January 31, 2014

In Tech, In Order for X to Win, Y Doesn't Have to Lose

While it's somewhat hard to imagine now, with Apple seeing incredible success, it was less than two decades ago when the company, facing a small market share, and minuscule developer interest, had to pull a rabbit out of its hat to ensure longtime survival. That surprise came from an unexpected partner - longtime nemesis Microsoft, who in 1997, not only gave the then-beleaguered company a much-needed cash injection of $150 million, but also promised continued updates to the then-essential Microsoft Office suite, required to keep Macintosh's hopes alive as a viable platform.

Amid the shocked faithful, who responded with boos over making Internet Explorer the default browser for the Macintosh, instead of the arguably more Mac-like Netscape Navigator, CEO Steve Jobs said the unforgettable phrase easy to forget in an environment where it's commonplace to pit technologies against one another:
“If we want to move forward, and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.” (Source: YouTube)
Turns out, as with many things, he was right. Microsoft, despite the company's many challenges, still is worth more than $300 billion, and saw income of more than $16 billion in the most recent quarter. When it comes to operating system choices, usually one picks Macintosh or Windows (and not both), or mobile OS choices, one could pick iOS or Windows phone (and not both), but both companies have managed to have significant places in the tech world for the last two decades.

Rarely does the winner take all.
Fast forward from Steve's words in Boston in 1997 to today - a world where big companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and others command significant visibility and influence - but comparably younger companies like Twitter, Dropbox, Tesla, Nest (pre-acquisiton), Uber and others manage to also carve out interesting opportunities and become big companies themselves.

It's often assumed that if one "wins", another has to "lose". If Facebook wins, does Twitter lose? If Android wins, does iOS lose? If Amazon wins, does Google lose?

As a user of these technologies, and someone who watches the market closely or writes about these technologies, I see lines forming - not just of people who prefer one technology or one company relative to another, but of people who also display an equal and opposite reaction, to strongly dislike the company or technologies less preferred.

Those decisions have odd echoes. It's assumed that if you like the iPhone, then you must prefer Apple Mail over Gmail. If you like Windows Phone, you must also prefer Bing search to Google search. And if you have a blog that covers the minutiae of Apple's comings and goings, that documenting any negative opinion about their perceived competition should be highlighted with equal or higher volume.

Simply stated: I disagree, and think we can do better. You can like one company's vision or products even if you purchase from another one. It can be possible that all the major players find a space where they are successful. And the best products are built when it's the users' values that are at the forefront, rather than a false battle started to strengthen the position against another player.

Larry Page, Google's CEO, addressed this point at Google I/O last summer, when he said:
"Every story I read about Google is 'us vs some other company' or some stupid thing, and I just don’t find that very interesting. We should be building great things that don’t exist. Being negative isn’t how we make progress. Most important things are not zero sum, there is a lot of opportunity out there."
Recently, The Verge wrote a great in-depth piece about being a fanboy, asking "Have you ever loved something so much it hurt?" showcasing a number of examples of people so consumed about making sure people knew which side of these battles they were on that they were unforgiving in their tone with anyone else who disagreed. I believe you can have a strong preference, and can evangelize a product or platform, like I do often with those I enjoy, without having to cut down alternatives or those who've selected a different way.

The world is a very large place. There are many millions of people who haven't yet purchased smartphones, tablets or PCs, let alone decided on their favorite OS or apps. There is room for many small companies and big companies alike to innovate and do incredible things. There's room for us all to intellectually choose to be fair and review each new product on its merits and stand for those things we believe and like without needing to tear down alternatives. It might be fun, but we can do better.

Disclosures for transparency's sake: I work at Google, which makes some of my personal favorite products, like Android, Gmail and ChromeOS. It can be assumed Google occasionally competes with other market participants like Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

(Images via Dreamstime, which is an excellent resource)