Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Die Me, Dichotomy

"We did not enter the search business. They entered the phone business" 
- Steve Jobs, Spring 2010

There are about 2 gwuad-zillion blog postings and articles out there highlighting the differences between the iPhone 4 (and iOS 4), and Android 2.x - and you know what? This isn't going to be one of them.

What I do want to talk about, however, is the above quote by Jobs during an all-hands meeting this past spring. Reality is what Jobs spins it to be, but the essence of what he said is largely (not mostly) true: Google, the search behemoth, and Apple, the restyled consumer device and services company began life in two extremely different places. Yet, here they are a decade and some-spare-change later competing head to head in the mobile arena. How, and more importantly, why did that happen?

There's an interesting slide that Jobs keeps displaying during his keynotes - one that no one pays attention to unless he calls it out, as he did at this week's iphone-a-palooza. Its a simple street sign meant to imply that Apple is on the corner of technology and liberal arts. Jobs likes to spin a tale about Apple being this magical place that brings these two worlds in alignment. In reality, however, that story could be told about Google (technology) and Apple (liberal arts) being dead center at that intersection. Stretching the analogy to the breaking point, I'd throw in two cars headed towards a collision at the intersection: one piloted by an android, the other by an apple.

Google was founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page in 1998 while they were at Stanford on the PhD track. It was pure platform play from a couple of hard core computer scientists. "This World Wide Web thing seems to be taking off," they reasoned, "and all the ways to find content on it really blow." (Hey! They were looking directly at you, Alta Vista.)  So, they figured out a new way to do it, one which involved web crawlers and indexers and taxonomy engines and warehouses full of servers. They slapped a simple front door on it, misspelled the word "Googol," and the rest - as they say - is history.

The important take away here is that Google, from start to finish, was a research project born from the PhD thesis material of a couple of hard core computer scientists. They focused on ideas as numbers - the world as a large, three-dimensional grid of information that could be searched, indexed and sorted at bizarrely fast speeds. For the first time in human history, it became physically possible to categorize, classify and search literally everything representing the human condition. As long as there was a way to digitize it, Google could organize it.

To Google, the world is The Matrix.

Along the way, Brin and Page realized that they had a perfect way to generate revenue: the digital version of targeted advertising. Caching the entire internet in memory was gonna be pricy, but if they could sell search trends and results back to advertisers, they might be able to keep this thing going. It worked, and the company became one of the most profitable on the planet, able to afford multiple research-projects-to-nowhere, and perform mind-boggling "busy work" tasks, such as photographing every single square foot of street space in the world, just so they could turn the physical into bits.

Jobs, Wozniak and Wayne (the missing Beatle) founded Apple in '76, and their story was a very different one from the Google boys.  As the legend goes, Wozniak, an engineering student who never finished college, hand-constructed a wood-wrapped computer to present at the Homebrew Computer Club, a computer hobby club in the Silicon Valley area that functioned as sort of a of the pre-internet, swingin' 70's. Jobs, a Reed College student, saw the potential, as he always does, and they incorporated and sold the first Apple computer  (the Apple I)  in 1976.

Now, I say this not as a denigration, but as a point of discussion: neither Wozniak nor Jobs finished college. When asked if he dropped out, Wozniak's response was a very odd "Not exactly." Jobs, on the other hand, is a self-professed dropout (in fact, I think he only attended a semester or two, and lists "calligraphy" as an example course that set him thinking about typography) - and, in true Jobsian style in a 2009 Stanford graduation ceremony speech goes on to market his "dropping out, and then dropping back in" as having a positive effect on his life.

Jobs brand of esthetics, innate marketing savvy and forceful personality created a computer company that capitalized on societal lifestyle choices. Through 30 years of iterative refinement, Jobs (and, it was almost entirely Jobs) drove the company's business and technical development via trial and error, measuring people's responses to products at different points in time. It was almost as though the man who never finished (or even really started) college, was able to predict (some say define) societal zeitgeist. He literally gave people what they never knew they wanted, and in return they consumed.

To Apple, the world is What Dreams May Come.

Initially, Apple computers focused on home hobby enthusiasts  and gamers, but when the machines moved into the design and print publishing realm, utilizing designer's sensibilities and catering specifically to the needs of publishers things began to change. People didn't just like Apple computers as tools, they began to classify them as necessary objects. Machines that somehow "got" the essence of them as people and problems they faced in their work and lives, and through that understanding the computer company's adherents became almost fetishistic in their desire for all things Apple.

Google and Apple moved forward.

Google slowly became an information juggernaut fueled by an endless stream of advertising revenue. Fear of Google's knowledge about our every purchase, every web click, every move in the physical world was trumped by the public's craving for information about anything, anywhere. It was an uneasy truce with the devil: give them your innermost secrets, and you can find anything your heart desires.

Apple iteratively, and precariously (it famously almost went out of business), climbed its way past Microsoft's market cap. Amusement at Apple's lack of realistically playing in the grown-up world of spreadsheets and word processors gave way to the ease and grace at which its software and devices charmed the populace. People were vaguely aware that as Apple moved deeper and deeper into consumer electronics its ecosystem was slowly becoming a walled garden, but it didn't seem to matter. If they all vowed to never leave Apple, it doesn't really matter if the walls go up. Apple became the epitome of living in a gilded cage.

...and so, here we are. Two companies who, due to their contrasts, would seem to be perfectly positioned more as comrades than foes, yet now stand face-to-face on the current field of battle: your pocket. How did the emergence of the new media marketplace (your mobile phone) become the site of a war that will make the Apple/Microsoft skirmish seem like frivolous playground politics?

Jobs didn't often find himself on the defensive prior to 2010, but when the Android quarterly sales number zoomed by the iPhone's in Q1 of 2010, that's exactly where he found himself. When he made the now famous "We did not enter the search business. They entered the phone business," statement in response, it must have sounded alien to Google.

From Google's point of view, you see, they did not enter the phone business - they merely extended their search business. This was not about competing with Apple in the consumer marketplace, this was about adding an additional query tool to their bag of tricks. This time, however, its a physical device, not a query field in a web browser. Google did not enter the phone business, they simply provided a mechanism for users to provide Google with more information about themselves.

Likewise, Apple really didn't enter the search business. What they did do, however, was enter the advertising business using these same little devices in everyone's pocket. Through these mobile devices, Apple knows what its users want, what its users do, what its users feel, really... all without resorting to search. They are able to know all these things because their users willingly tell them. They tell them with their dollars and their application downloads. Apple didn't need a search engine, they needed another "thing" that they could present to the faithful and the soon-to-be-converted. Something shiny and pretty that the loyal would offer up their inner most desires to possess in order to remain part of the group.

Mobile phones have evolved to be statements of who we are as an individual. A mobile phone is an incredibly intimate device (insert your favorite sex toy joke here, please), more so than your television set or your laptop. You would allow your friend or family member to use your laptop to check email, but chances are you think twice before turning your phone over to someone. It has your music, your pictures, your memories, your conversations. Your phone is your inward self reflected outward.

They are also your tools - you need them to work. Calls cannot drop. Text messages need to go through. When you want information, you need the immediacy of action. The mobile web cannot pause, you don't have time for it to buffer. The applications on the phone need to tell you things before you know you need the information. Display it. Process it. Search it. Tell it to me. Do that for me now, because in 10 seconds I don't need it anymore.

This is the dichotomy of the mobile industry, perfectly represented by two companies that started in the last century doing very different things and solving very different problems. They were created by very different sets of people, one by a couple of Stanford eggheads looking to change how the world understands its information, and the other by a couple of college dropouts looking to change how society communicates with its technology.

To sum all this up another way:

Google users ask questions of Their Oracle.

Apple users share their desires with Their Creator.

These two world-views which meet so sharply to define their mobile environments and devices is perfectly captured in the ad campaigns for both products - both of which are worth watching, even if you've seen them before.

This 'droid ad is from Verizon, of course, but Google approved:

From Apple, ad-as-documentary:

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