Microsoft, Apple and the Triumph of Love


<Image: There's nothing you can do that can't be done by anth – http://flickr.com/photos/anth3000/2582043116/>

Here's a question you've probably never pondered: why didn't Microsoft invent iTunes? It's not as dumb as it sounds, after all with their MSN network Microsoft had a global media platform which they were seeking to exploit as a content delivery route. And they had the financial and political clout, they could have wrapped up the music market in the way Apple have. Ask yourself this: If you had to place a bet back in 2001 on which company would have online music locked down, which one would you have bet on?

It's not like MS tried and failed, they didn't really try in this sector. But it would have been sensible for them and more importantly, why did Apple succeed so spectacularly? There are, of course, lots of reasons, but here's my short answer: Love.

Clay Shirky has talked about love with regards to software development and he's right – we underestimate it. So what's it got to do with Apple and Microsoft? The key is that people love Apple, in a way they never love Microsoft. I quite respect Microsoft (pre-Vista anyway), and have none of the idealogical angst that others hold against them, but I don't love them, and I don't know anyone who professes that. There is no Microsoft evangelist of the likes of Douglas Adams or Guy Kawasaki. There was a time when it looked as if all this affection wouldn't matter, indeed it may be a hindrance.  In the 1990s it seemed that sure, people loved Apple products, but they used Microsoft ones, in the same way people loved local shops, but went to supermarkets. It began to look as though Apple had lost the battle for good.

Without retracing all the history, Jobs comes back and Apple gets its mojo back. But this is not so much about the boss, but the type of employees an organisation attracts. The reason Apple succeeded with iTunes and the iPod is because it had attracted staff who fundamentally loved Apple products and loved well designed artefacts. Sharepoint may be a good, functional product but it's never going to attract that kind of person, and so as an organisation the 'gene pool' of innovation you have to draw on is weaker.

Maybe you think it only applies to physical objects? Not so, let's consider Google. They represent the most innovative company around at present (and given the rate of innovation possible in a digital world, maybe the most innovative company ever). Why? Sure it's because they're rich and that buys you smart people, but I'd suggest that more fundamentally it's because they attract staff who find what they are doing exciting.

In 1930 Fisher proposed a model of sexual selection that allowed for 'runaway' features – the peacock's tail exists because the preference for an average than longer tail is also inherited, and we have a positive feedback loop. Google seem to have manufactured a similar process with regards to innovation – there is a highly competitive environment where 'innovation' is the factor that is being 'selected', and they have a positive feedback loop. This is what any tech company surely seeks to realise.

The Apple and Microsoft wars are old news, so does this have any relevance now? Well, I was going to argue that (yes I know it's a dead term but you know what I mean by it) web 2.0 APIs and the general openness movement has seen something of a democratisation of this love and its expression. Because you can build on top of existing services you don't have to be an Apple engineer now to be engaged with a tool you love – Twitter and its myriad applications is an example.

But maybe the credit crisis will change all that. I'd say this though, it was having staff who genuinely loved their product that saw Apple through its dark days. In education terms, a lot of universities have that kind of affection and respect from their staff (I know the OU does certainly), but they don't always have the culture of innovation we've seen with Apple and Google, and maybe it's that combination you need.

But for now, with the global dominance of iTunes and Apple we can say that sloppy old love triumphed – that's rare, and we should cherish that.


  • Sacha van Straten

    An excellent take on an age old issue. I use PC and Mac, but there is something inherently more creative about the Mac hard and software for me, that manages to transcend the mere practicalities.
    In much the same way social networks have been built on mutual admiration, sprinkled liberally with a dash of voyeurism, there is something in the DNA of creative and innovative companies that makes IT interesting. As you say, capitalising on it is the real challenge.
    My 60 something dad had his first go with my MacBook Pro today. His PC at home in France was playing up. He reckoned it was to do with net connections and his account with AOL in the UK. So, I hooked up the MBP and he was rather surprised at the speed that pages loaded, and the manner in which the computer offered him solutions to his various grumbles (like accessing letters with French accents easily).
    My point is, he found an affinity with the computer and the interface it provided. I tend to take that for granted. And I should say that if MS did it I’d prefer them. It’s tools for jobs and horses for courses in the end. I’m enamoured equally with the Asus EEEPC range. The Linux aspect adds a quirkiness to the practical benefits that appeals. It’s like being part of a (not so) secret society.
    Anyway, thanks again for a well considered post.

  • AJ Cann

    Eloquent 🙂
    Here’s my precis: Bill didn’t get the internet, and Bill’s word was law.
    You could equally well ask, why didn’t Microsoft invent the web browser (or the GUI)? And I think Sacha is right to point to the rise of the netbook (or possibly smartphone) as the next stage of evolution. It’s not just the credit crisis, it’s design and implementation. Once again, Apple trumps Microsloth (but I’m still longing for a proper Apple netbook).

  • Jim

    This is masterfully wrought, and really puts a grid on so many of the things that determine an environment of innovation and possibility. It also makes me bit prouder of being such a WordPress lover. In many ways the idea now, as you suggest, that this stuff is out there now in open source incarnations that don;t require you to be employed by one of two corporations makes this who reading that much richer. What happens when thousands of people can love and application and actually express their loves through extensions, modules, themes, etc.? Well, you have the beginning of mature open source scene that changes the very relationship between the Apple vs. Microsoft or Ford vs. Chevy debate. One can now embody it and act on it in some real ways, and that innovation is what keeps me coming to work every morning and feeling happy and proud. It makes me love my work, and one of the major objects of my affection is that fact that I have a platform I can hack at and shape in some real ways. I think you are “spot on.”

  • Martin Weller

    @Sacha – yes, exactly, it’s something about the reaction these products create in people, and particularly the type of people you might want working for you.
    @AJ – yes, I could have chosen other examples, there isn’t particularly anything special about iTunes – but I wanted an example that demonstrated them working outside of their normal sphere. That’s what’s amazing about iTunes really – a computer company became the biggest music store in the world, and that’s what took real innovation.
    @Jim – gee, thanks. I did have a whole paragraph on open source in my head that kind of got lost in the white heat (or moderately balmy) of writing, but you’re absolutely correct. Particularly now that a lot of OS project have moved away from the real hardcore geeks, eg Drupal, WP, this democratisation has moved on another step.

  • Alan Levine

    Ahhh, I am late to read this gem, but here courtesy of a Reverend Jin back link.
    I cannot recall the name of the book, but it was about the rise of Microsoft in the early days over Apple, who had gotten a short step ahead. Bottom line, was that the concept of doing command line DOS over a GUI was more “macho” for the IT types making the decisions.
    I though that was relevant maybe not.
    You are on to something with iTunes- porting that to Windows was the brilliant two punch (do people still use WMP?) to the lead of the iPod.
    The love comes from a design focus on the personal experience.

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