A post by Steve Yelvington contemplating the secret of Apple’s success got me thinking again about principles that will drive the next wave off successful digital media companies, in addition to the five principles I wrote about to kick off the year:

Here’s Apple’s magic: Other people’s ideas.

Think about what Apple did not invent:

  • The windowed, mouse-driven interface. That actually came from Xerox PARC.
  • OS X. Inside is Carnegie-Mellon University’s Mach kernel, overlaid with functionality lifted from BSD Unix. Key parts come from hundreds of open-source software projects. The entire printing system comes from Unix/Linux.
  • Safari. That came from the Linux-based KDE project.
  • The iPod. Apple was a latecomer to the solid-state audio player game, and the original iPod software came from a third party. Even the name was outsourced.
  • The video iPod. Companies like Archos had pocket video systems long before Apple, which initially disclaimed any interest in video.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The magic is not in the invention, but in the execution, the singular focus on user experience. Apple’s innovation is aggressively outsourced. Smart integration of other people’s ideas has transformed the entire company.

Steve goes on to take newspapers to task for harboring a not-invented-here mentality, instead of capitalizing on new — already invented — technologies. But I think the same could be said for all digital media companies.

Google didn’t invent search. They perfected it. They didn’t invent pay-per-click text ads. They perfected them. YouTube didn’t invent online video. They perfected it. Facebook didn’t invent online social networking. They perfected it.

Chances are the next big digital media company won’t be built on a technology yet to be introduced on the web — it will likely be built with existing technology, by figuring out how to perfect the technology.

But if successful digital media companies have taught us anything, it’s that the technology is in fact secondary — it’s the people that matter.

It’s the people who upload videos to YouTube and embed them across the web.

It’s the people who create their identities and record the details of their lives on Facebook and MySpace.

It’s the people who submit and vote on stories on Digg.

It’s the people who create links on the web, which Google figured out how to interpret as a way to rank relevant content.

All of these companies understood that the web isn’t just about technology or about content — it’s about people using technology, people creating content.

For all Google is painted as a pure technology company that doesn’t understand people, Google’s original PageRank algorithm was really an insight into people. Google realized that when people create links to content on the web, they are essentially voting for that content. And when people link to another site, they are essentially voting for the site — and for the people who run that site.

Google didn’t invent the link. They harnessed it.

Google figured out that when people search for something on the web, they don’t want to go to a cluttered, head-ached inducing portal page. They don’t want winking, blinking rich media. People just want to type words in a box and get a bunch of links.

Google didn’t invent the web page — they perfected it by not to cramming stuff onto the page that people didn’t want. (Remember what web pages looked like before Google?)

People don’t want ads. They want information. So Google perfected the ad format that looks most like information.

That’s the opportunity. Perfect existing technologies — make them work for people on the web.