Apple, Google, Microsoft and ambition

on June 12, 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.