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I got an interesting email from a friend who has historically been a huge Apple fanboy. I asked him if I could repost it verbatim and he said yes. It follows – I’m curious what your response is to this.
While I’m still very involved with the art world here in Colorado and still working on conservation issues we’ve actually just returned from almost a year away, the last 6 months in India. I realize that a lot of what I see is colored with the lens of India, but maybe that’s helping to make things more clear.
Anyway, in preparation for re-entry after India (we were in rural, south east India, without much electricity so I figured home might be a shock), I started to try and catch up on things. Your blog was one of my tools for this. I read the post on creating the best product, agreed, and moved on. One of the first things I planned on doing once home was to buy a shiny new macbook to replace my 4 year old white macbook. Maybe going to the mall, rather than just buying it online was my first mistake, but the cult of apple and the temple that is that store made me gag the second I walked in there. And while my macbook may be old, my use of apple products is right where they want it to be… had the iPhone5 the 2nd day it was out, mcgyvered the Airtel sim cards to work as nano-sims card in india, have a small film production crew all working on the latest macbook pros and iMacs, iPads and iPods at home… on and on. But in the store, what I noticed was a culture of elitism and insincerity. I had a 4 year old laptop with me, and was treated like a Luddite because I didn’t look up to speed. Insulted, I kept the $4,500 in my pocket, thinking I’d keep the laptop running, which I did. Small thing I know, but my thought was “if apple doesn’t care about me, who do they care about?” Today an even smaller issue illuminated this even more. I went in again, this time to replace the defective “top case/keyboard” from these old white plastic macs, and was told that the machine was now “vintage” (that’s the official apple label), and that they couldn’t replace the “defective part” (also their official language) as they had done in the past, because it is more than 4 years old. I thought that maybe I should just get a new machine and quit belly aching, but I pushed a little just to see what apple thought about a customer like me… and called apple to ask if there was anything more they could do. After a lot of insincere apologies, I asked if there was really nothing they could do. The support supervisor insisted that there was no more senior person to address this issue but that I might try craigslist. I was pretty surprised that apple’s official support process ended with telling the customer to check out craigslist for an old mac to scrap for parts. I’m such a pushover that if he’d offered me $100 credit towards a new macbook, I’d have smiled and bought another apple product.
As I right this, it sounds too much like a rant. But I couldn’t help writing, first to say hello after a long while (I did hear about the 3D printed tooth in Croatia…amazing!) and second to just try an make sense of what apple could possibly be thinking… the “cool factor” is clearly waning, they’re products are overpriced, and now they’re indifferent, even hostile, to customer who regularly spend tens of thousands of dollars on their products. Can they really be thinking that the best product is the one that you replace really quickly with something “cooler” and more expensive? I think this time, I might really go get the chromebook. I can’t be alone, and that can’t be good for them.
I’m mid 2011 I wrote a post titled Competition. Things in my universe had heated up and many of the companies I was an investor in were facing lots of competition. It’s 18 months later and there’s 10x the amount of competitive dynamics going on, some because of the maturity, scale, and market leadership of some of the companies I’m an investor in; some because of the increased number of companies in each market segment, and some based on the heat and intensity of our business right now.
I wrote a few more posts about competition but then drifted on to other things. But I came back to it this morning as I find myself thinking about competition every day. Yesterday, I was at the Silicon Flatirons Broadband Migration Conference hosted by my friend Phil Weiser. I go every year because it’s a good chance for me to see how several of the parallel universes I interact with, namely government, academics, broadband and mobile carriers, incumbent technology providers, and policy people think about innovation in the context of the Internet.
News flash – most of them think about it very differently than I do.
One thing that came up was the idea of creating the best product. This has been an on and off cliche in the tech business for a long time. For periods of time, people get obsessed about how “the best product will win.” Then, some strategy consultants, or larger incumbents, use their market power to try to create defenses around innovation, and suddenly the conversation shifts away from “build the best product.” And then the entrepreneurial cycle heats up again and the battle cry of the new entrepreneur is “build the best product.”
This isn’t just a startup vs. big company issue. I remember clearly, with amazement, the first time I got my hands on an iPhone. Up to that point I was using an HTC Dash running Windows Mobile 6.5. It was fine, but not awesome. I remember Steve Ballmer in a video mocking the iPhone.
We all know how this story has played out.
I remember a world when Microsoft and RIM were dominant. When Apple and Google didn’t have a product. And when people talked about “handsets”, WAP, and we squinted at our screens while pounding on keyboards that were too small for our fingers. Next time you are in a room full of people, just look around at the different phones, tables, and laptops that you see.
In my startup world, the same dynamics play out. Building the “best product” doesn’t only mean the best physical product (or digital product). It doesn’t just mean the best UI. Or the best UX. It includes the best distribution. The best supply chain. The best customer experience. The best support. The best partner channel. The best interface to a prospective customer. I’m sure I’ve left categories out – think about the idea of “the best complete product.”
This is getting more complicated by the day as technologies and products increase in interoperability with each other at both the data, network, application, and physical level. That’s part of the fun of it. And being great at it can help you dominate your competition.
Give me the best product to work with any day of the week. But make sure you are defining “product” correctly.
An email was forwarded to me this morning that had the following text in it (I’ve anonymized “The College” but it’s a large, well-regarded four year university.)
The College is Going Google! What does this mean? How will it impact teaching and learning at The College? Many K-12 school districts are using Google Apps for Education, providing their students with access to Google productivity tools as early as primary school. Students coming to The College in the next five years may never have opened Microsoft Word, but will be familiar with sharing, collaborating, and publishing with Google tools. Are you ready?
I spend time at a few universities, including MIT and CU Boulder. I’m teaching a class this semester at CU Boulder with Phil Weiser and Brad Bernthal called “Philosophy of Entrepreneurship.” We had our first class last week – Brad Bernthal led so Phil and I sat in the back. I noticed a bunch of students with their email open during class – almost every one of them was using Gmail.
A meme went around a few years ago that kids using Facebook would never use email and that Facebook would replace Microsoft Outlook and Gmail. This never really made sense to me, especially since I’d already heard that text messaging would replace email, and then I heard that X would replace email, and now it was going to be Facebook. As much as email frustrates us, it’s still by far the most ubiquitous comm channel.
But as someone who switched completely from Microsoft Exchange to Google Apps a few years ago, it seemed clear to me that Microsoft was going to come under incredible pressure on this vector. Office 365 was one of Microsoft’s reactions to this, but I still haven’t met any company that uses Office 365 as it’s primary infrastructure, although Microsoft has a nice site called NowOnOffice365.com that lists a bunch.
Now, it appears that Google is taking a page from the Apple playbook and focusing on higher education. Apple did this magnificently in the 1980′s when I was in college and did this again in the past decade. Jobs was always focused on universities – I still remember “computers are bicycles for the mind” and the 50% discount off of retail promotion that MIT had in 1984 or 1985.
I don’t focus on market share dynamics (I’m sure there are teams of people at Microsoft and Google focused on this) but the anecdotal evidence I’m seeing is powerful. And when The College switches to Google Apps because the students coming to The College are already well steeped in it and “may have never opened Microsoft Word”, something really interesting is going on.
If your organization is on Office 365, I’d love to hear from you in the comments to understand how you are using it. Are you using document collaboration via SkyDrive, or just Office 365 as the backend service for Email instead of Exchange?
If you are a college student using Microsoft Outlook instead of Gmail, tell me why.
I expect many of you have read at least one book on Steve Jobs and Apple since Jobs’ death. If you, like me, grabbed and consumed a copy of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I have a recommendation for you. Go buy a copy of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works by Adam Lashinsky. It’s much better, much more interesting, and in many ways, more revealing.
I’ve long admired Lashinsky’s writing in Fortune. Sometimes he makes me want to scream when he missed the mark, but often he gets under the surface of what is going on an covers it in an interesting and compelling way. He doesn’t write puff pieces while at the same time avoiding the trap of always writing nastiness, especially unfounded stuff, that many journalists seem to have fallen into the trap of (which – I expect – was prompted by competition from bloggers and the endless fight for headlines and link bait.) Lashinsky has avoided this trap, which makes me enjoy reading him even more.
I wrote a short but extremely positive review of Isaacson’s bio on Jobs. I liked it a lot, but as time passed I felt mildly unsatisfied. I couldn’t put my finger on it until a dinner conversation with a friend who knows Isaacson and some of the back story of the book. It came up randomly in our conversation and after I told him what I thought he responded that he thought it was a huge disappointment. He said that Isaacson totally blew it and his publisher, and the pressure of “publishing now” undermine the potential for what he was working on.
My friends suggestion was a simple, yet profound one. Isaacson should have publicly stated that he was delaying the book for a year and then gone back and re-interviewed many of the people he’d talked to. He should have probed deeper on the character of Jobs and explored things that people might not have been willing to say – both good and bad – when Jobs was alive. And he should have taken his role as official biographer more seriously – rather than rushing a book out on the heels of Jobs’ passing, he should have paused, thought hard about how he was trying to portray Jobs, and worked incredibly hard to nail it.
His words rang true. And, as I read through Inside Apple I kept thinking about what my friend said. We all know that Apple is an intensely secretive company and the external (and internal) messages are tightly controlled. By Jobs. Now that Jobs is no longer around, the dynamics around this might change. It certainly would change in anonymous conversations with an official biographer. Regardless, another level of research, thought, and analysis would be powerful.
This is what makes Lashinsky’s book so interesting. He doesn’t focus on Jobs, he focuses on Apple. But by focusing on Apple, he does a magnificent job of exploring and revealing Jobs. As a bonus, this isn’t yet another story of Jobs’ progression from adopted son to the Apple II to Next to Pixar to Mac to iPhone to iPad. Instead, it’s a contemporary look at the company, what makes it tick, and how it really works.
Lashinsky gets to some provocative stuff. In a section about “the narcissist (Jobs) and his sidekick (Cook)” he discusses how the narcissist / sidekick relationship can be incredibly effective. In this one section, he nails the notion of a productive narcissist, which captures part of the psychology of many successful entrepreneurs I know. It’s much more subtle – and useful – than the normal “pathological narcissist” discussion that follows many entrepreneurs around. A tweet about this section in the book from me generated an email exchange with an organizational psychologist friend which gave me an even deeper understanding of this dynamic.
Overall, I give this book an A+. If you are into Apple, curious about it, use their products, or are curious about Steve Jobs and the other leaders at Apple, I highly recommend this book. And yes, I read it on an iPad.
Last night, during dinner with the Return Path board, Fred Wilson interrupted the discussion we were having to tell us that Steve Jobs had just passed away. All of us were stunned silent for a minute as we reflected on the amazing impact that Steve has had on our lives. While I don’t have a personal relationship with Steve, he’s been a hero of mine since I was a teenager when I bought an Apple II computer with 16K of RAM in 1978 with my Bar Mitzvah money. To this day I still remember the sound the disk drive made when I typed PR#6 and how excited I was when I got a Silentype printer.
After dinner, as I reflected on what I knew about Steve and watched as my Twitter stream revealed link after link in tribute to him, I thought about the contemporary moment that meant the most to me. I recalled watching his Stanford Commencement Speech from a few years back and having chills. So – in tribute to the passing of this amazing man, I encourage you to spend 15 minutes and hear something powerful, in his own words.
Steve – while you didn’t know me, thank you for everything you’ve done that has inspired me and impacted my life.
One more thing…