Apple remains the one-eyed King because it is the only company that realizes that to become a dominant player, not the needs of existing technologists or early adopters need to be met, but the demands of everyday people.
Apple has always focused on building computing tools that attempt to hide the underlying technical complexity from its users, so everyday people can use technology without being a technologist. For more than 20 years, I have been using Apple computers when it was unpopular to do so. And I brought hordes of people over to the bright side for a simple reason.
Even as a savvy technologist, I enjoy working with spreadsheet technology to quickly establish or manipulate a cap table, operating plan, and other financial documents with ease. That I don’t need to spend hours trying to figure out a proprietary language of spreadsheets to use one, that I don’t need to be an expert in text layout to fabricate a slick-looking document, and that I don’t need to be an expert in photography to make photographs look good.
The future of computing is in its ability to hide complexity rather than to expose it. That one can drive a car without knowing what goes on under the hood. And from that perspective, Apple remains the company that in the land of the blind remains the one-eyed King.
The land of the blind
Silicon Valley-centric thinking has prevented many large technology companies from gaining aggressive adoption into an 80% greenfield of the worldwide population. Many companies are just too busy trying to outpace each other and fight for the most significant share of renewal sales to 20% of the people that are already familiar with the technology, rather than to establish fundamental new ways to address the computing needs of the population greenfield.
The approach to reach that Greenfield is the inverse of the innovation that many technology companies from Silicon Valley deploy today. It requires a top-down rethink about the role of technology in innovation, rather than an incremental stride down the path of today’s status quo. New adoption of technology innovation also dictates a different market focus, since technology greenfield exists predominantly of prospects who don’t know anything about technology and in many cases care less but merely require new tools to support their current lifestyle.
Why Google is blind
Google is a fantastic company that with excellent engineering skills has proven to be the King in the land of technology mediocrity. It made its fortune by blasting away traditional search through better monetization of the associated advertising scheme. And with the money that comes with the massive public valuations, it can deploy top-notch academic engineering skills to prove it can own almost any technology segment it put its mind to. A great example is how they merely obliterated a stodgy location-based services market, by developing incredible geospatial map technologies its many fragmented incumbents (often under-funded) had been tinkering with for years.
Google knows the Internet like no other technology company and frequently delivers mighty essential components to carry on the promise of ubiquitous computing. But its flaw is that it assumes that technology is a market, rather than a distribution mechanism to serve markets. It “sells” well when those technologists renew their lease on technology, but it generally fails where non-technologists – the greenfield – see a need to purchase technologies to serve their daily lives.
Google is like Bosch, another formidable company. Few know how to build better spark plugs or windshield wipers on a car, do not expect it to make the car. Google will continue to reap the benefit from its omnipresence, knowledge, and staying power in the technology sector for quite some time, not unlike Bosch, which remains a healthy company today. But unless it fundamentally changes its approach of how it focuses on markets, and selects and builds technology to serve greenfield adoption, Google may long-term end up owning many licenses but few viable products.
Analogous to Bosch, expect Google to produce still a few of the quietest dishwashers money can buy. Android anyone?
BTW: doesn’t the Android name choice not just make my point of who Google aims to sell to?
Why Microsoft is blind
Microsoft’s biggest problem is the legacy that turned it into the technology bellwether of today. With their installed base as the ball-and-chain tied to their legs, Microsoft’s vision to innovate is tempered by the need to provide a smooth migration to that innovation. And with the desktop losing computing power and prominence to internet-based services, Microsoft’s position is challenged at that pace of change.
It doesn’t help that Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Balmer, is perhaps the most vocal protectionist of its old and complacent business and technology stance, frequently and openly ignoring the relevancy of its many challengers. It staunchly rests on its laurels and acts surprised when Apple continues to chip market share away from Microsoft. Sure, Microsoft still has a formidable grip on the market, but it lacks the vision and leadership to reinvigorate itself and tap into anything but the organic growth and secular needs of existing computing users.
Microsoft is in the commodity computing business, which is dependent on the low-margin sales strategy of its partners to drive disruptive innovation to new consumers. Since disruptive innovation is by definition not a commodity, Microsoft’s ability to innovate is automatically tempered by its business model.
Microsoft’s challenges are strategic, not tactical and it needs a fresh new CEO, not someone from the ranks within nor from within its partners, to challenge the company and the cooperation with its partners to its core.
The one-eyed King
I admit, at one point still living in Silicon Valley, I contemplated working for Apple. Especially since Apple consistently proved to be a better custodian of innovation than Venture Capital. I wholeheartedly agree with Steve Jobs that to tap into a Billion dollar market; money is no object. Serving that market best is the goal. A solid vision of upside eliminates the need for excessive protection of downside.
But getting to Steve is a feat, and the ideas I brought to Apple appeared not to neatly fit in the silos those Vice Presidents had jurisdiction over. Short of saying that I wanted Steve’s job, their silence made me think that Steve’s vision may only reside a few feet deep in his subordinates, which worries me about his succession plans.
How dare they ignore a radical new service-based operating system that could make computing devices come to life and provide incredible new customer value. How could they ignore the new approach to 100-year old photography technology that hides the complexities of dynamic range and light and turns everyone into the great artist they aspire to be. Or maybe I was too brash, unwilling to bow down to their newfound highness.
But more important than my personal experience with Apple is that while Apple today is now widely recognized as the most innovative company in the Valley, the tremendous opportunity remains for even more groundbreaking innovation that would leave Apple pale.
Apple’s iOS, albeit better than anything out there, is still a pretty dumb operating system. That upgrades to a PC OS should entail more than a slicker user interface with more options to move windows around. That Apple’s photography strategy (an attachment to macroeconomic behavior, or what they refer to as one of their vectors) is merely the continuum of an old way of looking at and implementing photography. That the lack of free-market principles have and will continue to challenge Apple’s content distribution strategy, that Apple’s online service strategy (MobileMe) is merely mediocre and in some instances doesn’t work as advertised. And I can go on for a while.
But regardless of those deficiencies and compared to other technology vendors, Apple serves greenfield customers best today. I pity the plethora of companies (Palm, RIM, HP, Microsoft) that short of their critical business analysis merely copy Apple. I pity the technology company that keeps feeding anything but a greenfield market. I pity the technology company that treats technology as a market, rather than a tool to serve existing markets and macroeconomic behavior.
Apple remains the one-eyed King because it is the only company that from the top (and maybe only at the top) realizes that to become a dominant player, not the needs of existing technologists or early adopters need to be met, but the demands of everyday people.
But there is more than just Apple’s current way or pace of getting there.