17 July, 2013
A couple of years ago, some footage of Steve Jobs surfaced on the internet. The conversation was from 1980, and in it he essentially describes the cellular-enabled iPad. He describes hyper-personal computing devices and insists that software design and discovery will be the key to unlocking their potential (which, in 1980, was quite a break from prevailing wisdom. Hell, it's still a break from wisdom in 2013).
Jobs had a vision. This sounds like a trite, vacuous thing to say, but think about it like this: in 1980, there is no way Apple could have delivered on his vision. We were still three years away from the first DynaTAC, and the Cray-2 was five years away. Apple's delivery strategy had to be one of incremental design, of working towards the goal, of inventing (and buying, and stealing) the technology it needed, improving it, honing it, all so it could ship the product that they had decided, in 1980, was the way of the future.
And thirty(!) years later, Steve takes the stage and ships. Thirty years. No wonder he spends most of the keynote chilling out on the sofa.
This isn't to imply that there's something unique or divine here. Lots of companies have visions. Lots are wrong. Lots go off-base. Lots are right but just don't gain traction. Apple got lucky, and in many ways you can argue that Apple made the future by telling people this was it. There are still people out there who believe that Apple's success is all smoke and mirrors, and it's all going to fall apart real soon now.
No, this isn't about Apple. It's about Facebook.
There's been a lot of hand-wringing over Google's decision to can their Reader product, going into lockdown over how and where we choose to share our content (hint: SERIOUSLY GUYS! GOOGLE+! PLEASE?!). Much of the less hysterical, well written concerns seem to be around the fact that we've traded in the freedom of the web for convenience, that this is all really Facebook's fault, as Google has to respond to Facebook's seemingly unstoppable intention to turn the entire internet into a Facebook walled garden. Reader was just caught in the crossfire, and while RSS won't die, it's simply a symptom of a larger trend.
The only issue I take with the world view they present is that they make the implicit assumption that both Google and Facebook are here to stay. Maybe I'm an absurd optimist here, but I have to ask myself: how do I see Facebook in thirty years? Are my kids going to be organising university reunions or work nights out over the web, using Facebook? Are they going to be sharing holograms of cats via Google+?
Are we still using DynaTACs? When did you last send a fax? What's your beeper number?
It's insanely hard to keep a tech company alive. Apple managed it, but only just, and the reason it survived the 90s was because they brought back the vision that would give them direction. The reason Microsoft survived is because they made an insane amount of cash and burned it, and whether they survive much longer depends entirely on whether they can find a new, compelling, original vision.
IBM survived, just, but far diminished, and by reinventing itself as a maintenance truck.
And sign me up with the people who worry that Apple may have lost it's drive. Not because Steve is dead, but because they shipped their vision. The focus that seemingly kept them going is done. I hope there's more, but if anything is a risk to Apple, it's that they may not have a product pulling them forward any more, dictating the next step, making it clear what to say "no" to. Looking at Apple's last thirty years, the path to the iPad is clear. What's next?
And here's where we circle back to Facebook. What's pulling Facebook forward, or Google for that matter? The same thing that people are concerned is now pulling Apple along: Reaction. Part of the thrill of shipping web-based products is the fact that you can ship a "minimum viable product" pretty quickly. You can have a vision and see it in user hands weeks later.
Beyond that, you iterate. You react. You daren't change too much.
The problem with shipping your vision fast is that the only thing pulling you forward at that point is maintenance. What's Zuckerberg's grand vision for how we communicate in 30 years? A slightly larger phone?
What about Google? Self-driving cars? Creepy spy glasses? Jetpacks?
Throwing shit at the side of a barn isn't innovation. It's desperation. It's lack of direction, lack of focus, and you need to throw an awful lot of shit before you get some to stick.
And while you're busy flinging shit around at each other, someone with real vision is likely to be building a barn of their own.
Which barn will, hopefully, provide a decent RSS reader.