Blind spots

Apple Inc.

Nadav Savio, a Google engineer, wrote this insightful post about Apple, Google, and blind spots:

“It’s been said that Google doesn’t get ‘social’ and, though I think that is vastly overstated, there is truth there. Similarly, I’d say that Apple doesn’t understand the internet. Well I have a simple theory about it. There’s a cliché that everyone’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness, and I believe that applies as well to organizations as to people.  Take Apple. They make amazing, holistic products and services and one of their primary tools is control. Fanatical, centralized control. Control over the design, over the hardware, over the experience. And that’s exactly the opposite of the internet, which is about decentralization and messy, unfiltered chaos. Google, on the other hand, gets the internet, but has trouble with humans. And I’d say it’s not so much because it’s an engineering-heavy organization or that Google doesn’t know how to have fun (both reasons I’ve seen stated publicly). I think it’s that one of Google’s biggest strengths is in search, which is largely about things like precision and recall, about stitching the chaos of the internet into some semblance of order. But social interactions happen in the variance, in the messy spaces that seem meaningless. Much social meaning is carried by phatic communication and that is exactly opposite to what Google does, which is to optimize signal vs. noise, looking for the meaning and discarding the meaningless.  Presumably, we can find the undoing of other organizations in their strengths. What, for example, is Microsoft really, really good at? Or Facebook?”

This is a brilliant analysis of two great companies, who are really good at certain things; somehow that greatness meets its limits.  This is a good lesson for all of us.  We know what we know, and we know what we know we don’t know.  However, what we don’t know we don’t know is what kills us.  This is our blind spot.  Unfortunately, unless you question your assumptions, you will bump into your blind spots, often when you least expect it.  It really pays to be open to the possibility that a colleague, a friend, an associate, a supplier, or a stranger might have the insight to open your eyes.  Sometimes, when we make mistakes, we wonder why we didn’t recognize it earlier; it may be that we actually could have recognized the error, if only we had been open enough to understand the insight.

Annie Leonard, Ben Bradlee, and an iPad walk into a bar…

How do you sell a newspaper in the 21st Century?  Well, The Washington Post is on to something with this new iPad app and campaign.  This video blends the past successes at the Post, personified by Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee, with the contemporary moment.  Here you have Bob Woodward, typing away on a Watergate era typewriter, interrupted by some young reporter with an iPad.  He doesn’t know what to do with it, and in that moment Bob Woodward is like a lot of us, how exactly could you use this fancy new product?  Bob walks by some folks using the app, and I have to say, it does look intuitive and appealing.  Woodward asks Bradlee, the old lion of journalism, how does the iPad fit in to the Washington Post?  Bradlee, sagely says to Woodward: “These kids think tweets twit themselves.”  Brilliant.  This is very effective marketing for the iPad.  However, my enthusiasm is tempered this morning by the latest from Annie Leonard.

The Story of Electronics examines what happens to electronics before and after their useful life.  In the context of the iPad, I wonder, what is its useful life?  If I could count on daily use for at least 10 years, that would be a start.  However, given the shelf life of cell phones these days, I am not so certain that it will still be useful in 10 years.  The MacBook Pro I am typing on is 4 years old, and I hope to get at least two more years out of it.  What if the iPad was designed so that critical components could be upgraded in the future, easily?  That way, I could take the costs of the iPad production, in water, resources, and waste, and spread them well into the future.

What toxic chemicals are used in the production of the iPad?  What will happen to those chemicals when the device breaks? Apple does take back old products, which is good.  All electronics manufacturers should follow suit.  The recycling should be incentivized at purchase, so that consumers have it in their best interest to return the device to the manufacturer for safe, effective recycling, instead of throwing it out in the trash.

It’s As If Apple Has Hired Don Draper (via TechCrunch)

Apple computer knows how to create an elegant package, but they also know how to create an elegant advertisement. The new iPhone4 campaign is no exception. This writer draws a great connection between the new ad and the famous Kodak scene from season one of Mad Men. Watch the scene here, it is incredible.

It's As If Apple Has Hired Don Draper The other day I was talking to an old friend. Not only is this friend outside the tech sphere, he’s just about as opposite of tech savvy as a person can be. He’s basically a luddite. In fact, I was surprised he was even IMing with me, he’s so seldom online. But I was more surprised by what he asked me. “What do you think of the new iPhone?” It’s one thing to know what an iPhone is, but the fact that he was aware that there was a new iPhone caught … Read More

via TechCrunch

Do you support the rape of women and children? Check your phone.

Do you like your gadget?  Everyone likes gadgets these days, whether you own an iPhone, a Blackberry, a Kindle, an iPad, or any number of laptops cellphones, and slim cameras, you name it, they are all devices that are tiny, capable, and cool.  Well, did you know that critical components may come from a country known as “the rape capital of the world?”

Nicholas Kristoff described what he has seen in the Congo in a column this weekend:

“In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mutilated, children who have been forced to eat their parents’ flesh, girls who have been subjected to rapes that destroyed their insides. Warlords finance their predations in part through the sale of mineral ore containing tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. For example, tantalum from Congo is used to make electrical capacitors that go into phones, computers and gaming devices.”

In the Congo, 5.4 million people have died since 1998, in what is considered the deadliest cnflict across the world since World War II.  In 2006, the Congo held its first democratic election since independance in 1960, and approved a new constitution, but despite the creation of a stable government, violence persists.  Time magazine described the situation after that election:

“The suffering of Congo’s people continues. Fighting persists in the east, where rebel holdouts loot, rape and murder. The Congolese army, which was meant to be both symbol and protector in the reunited country, has cut its own murderous swath, carrying out executions and razing villages. Even deadlier are the side effects of war, the scars left by years of brutality that disfigure Congo’s society and infrastructure. The country is plagued by bad sanitation, disease, malnutrition and dislocation. Routine and treatable illnesses have become weapons of mass destruction. According to the IRC, which has conducted a series of detailed mortality surveys over the past six years, 1,250 Congolese still die every day because of war-related causes–the vast majority succumbing to diseases and malnutrition that wouldn’t exist in peaceful times. In many respects, the country remains as broken, volatile and dangerous as ever, which is to say, among the very worst places on earth.”

Activists are raising awareness on the issue, as you can see in the above video.  In fact, an amendment was included in the financial reform bill that will require companies like Research in Motion, Intel, and Apple to report their use of conflict minerals.  However, it is up to consumers to demand that companies like Apple include minerals from Australia instead of the Congo.  An iPhone with tantalum from the Congo is just not cool anymore.  You can sign a petition here that will be delivered to the 21 biggest electronics companies, and you can demand that companies prove how they sourced their minerals before you buy a new gadget.  It is the very least that we can do.

Apple Bests Microsoft: Is It Built to Last?

Yesterday, David beat Goliath.  Well, not quite; Apple passed Microsoft to become the world’s most valuable technology company.  As of yesterday’s market close, Apple was valued at $222.12B versus $219.18B for Microsoft.  This is a monumental achievement for a company that in the mid-1990s was believed to be in its last days.  Back then, Microsoft was ascendant, and Apple maintained only niche markets for their products, like education.

In fact, I was a typical customer.  In 1994, when I was heading off to college at USC, I purchased a Macintosh Performa for my dorm room.  Compared to the Gateway that my parents had at home, the computer was simple, elegant, and user-friendly.  Still, in retrospect I can see why these bad boys never took off in the business world.

In 1996, Apple brought back Steve Jobs as CEO, and the company began innovating again.    However, not everyone was sold; for my graduation gift, I received a clunky Dell desktop.  This machine was awful; I faced the blue screen of death at least once a week, and required a replacement of the motherboard within two years of purchase.  By the time I returned to school in 2003 at Penn State, I returned to my computing roots.  Apple, with Jobs back at the helm, was producing incredible notebooks, as well as new music players, the iPods.  I am not an early-adopter by any means; by 2003 iPods were already ubiquitous.  However, I still remember the first time I went jogging with my iPod, and the sheer joy I found in the shuffle function.

Steve Jobs changed the landscape of technology, twice.  First of all, in 1984, Apple released the Macintosh with this famous Super bowl ad.  He made the personal computer personal, unlike the grey MS-DOS machines produced by IBM.  Then, when the company he founded was on the ropes, he transformed technology from a business setting to a personal setting.  The outstanding Mac Books were certainly part of that.  However, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad brought technology out of the office, and into the streets, onto the subway, into the car.  First, our music collection was untethered from walls of plastic.  Then, TV was portable; while living in Japan I loved watching Jon Stewart on my Subway commute.  Finally, with the iPad, maybe we will eventually become untethered from our physical books, magazines, and newspapers.  Instead of just business, technology now largely revolves around consumer desires.

However, there is a lesson of caution for Apple.  Microsoft, in the late 1990s, faced off with the Justice Department over its dominance of the browser market. While Microsoft remains profitable, it has not been the same company since.  Now, Apple is in the sights of regulators.  The Justice Department is investigating whether Apple’s dominance of the online music market, with its iTunes store, is above board:

“People briefed on the inquiries also said investigators had asked in particular about recent allegations that Apple used its dominant market position to persuade music labels to refuse to give the online retailer exclusive access to music about to be released.”

Now, who today remembers the browser that had Microsoft all hot and bothered, the Netscape Navigator?  However, Internet Explorer is no longer the dominant browser; Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, along with Explorer, share the market.  In the same way, I doubt that will be a dominant music retailer ten years from now; however, Apple will certainly not be the only large provider of the coming cloud-based music market.

However, don’t be too alarmed for Apple.  Some people fear that the company will falter when Steve Jobs is no longer in charge.  In their book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras identify visionary companies as those that do not rely on one great leader, but rather develop a culture of innovation and success that emanate throughout the company and beyond the founder.  If Steve Jobs is really smart, and I think he is, Apple is poised to continue its history of innovation long after he leaves the company.

UPDATE: Speaking of Built to Last, a company that was celebrated by Collins and Porras was Johnson & Johnson.  In 1982, J&J ordered a nationwide recall of Tylenol after seven people died from poisoned Tylenol in the Chicago area.  That recall, which some at the time felt was unnecessary and expensive, earned J&J many plaudits.  However, now J&J is suffering from criticism that in 2008 the compant concealed a recall of Motrin, a popular pain releiver.  Apparently, the tablets weren’t dissolving, and J&J sent a contractor to surreptitiously buy up the product from stores, but not to mention the word ‘recall.’  There are hearings on Capitol Hill, and the FDA referred the matter to its criminal investigation unit for review.  The troubles that J&J is facing today are striking, compared to the way it earned people’s trust in 1982.