Between them, Apple, Google, and Microsoft pretty much set the agenda for the entire consumer electronics industry. They employ a great number of the smartest and most creative technologists in the world and produce the most influential innovations. Whether it’s Windows, the iPhone, or Google’s titular search, these three American giants’ contributions have shaped our social and economic milieux as much as our technological one. Their futures promise to be as different as their pasts, however the present products and services on offer from each company show them to be closer than ever. They all seem to be solving the same problems.
Consider all the overlaps that have developed in recent times between the strategies of America’s three foremost tech corporations. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are getting into the connected car business that Microsoft has been in for years, while the latter’s Cortana personal assistant echoes the voice-activated Google Now and Siri software of its competitors. Where Apple has Continuity to keep people working across various devices, Microsoft has Continuum, and Google has the universality of the Chrome browser and its range of web apps. Besides the connected car and the connected you, all three are also connecting the TV — through AirPlay, Chromecast, and the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter — and developing app and gaming platforms such as the Xbox One, Android consoles, and the new Apple TV.
AppleGoogleMusicGroove in your car, on your TV, and all over your home
While their approaches and economic models differ, the near future that Apple, Google, and Microsoft perceive is remarkably similar. Ask any of them about the smartphone of tomorrow and you’ll get an answer that involves a grid of icons, an app store, a great display and camera, and broadly the same industrial design proportions and philosophy. This phenomenon isn’t limited to just devices, either, as Apple Music, Google Music, and Microsoft Groove amply demonstrate. Other big names like Twitter and Facebook, which started off as fundamentally different types of social networks, are also gradually eroding the differences between them and progressing toward a lowest common denominator singularity.
Much of the impetus toward a homogenous product strategy stems from simple evolutionary processes. Microsoft tried to make big changes with Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8, but was rebuffed by an unreceptive audience, and its new Windows 10 software is a mollifying retrenchment. Samsung put a camera in a watch, Google put one in glasses, LG built squarish phablets, and Sony, Kyocera, and NEC all failed at making dual-screen folding devices popular. The market dictates what it likes most and thus steers manufacturers’ decisions.
Is Apple still thinking different?
That’s all well and good, but as Steve Jobs famously remarked when introducing the iMac in 1998, "a lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." His less well known subsequent sentence is just as instructive: "That's why a lot of people at Apple get paid a lot of money, because they're supposed to be on top of these things." Nearly two decades later, what seems to be in deficit is precisely that sort of aggressively pioneering approach, especially among the biggest companies. This year’s iPad Pro and Apple Watch are the most significant new products in Apple’s lineup in a long time, but they’ve already been preceded by Microsoft’s Surface Pro and multiple generations of Google’s Android Wear watches. If Apple is thinking different, as its old motto goes, it’s doing so in the details and not the grand sweep of things.
Of course, Apple is copied at least as often as it copies, with Google’s Android being the most successful example of the practice. Lest we forget, the first Android phone would have been a hybrid of the then-dominant Nokia and BlackBerry designs right up until the announcement of the iPhone forced Google’s team to "start over." The world of technology has generally benefited from the liberal borrowing of ideas, but it has advanced further and faster when it’s generated new ones instead of just iterating on what already works.
Comforting panicky investors is part of the job description
True innovation requires the undertaking of significant risk, and the bigger a company becomes the more conservative it inevitably has to be. Apple is now the highest-valued company in the world and the issue of managing and meeting shareholders’ expectations is high on its list of priorities. Just last month, CEO Tim Cook took the unprecedented step of emailing TV host Jim Cramer to reassure the world that China’s stock market collapse wouldn’t hamper Apple’s growth. A couple of weeks earlier, Google redesigned its corporate structure so that all its long-shot and investment projects were managed by a parent company called Alphabet, and its billion-user consumer products remained under the Google umbrella. All these machinations and adjustments are precisely what Michael Dell sought to escape when he took his business private two years ago. If everyone is trying to appease the same growth-hungry stock market every 90 days, then it’s little wonder that the responses to it would be similar.
Apple, Google, and Microsoft technologists are inventing stuff — after they leave
Many of the brilliant minds working at Apple, Google, and Microsoft have found themselves having to fly the coop in order to give full expression to their creativity and embrace the inherent risk of that task. The Nest smart thermostat, which might be the first human-friendly connected home appliance ever, came from a group of former iPod and iPhone engineers. The Paper and Pencil drawing tools for the iPad (and now iPhone) were produced by FiftyThree, a team that had previously worked on Microsoft’s aborted Courier tablet. And the Nextbit group developing a "cloud-first smartphone" today is led by former members of Google's Android division.
Without the dual pressures of both the consumer and the stock market, and without a historic reputation to uphold, small startups are now the best engine for generating truly new and groundbreaking innovations. Uber and Airbnb are fundamentally altering the economics of renting things, while hardware designers like Pebble and Oculus are inventing cool new technology that isn’t bound to any particular company’s ecosystem. Startups can see a broader range of problems to address because they don’t have to wear the same economic blinkers as established, monolithic companies.
The good news is that the freedom of an independent startup can be reconciled with the economic and manufacturing muscle of a larger corporation. That’s what Google X, Microsoft’s research labs, and other initiatives like Sony’s First Flight are all about. Sony’s effort is the most practical among them as it provides a crowdfunding and e-commerce platform for startups created by Sony employees. It lets them build real products, such as the minimalist beauty that is the FES Watch, and test them on the market right away, thereby bridging the significant gap between moonshot ideas and marketable devices. Google’s Project Ara modular phone and Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset, by contrast, are the tech equivalent of concept cars: supremely ambitious today, but years away from hitting the market in what will likely be a tamer, less revolutionary form.
"Where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas, you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant."
The tech industry is an agent of change. It always has been. And as Larry Page pointed out when announcing Alphabet, it’s a sphere "where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas [and] you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant." Google has plenty of examples of such projects, but it has now explicitly disconnected them from its core Google brand. The money that has kept flowing into tech over the past decade or two seems to have brought with it an added risk aversion. The wild innovation goes into one silo, the day-to-day moneymaking goes into another. Aren’t tech companies supposed to make money by innovating?
This decoupling of the traditional model for a tech business — where risk-taking and money-making go hand in hand — is leaving us with an uncomfortable degree of uniformity among the products and services offered by the biggest and most powerful companies. Everyone is trying to hit the profit hot spots, but how many streaming sticks does your TV really need? How many voice-activated personal assistants, messaging clients, and photo backup services does your phone require? Apple, Google, and Microsoft are treading on the same ground and solving the same problems. There’s no doubt that competition will help improve things, but borrowing some of their imagination about the future and applying it to the present wouldn’t be a bad thing either.