Grumpy old men, the "Inmates" and margins

iPad, iPhone and the future of computing

Apple-Google-Progress.pngAs the iPad descends upon us, it is fair to ask, “Is this the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?” Depending upon whom you ask, the conclusions widely vary.

For example, RealNetworks’ Rob Glaser forcefully argues that Apple’s vertically integrated model “Must be stopped.” He cautions: “If that’s the way the industry plays out — and there are a couple of vertical stovepipes that are closed — A: we will have a much slower pace of innovation than we’ve ever had and B: there will be a tremendous loss in terms of value creation versus it being more horizontal.”

Meanwhile, science fiction writer, blogger and tech activist, Cory Doctorow, recently made waves when he asserted in Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either) that, “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it. Screws not glue.” He concluded:

The real issue isn’t the capabilities of the piece of plastic you unwrap today, but the technical and social infrastructure that accompanies it. If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you. If you want to live in the fair world where you get to keep (or give away) the stuff you buy, the iPad isn’t for you. If you want to write code for a platform where the only thing that determines whether you’re going to succeed with it is whether your audience loves it, the iPad isn’t for you.

And don’t even get me started on the legions who dismiss Apple’s end-to-end approach with an “Apple’s Evil” slap, or more stridently, paint the story as “destined” to play out as things did in the PC Wars, with arrogant Apple racing to an early lead, only to get its head handed to it in the end.

I won’t spend a lot of time bringing to the fore the masses that see the Apple model in more favorable terms, as the numbers speak for themselves across just about any metric that matters:

  • 85 million iPhones/iPod Touches/iPads sold
  • 185,000 applications built
  • 100,000 developer ecosystem
  • 4 billion application downloads
  • 15 billion iTunes media sold
  • JD Power Award for Customer Satisfaction
  • Ungodly operating margins/cash flow

So how to reconcile the animus with the market’s clear directional momentum? Read on …

Progress and grumpy old men

The late Herb Caen, the legendary columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle, once wrote a piece about the worsening state of San Francisco and, in particular, one of its main arteries, Market Street.

iPad CoverageIn it, he lamented about how this thoroughfare was always under construction, how the city’s charms and enduring traditions were getting swept aside by outsiders, and how the place was becoming less and less hospitable to locals and long-timers, forcing Caen to wonder if, perhaps, San Francisco’s best days were behind it.

Ah, but Caen was setting us up for an unexpected upper-cut, as at the tail end of the piece, he reveals (I am paraphrasing), “Would it surprise you to know that I wrote this piece way back in 1954?”

Caen’s point was that then, as now, every generation sees their generation as the Real Generation and the Right Approach, when in truth, progress just moves forward.

Hence, the locals of San Francisco, circa 1954, saw a city losing sight of its traditions and therefore, its magic. In truth, the city was just moving forward with the times.

Thus, it was unsurprising that 30 years later, today’s locals would reach the exact same conclusions about the “good old days” being their particular generational approach.

I would argue that Glaser, Doctorow and a number of others (Daring Fireball’s John Gruber covers some of the other disenchanted in an excellent piece, The Kids Are All Right) are simply guilty of confusing their truth with The Truth, a not so subtle way of saying, “My Way or the Highway.”

A note aside, while I have heard plenty of grumpy old men lamenting about the continuing rise of the Apple approach and its dark implications, I have yet to hear a single female prognosticator confuse such attributes with real-world unfavorable outcomes. Perhaps, it’s because women don’t long for the “good old days” of Stone Age tools, techno-babble, impersonal computing and the like.

Me personally, my first computer was a TRS-80, so I understand the nostalgia of being able to tinker down to schematics and assembly code, and just the same, prefer the ability to apply my muscles judiciously to higher level problems versus lower level ones.

Hence, what I give up in terms of absolute flexibility, I gain in not having to worry about hardware abstractions, infinite form-factors, middleware, glue code, software distribution, marketplace and monetization.

To me, that is a more than acceptable trade-off, inasmuch as you would be hard-pressed to argue that the model is less democratic or even less web friendly (while Apple is clearly trying to create the best native experience possible, they have unquestionably also created the best mobile web experience and are key proponents of HTML5 and pioneered WebKit adoption).

Nonetheless, the yin and yang of openness vs. integrated raises a fundamental question that underscores the battle being fought in the simmering industry battle between Apple and Google.

Do we really need more inmates?

Inmates.jpgThere are two bookends that gave me a grammar and narrative for thinking about software (and hardware) development and design. The first is “The Mythical Man-Month” by Fred Brooks, and the second is “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” by Alan Cooper.

In “Inmates,” Cooper makes the argument that too often the development process is driven by techies building the types of products that they would like to use, as opposed to really understanding the aspirations and outcome goals of their target user, let alone who that target user even is.

Worse, they often compensate for this blind spot by building products that address all use cases, including edge cases, and build a design interaction model that is a composite of that blob of functionality.

The end-result are products that are confusing, needlessly complex and that address all theoretical problems from a check box perspective, but few real problems from a specific outcome perspective.

Keep this in mind next time you are comparing the Apple product that seems to be “missing” certain features relative to the cheaper alternative on the other shelf. Nothing is free when it comes to product design decisions.

Margins, and who keeps which piece of what dollar

It’s worth revisiting Rob Glaser’s earlier comment about “stopping Apple,” as it underscores the real reason many want to stop Apple.

Train_coupling.jpgBack in the days of the PC, the rise of Microsoft and Intel led to a horizontally organized industry. Microsoft and Intel kept the highest margin dollars for themselves, and could expand into adjacent segments as they saw fit. They also left a number of chunks of the hardware, software and infrastructure stack to third parties.

This type of loose-coupling worked because the PC was essentially a homogeneous platform, and the expectations of user experience were such that daily system crashes, recurrent performance lags and numbingly-complex “enterprise” software was considered the rule, and not the exception.

Now, of course, the two industry standard-bearers of the Post-PC Era, Apple and Google, respectively, have addressed the challenges of old very differently. Google, by embracing simpler, loosely coupled (read: horizontally-focused) cloud-facing solutions, and Apple, by embracing vertically-integrated, complete product solutions that marry hardware, software, service, developer and marketplace.

But make no bones about it; the real tempest here is who keeps the high margin dollars.

In the case of Google, they are happy to allow any and all to plug into their search and advertising gravy train, so long as they can disrupt any and all incumbent segments ripe to be broken up by their model.

In the case of Apple, they see user experience and control of same as central to their value proposition and “govern” accordingly.

Whether you see one as more open, closed, virtuous or evil depends upon your personal preference about user experience and choice, not to mention your particular economic self-interest.

But that is a post for another time.


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