There was a time when technology companies specialised. Microsoft started out writing software for Apple, then spent over two decades as the dominant OS vendor. Apple used to build computers and laptops, then branched out into smartphones, tablets, app store, TV boxes, high-end jewellery…Google started as a great search engine, became the world's largest advertising agency and now they track how you get to work each morning - they're omnipresent with the intention of becoming omniscient.
But some more recent moves have me puzzled, while at the same time these companies seem to be letting slide the quality level of their core business.
Let's take a look at how the biggest technology companies in the world have positioned themselves over the past couple of years.
Steve Jobs famously said
people don't know what they want until you show it to them
but in 2015 it struck me that, just like everyone else, Apple were throwing ideas at the wall just to see what will stick.
Now don't get me wrong, I fully understand why Apple moved into smartphones, which then gave them a natural step into tablets. But how about that set-top box, Apple TV, that they've been insisting is just a "hobby" for years now? They've been calling it a "hobby" in case it doesn't take off - you can't fail at a hobby. And then after years of flirting with an all-new TV service, Apple last year claimed that they had discovered the "future of television".
Apple's future of television - it's apps. [http://www.apple.com/tv/]
And then came watches. Apple don't simply sell watches, they're selling a high-end jewellery experience. So you can walk into one of their shops to ask a question about, say, your phone, and end up being smooth-talked and flattered into spending a lot of money on a very expensive watch.
And is this watch a fitness device or is it a piece of jewellery? To be frank, I think Apple send confused messages about this. Take a look at the watch's homepage - the page starts with an apparent emphasis on fitness:
Apple places a fitness emphasis on the marketing of the Apple Watch. [http://www.apple.com/watch/]
But scroll a little farther down the page and you'll find this:
Apple also markets their Watch as a high-end, luxury device. [http://www.apple.com/watch/]
Now, I realise that there's a range of Apple Watches… well, there's a large range of straps and a small number of watches, mostly with differing finishes but with the same innards. Knowing this, what would you buy the Apple Watch for? Fitness? Yeah, probably; Haute couture? Well… possibly; Fitness and haute couture? Then you're stepping into Vertu territory. And when you compare it to other fitness devices, Apple might not be the biggest player which might indicate that they haven't convinced people that it's a fitness device.
Apple even launched a battery pack for their phone: Let's put aside the tacit acknowledgement that the iPhone's battery life is not as great its users want it to be; Apple copied the most popular battery case but made theirs more expensive… and reviewers don't even like it (for example, here, here and here). When has this happened to Apple before?
And how about the iPad Pro's reception? While I never came across a bad review of the iPad Pro as a device, if there was a degree of confusion as to its raison d'etre - for example, here, here, and even from arch-fanboy Walt Mossberg - reviews of the iPad Pro's optional keyboard were unequivocally poor.
But the bigger picture here is that the iPad Pro was clearly a response to Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet; Apple were not the innovator here but the follower. And perhaps not for the first time: after multiple generations of an iPhone with a screen so small as to make it look dated, Apple followed the trend of the larger-screened phone with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
Apple's fanboys are desperately hoping that Cook and co. are secretly working on a new game-changing product. And they are: it's a car.
Google started out as an innovative search engine and quickly became the byword for online search. Then they monetised by moving into advertising. They pivoted so gracefully into this new role that they've become the biggest advertiser in the world (by revenue). Since then they've also become the developer of the world's most-used mobile operating system (though I regard Android as the world's largest crowd-sourced product trial), which allows them to track the minutiae of our everyday lives, as well as the world's most-used map provider (which ties in nicely with their advertising stream).
There's actually a Church of Google where followers regard them as a form of deity due to their all-knowing omniscience. [Source]
So why have they recently launched a wi-fi router? While the obvious ploy seems to be that a home router would allow Google to see everything that you do online, whether or not you go through Google, the company have made assurances that they're not looking at the traffic through your home router.
Google's OnHub router - now they want into our home with a $200+ wi-fi router. [Image source]
The likely plan seems to be to promote their smart home protocol which would offer a tie-in with Nest, the thermostat company they bought a few years ago. Yep, the search giant owns a thermostat manufacturer.
The Nest thermostat - owned by Google. [Image source]
Google have also been taking on Microsoft at their own game: productivity applications (word processing and spreadsheets). In fact, Google were the first to do this using a 'freemium' model which forced Microsoft's hand. And in retaliation, Microsoft are now pouring out their own online productivity apps across all mobile platforms, even those which are taking customers away from Microsoft's own mobile platform.
Google have moved into various other new product lines, including in no small way hardware (Nexus phones and tablets, Chrome OS laptops, Google Glass, etc.), but these usually have a clear path through which revenue will flow back into Google's advertising business. So why are Google so interested in self-driving cars?
From search engine to driverless cars - too much of a stretch? [Image source]
I wrote recently about Microsoft's baffling strategies since Nadella took the top job, though those complaints are really aimed at the software level. Microsoft, who started out as one of Apple's biggest software vendors, then branched out into operating systems, then encouraged developers to build for their platform while they themselves also built the same things - often forcing third-party developers out, have recently branched into hardware… which they've spent literally decades encouraging third-parties to do on their behalf.
This is nothing groundbreaking, of course. Apple have been doing it all their lives and Google moved into hardware about a decade ago. Microsoft, on the other hand, maintained for years that their business model was better if they were just the software vendor and let others take the hardware reins. Then some years back Microsoft started selling a games console, then they launched the Surface range of tables, then they bought Nokia's handset division and now they're selling a (faulty) "ultimate" laptop.
The so-called everything store isn't just concerned with selling you stuff (or freight-shipping). Sure, Amazon have been selling their own hardware for some time now, and I completely grasp why - department stores and supermarkets have been selling their own-branded devices for decades, if not longer.
But a voice-activated home assistant?. Of course, you can use this for ordering from Amazon, but it also connects to Philips smart home devices and home security systems. Why? What does this offer Amazon?
The Amazon Echo - Amazon's attempt to smartly connect our homes. Why? [Image source]
What's Going Wrong?
While I find some of these moves into new markets confusing, what makes them worse is the quality. I could write a long, long list of software bugs.
Ok, I'm a software developer myself so I know that there are always going to be bugs - software without bugs is software which isn't being used.
But we seem to be going around in circles. Scott Hanselman wrote about this back in 2012 in his blog post “Everything's broken and nobody's upset”, then followed it up a couple of months back with another, “The Crowdsourcing of Software Quality”.
And I couldn't agree more.
Microsoft have actually got a lot of credit for the public beta of Windows 10 and Windows Mobile 10, but the truth is that this appears to have allowed Microsoft to remove their own quality control (as I wrote in a recent blog post). And Windows Mobile 10, which was initially promised last year, is still in an ongoing loop of developer previews which replace bugs with different bugs (read some of the comments in this notification of a recent firmware update).
For many years Apple had a flawless reputation regarding their software quality, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore (here are some examples). Apple used to keep a small, tight product line which they perfected with each iteration: in my opinion no-one builds laptops as well as Apple; while others experiment with folding touchscreen laptops, durable laptops, waterproof laptops, laptops with programmable, e-ink function keys, etc. Apple have reduced the traditional laptop to its most perfect currently-available form. And yet Apple's more recent products have left users scratching their heads to find a good use case - last July techcrunch.com's Apple Watch review in the form of an animated GIF went viral, and even Apple's Tim Cook and Eddy Cue can't seem to agree on the use case for the iPad Pro.
So what's happening? Why are these companies moving away from their core market where they've got a wealth of experience and branching out into markets which seem to be unrelated (a computer and software vendor turning to high-end jewellery and cars?), especially when the effect seems to be detrimental on their core market?
I don't have the answer. I'm writing this blog post simply in the hope that people will become more aware of the situation because people seem to be blasé about devices for which they've paid a lot of money. My impression is that people buy because of the brand or because of what they think this ownership will broadcast about their identity.
If you look more broadly at how markets operate within national boundaries and the trends in government over the past half-century or so, the power of the state is diminishing; governments are looking to the markets to control greater parts of our day-to-day lives. Instead of running a country we increasingly see politicians simply as civil service managers.
Edward Bernays was correct - how we spend our money has become the truest form of democracy.
If the battery of your iPhone doesn't last a full day then protest by not buying another iPhone. If you don't like the notion that Google can make a lot of money by selling your personal data then don't use Google's services, don't give them your personal data; there are alternatives. If you're fed up with Windows 10's constant and buggy updates then tell others to stay with Windows 7 or 8 or to move platform.
One final note I'll make regards the absence of one of the major technology players of recent years: Facebook operate on a similar business model to Google (advertising) but unlike Google, Facebook are not diverging into apparently unrelated markets. They have experimented in the past with Facebook phones but this flop seems to have convinced them to focus on what they're good at.
If only these other publicly-floated companies could do the same then we'd all be better off.