Apple, Google, Microsoft and ambition

by Jan Dawson   |   June 12th, 2014

A year ago, during Google’s I/O developer event, I was struck with a sense of Google’s boundless ambition. Here it was, announcing products and features that ran the gamut from desktop search to wearable computing to automated photo editing. And of course, all this from a company which was also investing in driverless cars, expanding Internet access in emerging markets and much more besides. I remarked at the time that it stood in marked contrast to Apple, with its laser focus on just a handful of major products.

It’s always been interesting to me how differently Apple, Google and Microsoft express their ambitions. Google’s and Microsoft’s ambitions have always been global in nature. On the one hand, organizing the world’s information and on the other hand, putting a computer on every desk. Whereas Apple’s mission has been decidedly more localized: creating great products, used by individual people. This also seems to have driven these companies to create very different kinds of products, with Google and Microsoft creating operating systems that enable other companies to create the products end users actually engage with and Apple tightly integrating hardware and software to create the end-user products itself.

But I sense a shift in these companies’ ambitions, to the extent they’re almost switching places in some respects. Google, which has always trumpeted the open nature of Android, has now done a dramatic about face in the last several years, purchasing smartphone and thermostat makers, creating Google Glass and driverless cars, and even creating a far more limited, less open version of Android for wearables in the form of Android Wear. Google, the evangelist of “open”, is becoming a lot more integrated and controlled in these areas, even as its ambitions remain impossibly broad, either because it fears losing control of the opportunities its created or because it simply believes others won’t do the job as well (or possibly for both reasons).

Microsoft on the other hand has shifted its focus to the more parochial level of Apple’s ambitions, having largely achieved its goal of getting a computer on every desk (and now witnessing the related outcome of a computer in every hand). Its ambition now is to help people get stuff done, a much more individualistic mantra much more in line with Apple’s. And it too, like Google, is starting to create more of its own hardware in the form of Surface and Nokia. Microsoft has more explicitly argued it believes partners aren’t getting the job done in certain areas, but it also recognizes that even if software is at the core of great products, they’re monetized through hardware. The inevitable outgrowth though is a massive invasion of the turf normally occupied by its hardware partners. At the same time of course, Microsoft is taking its original enabling role down the stack into cloud services such as Azure.

Lastly, we come to Apple, which demonstrated at WWDC a suddenly expanded ambition that goes well beyond just creating great computing products. In the form of HealthKit and HomeKit, Apple is beginning to look far beyond its own products to the challenge of integrating a plethora of third party devices for tracking health and fitness on the one hand and controlling the smart home on the other. In both these domains, Apple is pursuing a much more open approach, controlling only the software connecting other people’s hardware, which in some ways is much more like the approach Google and Microsoft have taken in the past.

But Apple’s ambitions have also expanded beyond computing to areas such as health, which have a far more fundamental meaning in most people’s lives. Interestingly, the HomeKit, HealthKit and Swift initiatives have all likely been underway for some time, but Apple has kept them under wraps. I think all of them bespeak an ambition on the part of Tim Cook which we haven’t been aware of until last week. Steve Jobs always gave the impression of wanting to change the world for the better even when he wasn’t giving much away about how Apple planned to tackle that task next. But Tim Cook has been very quiet and circumspect in his public appearances until this past week, dealing more in vague platitudes than grand visions. That changed at WWDC, and I think as such we’re learning more about what matters to Tim Cook.

There have been subtle signals before now in the form of the increased openness about Apple’s supply chain, and the commitment to environmental issues, but those have seemed peripheral to Apple’s core business. The HealthKit initiative in particular seems much more central to the mission of Apple itself. A part of me wonders whether the palpable excitement and enjoyment on the part of Apple executives at WWDC was partly due to the fact they could finally share these longstanding initiatives and the ambition they embody with the world after keeping them under wraps for so long. A smart friend of mine recently suggested perhaps HealthKit even grew from the germ of an idea that came originally from Steve Jobs, who was famously obsessed with his own health throughout his life, and was forced to confront the realities of dealing with a chronic health condition for his last few years. I’ve no idea if that’s true, but it’s an interesting thought.

Each of us benefits greatly from the ambitions of these three companies as we not only use their products, but other products which they in turn influence. But each of these companies seems to increasingly recognize that truly changing the world doesn’t simply come from building an ecosystem as big as possible, but from making a meaningful difference at the level of each end user. And that sometimes requires going beyond just providing a licensable operating system or platform for others to build upon and instead creating tightly integrated experiences.

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his thirteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.
  • jfutral

    To me one of the travesties of Modernity is that more often than not the system becomes more important than what it was created to support. Which is the irony of Modernity because one the traits of late 20th and 21st century Modernity has been this heightened individualism, hyper-individualism.

    Apple does a better job of straddling this individual supported by a system than most companies. So everything Apple creates is driven by enhancing and serving the individual. Then the approach to systems is through the individual rather than the other way around (illustrated by Apple’s approach to enterprise IT). So even as Apple expands its product offerings and hooks, it is still about the individual. Support to systems will be directed from the perspective of how they benefit the individual. MS tends to believe in systems for the sake of systems. I have no clue what philosophy guides Google.

    Joe

    • kab

      Sorry there Joe, but I thought modernity was about the cultural and intellectual movement that would eventually lead to a “big brother” state. And, post-modernity, which I believe we are experiencing, was about breaking down the oppression and economic barriers, which seems to be what “social networks” are doing with other side effects. I don’t quite see the heightened individualism, unless you are referring to the skewed distribution of wealth from capitalism?

      • jfutral

        That’s a bit too reductionist for me. Post-war Modernity wasn’t so much concerned about creating a big brother state as much as undermining the need for one country to invade the other.

        Modernism, by definition, is always at war with what came before. So in that sense Modernism is perpetually post-Modern. As in art and architecture, tradition is destroyed, ornamentation (especially period specific) creates unnecessary baggage to form, and form follows function, ornamentation is superfluous, it was discovered this allowed more of the individualism (internally expressed outwardly rather than outwardly influencing the internal) that better undermined oppression. To a certain degree, the social networks are the height of individualism, creating networks that can undermine the big brother state they may actually live within.

        In art, pre-modern art asks “How do you paint a flower?”. Modern art asks “What is a flower?”. Post-Modern art asks “Is there a flower?” All this gets closer and closer to the individual’s perspective being of primary importance. So much so that Modern art (particularly from the 40′s to the 70′s) needs the individual viewer to complete the work and no two individuals can really see the work exactly the same way. That’s why Modern artists hate to explain their work and almost always ask “What do _you_ think?”

        Yes there is a strain of post-Modernism that is the natural extension of Modernism (more individualism). There is a strain of post-Modernism that is _anti_ Modernity. Then there are the ones like me who think Modernism is all fine and good for what it addresses, but it does not address everything, and quite frankly, I do find value in tradition and community. Systems work as long as what they were created to support is more important than the system itself.

        Joe

  • Chris Marriott

    Google might have ambition, but it lacks focus. It’s using supposed R&D as a PR tool. Companies that develop real commercially viable products don’t divulge what they’re working on. We know all about Google’s X-Labs because they know little to none of what they’re coming up with is commercially viable. Build a steering wheel-less car? Whatever. Self driving cars without the ability for a human to intervene will not meet even proposed regulations in the coming decade. Build a personal jet-pack? Whatever. Announcing that you considered building a jet-pack is a throw-away statement because ideas are worthless without execution. Apple maintains secrecy because it’s developing commercially viable products. Google tells the world because the only value it’s getting out of those R&D dollars is marketing and PR. None of that pays the bills, however.

    Here’s my commentary on the subject of Google’s ‘R&D’:

    http://halifaxbloggers.ca/straighttech/2014/05/i-considered-building-a-jet-pack/

    • http://naofumi.castle104.com/ Naofumi

      Totally agree. Google’s PR efforts (R&D) seem to be working quite well however. They are perceived to be innovative when in fact, in terms of products shipped, most of them were acquired. Even Clayton Christensen, the disruptive innovation guru, hesitates to call Google innovative.

  • Space Gorilla

    Google and Microsoft create a lot of vaporware and prototypes. Apple actually ships. That’s one of the key differences I see between the three companies.

    • http://info-tran.com/ Info Dave

      Another way of looking at this is that Google and Microsoft take a shotgun approach, while Apple uses the rifle approach. Google and Microsoft throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see if anything sticks, while Apple is more focused.

      • aardman

        Apple uses the guided missile approach. Rifle projectiles cannot correct midflight.

      • http://naofumi.castle104.com/ Naofumi

        The question is whether shotguns have enough force behind them to open up new market opportunities. Some people think that the idea is the important part of a new successful product and that’s why they throw any random idea to the wall. Steve Jobs thought differently, hence his focus.
        https://signalvnoise.com/posts/3497-you-know-one-of-the-things-that-really-hurt

    • http://naofumi.castle104.com/ Naofumi

      Once upon a time, Apple was also a vaporware company. That nearly killed them.

      • Space Gorilla

        Yes, I remember those dark days, and I thought at the time it was nonsense. I can either buy it today and use it and it works great, or it ain’t a real product. My advice to Google and Microsoft, shut up and ship. But what does Google have to ship? They sell ads. I find it very interesting that we haven’t seen any numbers from Google re: Android activations or app installs in what, a year? Or maybe I’m just not finding the data.

        • http://naofumi.castle104.com/ Naofumi

          Vaporware and indulgence in “research projects” is, in my view, symptomatic of a fundament weakness of a company, that is at the same time at its height of financial success. In other words, this is common in companies that are at their height, but have internally already started on their decent.

          Google has close to zero track record of identifying new opportunities and breaking into the market. Google docs, Adwords, YouTube were all acquisitions which had already made it to market. Gmail was preceded by Hotmail. Google lacks the internal capability to understand what is going to be successful in the market before somebody has already done so.

          Now they are trying to be better and be “innovative”. They are however insecure. Unlike Apple which often has enough conviction to put its full weight behind a new category, Google just tests the waters. Hence “research projects”.

          • Space Gorilla

            Well said.

          • Hosni

            Here’s the latest: Balloon-based internet service. It’s described in a recode (website) article today.

  • aardman

    Like your smart friend, I always thought that Apple’s health focus was Steve Jobs’ last big idea before he passed away. Didn’t he always say ‘we want to build products that we ourselves would enjoy using’, or words to that effect? As he lay in his sick bed with all sorts of sensors and monitors wired to his body and all manner of boxes with lights and readouts all around him, I’m sure he must have thought ‘there must be a less intrusive and depersonalizing way do this’. And tasteful, don’t forget tasteful.

  • stefnagel

    Apple has always lived by its wits; the others, off ads and trust funds. Maybe that explains why Apple seems a serious endeavor and the others a bit … frivolous.

    The New Yorker compared to TV Guide or Forbes.

    More, Apple has chartered itself to create the best for the rest; the best it can and remain great itself. What company would have developed the iPhone, except one aiming at great? The others? Couldn’t care less who gets whatever garbage UX, as long as they get paid.

    Apple empowers its users; the others exploit them.

    • elder Signin

      So totally on point!! Steve was not focused on money. (Later in life he understood that you have to make a profit to keep developing). Rather he was focused on the BEST product he could deliver. Apple still seems to be trying to keep to that focus.

      • stefnagel

        Yah. Our standards as UX consumers are deeply impoverished, after decades of Windows and Dell dark dominions. Remember those bug ridden beige boxes and no choice, at least at work?

        Google has picked up where Windows left off; delivering any kind of garbage it wishes. With Microsoft cus it stomped out any alternatives. Google cus it’s free.

        And I’m sorry, it’s just not good enough for Google and Samsung to point fingers at each other, “Not my fault. Their software/hardware is the problem.” Who the hell cares?