator does NOT have co-working spaces.

Touchscreens may seem obvious in 2019, but pre-2007 were not. “Steve’s idea was that we need a keyboard some of the time but not all of the time.” And, “We were going to provide a different vision for what a smartphone would be.” Brian Merchant explains wonderfully in his wonderful book, The One Device that the iPhone was a collection of;  technologies, minerals, glass, multitouch, ARMs, gyroscopes, and shoulders of giants.

Kocienda’s keyboard work needed work. At one point all the iPhone team were redirected to work on their advantage; software.

During our AI Week, we looked at how technology will change and specifically how cheapness leads to use. Photography went from a chemistry problem to a mathematical problem because math became cheaper than chemistry and we got Instagram.

The same spirit lies behind the iPhone keyboard. “It turns out through lots of investigation, demos, and sleepless nights that the right way to close that (typing) gap was to give software assistance.”

For example, when you type ‘t’ then ‘h’ the ‘e’ key remains the same size on the screen but the tappable area enlarges. “The breakthrough for software keyboards was assistance to the extent that the software may change the letters that you type…The software worked behind the scenes to give you what you meant rather than what you did.”

The iPhone has a great history that Kocienda gives us a peek into.


Thanks for reading.


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