Rob Enderle wrote an intriguing editorial for Digital Trends entitled “You can’t call ‘time out’ in Silicon Valley,” which examines the current battle between Apple, Google and Microsoft over the future of computing. In it, he draws some interesting parallels from the history of warfare, and notes that Microsoft and Google have made some of the classic blunders that have caused great armies to fail dramatically.The “time out” that the title refers to is Microsoft’s reaction to first the big iPhone-led smartphone revolution over the past few years, and now the iPad-led advance of the tablet as a serious computing contender. In both cases, Microsoft had been laboring in those markets for years, with little traction, then faced with a successful competitor, seemingly said. “wait, wait, we need some time to adapt our technology to the new reality, but once we do, it will be awesome!” I don’t need to comment more on how this is working out, as any OSNews reader would be able to speak at it at length, but the upshot is that the history of the tech business since the beginning of time is cycle upon cycle of nimbler companies upstaging and overtaking slower-moving competitors.
But it’s not always the big companies that lose, and, as we all know, it’s not always the best technolgy that wins. Apple itself, as Enderle points out, when Steve Jobs returned, was in dire straits, with a lineup of mediocre products. Apple survived to become the juggernaut is is now, not by retrencing to work on its next big thing, but by focusing on making the best of the lineup it had, and using that momentum to make better products. To use a military slogan that was all too overused during the time of Apple’s renaissance, “you have to fight with the army you have.”
The second part of Enderle’s editorial is more interesting, because it’s not as obvious (Microsoft getting outmaneuvered by Apple in the mobile space is such an old story by now it’s practically bound in leather volumes). But Google’s vaunted Android program, for all its success, is showing some signs of suffering not from inattention, but resource-starvation. The big evidence from the editorial is Schmidt’s bragging that the Android initiative is profitable, while hardware vendors complain that Google is unpredictable, secretive, and unhelpful, and in particular aren’t doing enough to help their partners make money selling the Android platform.
I’m not sure whether there’s enough evidence to definitively draw this conclusion, and even if it’s true that the hardware partners are having a hard time, I’m not sure that Google bears much of the blame. In a lot of cases, the telco carriers and/or hardware makers are digging their own graves by playing the same games that caused the mobile computing marketplace to stall for a decade: not paying enough attention to the overall user experience, filling devices with bloatware and creating artificial barriers to users enjoying the devices as they see fit, being lacksadasical about software updates (because out-of-date phones are more likely to spur hardware sales, they figure). And the harsh reality of the situation is that, Android being free, they’re all competiting against each other, with not much way to differentiate, and the ways that they choose to try to differentiate (custom UIs, custom apps) are in many cases, customer-hostile.
But I think it’s clear that if Google’s primary goal with Android is to make money for Google every quarter, they’re going to miss out on a lot of strategic long-term benefit.
The real benefit of these case studies may not be to analyze the Microsoft/Google/Apple war for computing dominance, but rather for the future upstarts that will vie to lead computing in 2020 or 2030. Two frequently-shared pearls of wisdom in the entreprenurial community are: 1. Don’t wait to release your product. If you wait until your product is perfect, or the market is perfect, you’ll be eating your competitors’ dust when and if you ever do get your product out the door. And 2. Frugality is a major virtue for a startup enterprise, but you can be penny wise and pound foolish. Give your developers the tools they need to be productive; spend your marketing funds wisely, but do spend them.
Large companies are always at a disadvantage against startups when it comes to agility. Agility is really the only superior weapon in the small company’s arsenal. And the ability to apply large amounts of money to a problem is the large company’s primary advantage. So if a large company like Microsoft can shake things up and show some agility, it will neutralize a competitors’ sole advantage, and if a rich company like Google fails to plow resources into what’s arguably its most important non-search related initiative, then it’s making a major strategic blunder. May the college kid whose startup company is destinted to give all three of these firms a major wakeup call in ten years heed this lesson well.