Another one of those colorful epigrammatic statements from Steve Jobs, meant to inspire and motivate a development team to fully complete an ambitious project, especially once the “train has left the station”: designs are largely decided, prototypes rapidly being built and approved, and back-end programming has begun, signalling that “This is for real, folks!”, no longer some design concept or skunkwork exercise. The implication: decisions gotta be called and owned up to, tradeoffs made, and just drive towards making this real for the customers.
A little googling about this reveals the broader context for this particular slogan– shipping the first release of the Macintosh computer, which at the time was way over-schedule, etc. etc.
Below is a quotation from Steven Levy’s chronicle of the first Mac, titled Insanely Great, explaining the slogan:
Jobsâ€™s speeches were punctuated by slogans. Perhaps the most telling epigram of all was a three-word koan that Jobs scrawled on an easel in January 1983, when the project [the release of the first Mac] was months overdue. REAL ARTISTS SHIP. It was an awesome encapsulation of the ground rules in the age of technological expression. The term â€œstarving artistâ€ was now an oxymoron. Oneâ€™s creation, quite simply, did not exist as art if it was not out there, available for consumption, doing well. Was [Douglas] Engelbart an artist? A prima donnaâ€”he didnâ€™t ship. What were the wizards of PARC? Haughty aristocratsâ€”they didnâ€™t ship. The final step of an artistâ€”the single validating actâ€”was geting his or her work into boxes, at which point the marketing guys take over. Once you get the computers into peopleâ€™s homes, you have penetrated their minds. At that point all the clever design decisions you made, all the tists and turns of the interface, the subtle dance of mode and modeless, the menu bars and trash cans and mouse buttons and everything else inside and outside your creation, becomes part of peopleâ€™s lives, transforms their working habits, permeates their approach to their labor, and ultimately, their lives.
But to do that, to make a difference in the world and a dent in the universe, you had to ship. You had to ship. You had to ship.
Real artists ship.