This year, in lieu of the traditional Best Of Lists, we thought it would be fun to throw our editors into a draft together and just have a conversation. For our kick-off chat, Lauren Goode and Dieter Bohn discuss how tech's biggest companies have essentially been copying each other's strategies. Google is making hardware, Apple is launching products faster than we can keep up, Microsoft is going all in on mobile. If this is the year everybody wants to be everybody else, does that make things more interesting or more boring than all-out war?
Here's what we learned in 2015.
Lauren Goode: There’s one theme this year that seems to run horizontally across many of the top tech companies we cover: everyone wants to do everything. Okay, not everything, maybe, but we saw many key companies dive into new product territories, introduce services, or invest in future technologies that are categories normally owned by their competitors.
Here’s a good example: Google. This year we saw two new smartphones from Google, along with a smartphone-controlled wireless router, new streaming music and TV dongles, and the Pixel C (which Dieter reviewed here). This is the kind of stuff... Apple normally makes. Granted, Google still doesn’t "make" a lot of its own hardware, but it sure seems like it’s headed that way.
Google is acting a lot more like Microsoft
Dieter Bohn: It’s making the Pixel C! Google definitely seems to want to level up when it comes to hardware design. This is the first year in forever that it pushed those Nexus phones into the "premium" category and actually succeeded. I don’t think that Google will ever be as product-focused as Apple, but it’s a good sign that they’re moving in that direction under the new CEO, Sundar Pichai. Android, in particular, needs to get more competitive at the top end.
But for me, Google turning into Apple isn’t necessarily the big story. It seems like Google is also turning into Microsoft. The company is pushing Google Docs a bit more than it used to now that Office 365 is a legitimate cloud competitor. From a corporate perspective, Google’s services have a long way to go before they’re anywhere near as good as Microsoft’s, but it seems like they’re trying.
Really, though, the Microsoft and Google comparison gets even crazier when you look at it from Microsoft’s perspective. This year, CEO Satya Nadella basically threw whatever caution he had left to the wind and started putting Microsoft apps on both Android and iOS as much as possible. Hell, they even made an app so you can find all their apps. What is Microsoft even trying to be right now?
Lauren: Yeah, Google’s mostly-free suite of apps should be a concern for Microsoft, especially as more businesses start to use Google Docs. Anecdotally, this was also the year I finally started paying for the next tier of Google’s cloud services; Google Photos pushed me over the free storage edge.
Although, their approaches are still very different. Google is all about its ad business, Microsoft is selling subscriptions. Honestly? Microsoft is doing a pretty good job of being Microsoft, especially with Windows 10. It's a clear and coherent strategy: the same OS across all of its devices, eventually driving people to buy those subscriptions to its other software.
Microsoft made a great laptop, just like Apple
But if I had to name a company Microsoft is starting to emulate, I guess Microsoft is trying to be both Google and Apple. Microsoft put out two new "flagship" phones this year. It made more Surface Pros, and also introduced a MacBook (I mean, SurfaceBook) to its product lineup. And Microsoft HoloLens seems to have gotten the most buzz of any new Microsoft product in years, even though it’s not even commercially available yet. So we’ve got new hardware, a new desktop OS, free-to-play productivity apps, and some futuristic stuff coming down the pipeline, which makes Microsoft... Gapple? Aggle?
Lauren: I’m sorry.
Dieter: Let's just put it behind us.
Lauren: So, what is Apple trying to be? This is the year the company launched a half-dozen products that have all been done before: A premium smartphone, a tablet with PC-grade performance, a streaming music service, a smartwatch, a new video streaming box, even a battery case for iPhone. I can’t help but feel like maybe we’re all being punked while Apple is working on some seriously game-changing, futuristic technology in an underground bunker somewhere in Silicon Valley. Or maybe that’s just what I’m hoping.
Dieter: What, Apple hasn’t launched enough new platforms for you in the past year? Heck, I can add the programming language Swift to the list, which just saw an open-source release. The company Apple is trying to be is really simple to me: Google. This was the year where we saw Apple release new and slightly unfinished product categories faster than Sergey Brin goes through Rollerblade wheels. Google practically invented the "spray and pray" method of releasing new products, but it sure seems like 2015 was the year that Apple pulled the trigger on new ideas without taking enough time to aim.
Apple borrowed some product strategies from Google
The thing about all of these new products — the Watch, the TV, and even the music service — is that each promised to reinvent the category but didn’t. Sure, the Watch and the TV box might be the best in their respective categories, but they didn’t change them. Same thing with the iPad Pro — it hasn’t changed how we think about computing (yet?). For all of these products to succeed, Apple is really going to need developers to step up in a big way. Good thing Phil Schiller has taken over control of the App Store. Maybe we can see him take a page from Microsoft’s playbook and do a Ballmer-esque DEVELOPERS DEVELOPERS DEVELOPERS rant?
Oh, and that thing you’re hoping Apple is working on? It’s the car. It’s always a car.
I mean, honestly. Google’s making a car. Apple’s making a car. I bet Mark Zuckerberg is on paternity leave right now and asking that virtual assistant he built into Messenger questions about electric motors.
Lauren: Actually, Facebook may be the only company that isn’t trying to be everybody else right now. To me, Facebook’s strategy this year was clear: just own mobile. Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Instant Articles, auto-playing videos in the mobile news feed, a news notification app on mobile, etc. Granted, Google owns five of the 10 most popular mobile apps, according to Nielsen, but Facebook’s right behind it with three. And Facebook was the top mobile app this year, hands down.
And that’s just all the consumer-facing stuff. More importantly, the mobile ad business is growing like crazy for Facebook.
Oh, and then there’s VR, with Facebook getting ready to launch Oculus Rift soon. I’m not sure any other company has been this savvy about its strategies for mobile and virtual reality, with the exception of maybe Google.
Dieter: I don’t give Google that much credit in VR; Cardboard is getting a lot of play, but I don’t think it’s a long-term thing. But yeah, I agree that Facebook is doing a really good job of being Facebook this year, so much so that I bet Microsoft is feeling pretty jealous.
Anybody we missed?
Lauren: Samsung? HTC?
HTC made an Android phone that's literally indistinguishable from an iPhone
Dieter: I mean, HTC made an Android phone that’s literally indistinguishable from an iPhone. If there was ever proof that a company wished it were another company, I think that’s it.
Lauren: Yes, we’re done here. Oh wait! Twitter?
Dieter: Is this the lightning round? (That’s a pun btw). Figuring out what Twitter is trying to be is one for the ages. Maybe next year it will stop trying to be Facebook and its what’s-old-is-new-again CEO Jack Dorsey will give it a unique (and profitable) direction. But somehow I think that the never-ending rumors that they’re going to change the standard timeline with more trending tweets will probably turn into something real next year. Everybody loves an algorithm.
Lauren: I don’t care what they say about you, Twitter, you hold a special place in my media wonk heart. I know you’re not Facebook!
Dieter: Okay, so to sum up: Google is trying to be Apple and Microsoft. Apple is trying to be Google. Microsoft is trying to be Google and Apple. Twitter is trying to be Facebook. Facebook is just straight chillin.
And Amazon is really happy to have been mentioned even once here, just now, after that Fire Phone debacle.
2015 in review Check out the products mentioned above