Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life
I laugh every time I read about a new “iPod killer” thingamajig in the news. It’s almost like the dotcom period manifest in consumer electronics. “We’re going to be the next iPod. Do you know how big the market is for MP3 players? If we even capture a small piece of this huge pie, we will make tons of money in the next decade.” Every time these wannabes put out another press release on Business Wire, I think about all the profits their advertising agencies will be making, launching the new players around the world. And now Microsoft is getting into the game with Zune. Ever see that unofficial video about Microsoft packaging? Zune’s launch will probably be just like that, except more expensive.
But aping the iPod is not the biggest game in town. I’m seeing people trying to replicate Apple’s success in hardware design and operating system design. These are, by and large, the same people who were clueless about the original iMac. (“Why would anyone want a computer in a specific color?”) Now we see Dell and other PC OEMs burn midnight oil churning out “cool looking” PCs from third-world factories. Meanwhile, Microsoft is “improving” the user experience with Vista, which as usual tries to look like the Mac OS on the surface. Us experienced users will know that beauty is more than pixel-deep and, like almost all of Microsoft’s applications, once you start trying to use the damned thing, you’ll likely trip on the crazy arrangement of functions, icons, and “features” that seemingly only Microsoft can so badly mangle. I continue to be surprised that a company with the resources and talent that Microsoft has is able to produce such lousy products. Even startups, or solitary shareware authors (not to mention unpaid open source gurus) produce far better software than the largest computer company on Earth.
I suspect the “cancer” that pervades Microsoft is not that there aren’t intelligent people working within its organizational bowels. I’m sure Microsoft hires excellent people. So I can only conclude the problem lies with the design philosophy of the company. Looking back, this shouldn’t be surprising. A company that, instead of innovating, used strong arm tactics in the market to push its wares, probably finds it easier to just add a feature to a product in the quickest way possible, than to think carefully how best to add that feature, so as not to slow down release. Revenue is generated through upgrades, so the more versions people buy, the better it is for the bottom line.
The flip side of this viewpoint is epitomized by Apple, which spends oodles of time and money thinking of ways to make the user experience better. One can argue that the old Apple never really focused sufficiently on the bottom line, preferring innovation over accounting. Google’s looking the same way. The result of this is less money earned, and increasingly happy, and loyal, customers. The Microsoft philosophy results in more money earned, and increasingly unhappy, and even hostile, customers (read: forced users). While Wall Street applauds the short-term results of the latter route, it can only end in disaster while the other method risks company sustainability (as we have seen before with Apple) but creates a user base that can actually help carry a company through horrible periods of history.
One of the proof-points I have for my theory on “The Microsoft Way” is the success of the Xbox business. I have an Xbox, and I’ve been recommending it with almost the same zeal as I do Macs (almost, but not quite). The Xbox platform is by far superior to any other gaming platform out there, and especially when compared to Sony’s PlayStation. I don’t expect success out of the PS3.
The intriguing thing is, from what I understand (and I could be wrong), the Xbox team was created at Microsoft not unlike the way the Macintosh project started off at Apple. Now that’s where the similarities probably end. Apple was always innovative. But perhaps the Xbox got to be successful precisely from its lack of Microsoft Manifesto. Maybe this is what is going to be needed for the company to finally be respected by the technical community. I recall wanting to use Microsoft BASIC in the 1980s. I even thought the early incarnations of Word and Excel to be superior to competitive offerings. But somewhere between Windows 3.1 and XP, the company lost the way and succumbed to the evil temptations of the fast buck.
I bring this up because I see Apple headed that way. Not in the same godawful execution as Microsoft, but because I foresee astounding success with Apple. True character is revealed in how you live your life after you win the lottery. Google’s tried to articulate a “no-evil” stance which has already been compromised. Linux tries hard, and is still trying. Now it’s time to see how our favorite computer company faces up to its destiny.