Well Rounded Companies

People often mention the term well rounded to describe folks who are good at more than one thing. John is a biology wiz, but he also knows a lot about sports and plays basketball every week. John is also well educated in history, given his fascination with medieval Europe. We are all familiar with this term in regards to people, but I’ve been recently thinking how appropriate this term is for describing companies. For this post, we will be taking a look into a few well-known companies: Apple, Google, and Microsoft to see just how well rounded they are. I have picked three easily comparable criteria to gauge these companies by: design expertise, functionality expertise, and empathy (arguably the hardest characteristic to measure). These are three attributes that I believe substantially differentiate companies (unlike say, business models, which are necessary but not sufficient attributes), and are prime reasons for their success. This comparison only works when compared in relative terms; we can’t compare a tech company to a luxury car manufacturer since they solve different problems. 

Apple 

It is hard to argue that Apple’s design expertise is anything other than prudential. Apple products are renowned for their hardware differentiation. Competitors base their designs on the paradigm set by Apple, not vice versa. In terms of software design, I would argue that Apple is in the lead, but not by the country mile it leads in hardware. 

A common complaint people have with Apple products is their lack of functionality. Functionality is an umbrella term for anything a consumer may want to do with the device. Mac OS X notoriously doesn’t have many games on the platform (although this has improved lately), iOS has no file explorer, and so on. Compared to the functionality Android and Windows offer, Apple devices are much more limited in functionality. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this point; the minimum functionality must meet the minimum functionality demands of consumers, and anything more can actually lead to confusion and dysfunctionality. 

Finally, let’s talk about Apple’s empathy. What I mean here of course is how well Apple understands the needs, desires, and all that other gooey stuff of its consumers. An empathetic company is able to correctly predict what customers may want, and offer that amount in terms of functionality. Judging purely on the extraordinary success of the iPhone and Mac platforms, I would characterize Apple as an extremely emphatic company. In most cases, it accurately predicts the problems a user experiences, and solves them a way they can appreciate. The key here is to focus on the average user. Apple does not cater well to users on the outskirts, and nor does it attempt to. 

Google 

Although Google was off to a slow start, their design expertise has improved dramatically in the last few years. Android is no longer the terminator OS from the future - it is colorful, friendly, and humane. Chrome OS is similarly playful, and appears to be improving rapidly. In fact, all of Google’s products are relatively well designed. In a vacuum, Google’s design is impressive, but it still had a long way to go to come near Apple. Google’s products are often difficult to navigate and are loaded with options (functionality), to the detriment of their design. 

The functionality Google products offer is vast. You can do pretty much anything you would want to do with a computer on Android. Gmail has hundreds of different settings that you can tweak to your liking. Google’s portfolio of products and services is expansive; the term focus does not exist in Google’s otherwise complete dictionary. As hinted earlier, functionality is a blessing and a curse. Too little and nobody will use your product. Too much, and nobody will understand how to use your product. Finding the right balance is difficult. On average, Google provides more functionality at the risk of overbearing complexity. 

Google has probably gotten the worst press on this last attribute, empathy. There is a long cemetery of services that Google has put to rest, mostly because they didn’t vibe with consumers. Most prominent such service was Google+, which was supposed to be a social network for Google users. It still exists, but Google has all but abandoned their quest for social. Many users are also increasingly wary of privacy and tracking, which goes against the nature of Google. Google makes money based on advertising, which itself requires user data. Google may understand that consumers value privacy on an intellectual level, but that does not change the company’s behavior in meaningful ways. Just as Apple thinks it knows design better than the consumer, Google believes openness is superior to privacy. There is no right or wrong here, there is only is and isn’t. 

Microsoft 

If you lived through the 1990s and 2000s with Microsoft products, you would know just how uninspired their design was. Nobody would ever call Windows XP beautiful (if one such person exists, direct them to me, and I will cover the eye doctor charges). That all changed with Windows 8 and the Metro interface, and has only been improving with Satya Nadella at Microsoft’s helm. The design may not be for everyone, but it’s undeniably opinionated and an improvement over prior Microsoft products. Microsoft began designing for consumers, not corporations. 

Microsoft products have always been strong in their functionality offering. I don’t think you will find a person in the world who knows every single Excel function and feature - the same can be said about nearly every Microsoft product. More than Google, Microsoft classically aimed to appease the needs of every user, even if it made the product more difficult to use. Lately though, Microsoft has begun to strip functionality away, catering to the 99%, abandoning the 1% power user. 

Microsoft has always understood the needs of enterprise users, but regular John Doe consumers were a mythical beast with unexplainable desires. Microsoft clearly understood the fundamental needs of corporations: collaboration, security and liability precautions, support, and product uniformity were all provided by Microsoft. These attributes, however, added almost nothing to ordinary consumers, who Microsoft all but abandoned. For this reason, Microsoft went down in history as being extremely empathetic to enterprise, and not at all to consumers. Full credit is again due to Microsoft for changing priorities so quickly. The new Microsoft is still enterprise friendly, but it now understands the need of consumers. Microsoft Office is available on every platform, it is free for practical purposes, and I dare to say that the apps are excellent. 

Coda 

Given the task of ranking Apple, Google, and Microsoft in these three attributes, I would define the following order. 

Design 

1) Apple

2) Google

3) Microsoft

Functionality 

1) Google/Microsoft

2) Apple

Empathy 

1) Apple

2) Microsoft

3) Google

Note that weights are not assigned to each attribute - not because the attribute doesn’t deserve a weight but because it requires further analysis (maybe in a later post). In other words, empathy may matter more than design, but how much more exactly is unknown to me at this time. We should also note that the rankings of each company changes through time. The above rankings are how I see the companies at the present time, not yesterday or tomorrow. 


Feel free to comment and assign your own rankings in the comments section below. It would be interesting to compare what others think.

Google 2014 Q1 Results

I've been quite busy with schoolwork, "work" work, and learning to code, so forgive me for posting so sporadically. I may not be posting very often, but I've still been consuming all of the latest tech news as vigorously as ever, so all is dandy. Anyway, that's enough of my solipsism. This week we have a small treat from Google, with their 2014 Quarter 1 results. Below is a transcribed (and beautified) income statement. Percentages are mine.

Google Q1 2014 Income Statement. Q1 2013 included for comparison.   - Items highlighted in red reduce net income.    - Items highlighted in green increase net income.   - Items in black are totals. 

Google Q1 2014 Income Statement. Q1 2013 included for comparison. 

- Items highlighted in red reduce net income. 

- Items highlighted in green increase net income.

- Items in black are totals. 

Some things of particular interest:

  • Revenues grew healthily, despite what Wall Street skeptics will say. As many analysts have noted, Google revenues closely follow the amount of Google users (due to advertising). For revenues to continue growing, the user base has to expand. The U.S. is saturated already (pretty much everybody is a Google user), so revenue growth will either have to come from 1) international users, or 2) other ways of monetizing current users. It's also worth noting that international users are less profitable than U.S. ones.
  • For every dollar earned, Google spends $0.14 on Research & Development. Google Glass, Google Maps, self driving cars, Android, Google TV, I can go on with other projects Google is involved in. The good part is that they are constantly innovating. The bad is that many, no - most products never leave the lab. Overall, it's great to see a large company spending so much on research and innovation. Looks like it's not stopping. Google spent 31.5% more on R&D this Q1 compared to last year. 
  • Large increase in General & Administrative costs. Are they hiring up? Becoming larger and thus less efficient? Hard to say, but the increase is there and worth pointing out. 
  • Net Income rose by 3.17%. Not bad, but not exactly stellar performance either. Considering revenues rose 19%, I would like to see net income follow revenue growth more closely. Trim down the fat (SG&A expenses). That said, technology companies are rarely efficient, so this is nothing to worry about, but again, worth pointing out. 

That's all for now. In the future, I would like to make some comparisons over a longer time period (10 years), but for now, this will do. As always, you can contact me here (I don't bite) or in the comment section below. 

 

It’s All In The Details

My first smartphone was the Motorola Droid. After using it for a week, I recognized two things very quickly. First, having the internet in your unnecessarily tight pocket was a disruptive technology being put under your command. It was incredible; instead of having to go home to look up something on the internet, you could do it from your phone - anytime and anywhere (unless you use T-Mobile or Sprint, of course). I’m sure most of you felt the same way after getting your first smartphone. 

That’s all obvious. The second thing I realized early on was how much better the Motorola Droid could be. Although it was my first smartphone, I had owned an iPod touch before, which made me accustomed to the concept of apps and web browsing on a tiny screen. In other words, I had already been initiated into the world of iOS, but I didn’t yet know how hard it would be to leave it.

As you surely know, the Motorola Droid was an Android phone. I chose it because I was on Verizon, which didn't carry the iPhone at the time, and the Motorola Droid was the best smartphone they had. From Day 1, I knew this phone was not for me. 

The hardware, what reviewers called spectacular “industrial design”, was in my opinion dreadful. The build quality was excellent (I dropped it many a time, and it never broke), but the design was the epitome of Android; practical and functional, but not a sliver of imagination or user experience in mind. It was like a durable car. It had four wheels that got you from point A to point B, but you never enjoyed riding it. It was a mean looking phone. Suffice to say, I hated every single day that I had to experience the lack of smoothness and the dearth of apps on Android that I was previously accustomed to with my iPod Touch. 

Then the iPhone 4 came to Verizon, slipping right into my pocket. Yep, you bet I got it the day it was announced for Verizon. I was always jealous of friends who had it on AT&T, while I had to put up with the Droid. But now it was mine. 

Then I got the iPhone 4S. And then the iPhone 5. The last intruder, the iPad mini. At a cursory glance, one would probably call me an Apple enthusiast (aka fanboy), but I never saw myself in that way. I always saw myself as a person who likes the best possible product, disregarding the company that made it. I didn't care if the company was Apple or Huawei or Microsoft, I judged simply by the product they sold, and still do. 

Let me now tell you why I love iOS devices so much before I get to the instigator of this post. It’s the details – Apple sweats them. I like how pinch to zoom just feels right. I like seeing that bouncing effect after scrolling too fast and hitting the top or bottom of the screen, just like it would in real life if I threw a ball against the wall. I like using an app (Apple’s or a 3rd party) and getting the feeling it was made by somebody who cares about the minute details. Somebody like me. I also like, and this doesn’t go for everyone, not having a billion and one choices. When I had the Droid, I rooted it to customize the hell out of the phone, to overlock it, and to do generally nerdy stuff. This took time, lots of it, which I now appreciate not having to worry about (I jailbroke for the first few months, but quickly decided I don’t have the time to keep up with new developments). 

But people say that iOS is getting stale, and sometimes I agree with them. So I got a HTC One. The main reason was because I needed a business phone, and carrying two iPhone’s was silly. But the other was that I wanted to see what this recent commotion about Android was all about; did it really improve much since I last used it with the Droid? Here are my thoughts after using the HTC One (which most say is the best Android phone available at the moment) for a few weeks.

I’m not The Verge or Engadget, I won’t be giving you SpeedTests or Quadrant scores. Instead, I’ll be writing about the aesthetic and experiential differences of using iOS versus Android. Going in, I was thoroughly excited and honestly expected to be wooed into Android. Going out, well, you’ll find out soon. 

Setting up the One was almost as simple as setting an iPhone, except you log into your Google account, but filing out the password and username forms already felt slightly off. It was nowhere near what you would call laggy, but I felt the awkward scrolling already. 

It’s been years since I last used the Droid, so when I opened up the Chrome browser on the HTC One I assumed they fixed pinch to zoom. After all, it’s a feature everybody uses. Every day. All Day. In fact, I would venture to say that it’s a fundamental part of any mobile operating system. Pinch to zoom allows for the direct manipulation of the digital world through physical gestures. And it’s vitally important to nail down. I gave Android a pass with the Droid since it was a relatively new OS back then, but not today. Today, I expected it to be as smooth as iOS. But was it?

As soon as I opened Chrome I started zooming in and out to test how Android has improved in the last few years. It was much smoother. There was no stutter as before, and the animation was fluid. But it was still off. Pinching and zooming didn't exactly follow the movements of my fingers; it was ever so slightly delayed. Always a step back. Not mirroring the physical world. 

I tried the same experiment within the photo’s application, and the same problem was there. The animation was incongruent with my movements, and that bugged me. It still bugs me. Why doesn't Google fix this? It can’t be because they want the pinch to zoom interactions to be delayed by design. I can only think of two reasons for this annoyance. One, they can’t reproduce the elegance of the iOS user experience. Or two, they don’t see anything wrong with how Android functions. After all, it’s been almost four years since I last used the Droid (which had Android 2.0), and the interactions still haven’t been fixed. Really, it’s probably a combination of both reasons. 

Much has been said about the dearth of quality applications on Android, so I won’t beat a dead horse. I’ll just lightly bang it. Android applications, even the best ones, are not even as smooth as the first iPhone. That’s not necessarily the fault of developers, but of Android as a whole. The same lack of precision and user experience that is missing from pinch to zoom is present in all aspects of the Android experience. Every single app registers taps and gestures in a way that’s not natural feeling. It feels robotic. Mechanical. Unemotional. It feels like an Android. 

And I finally understood the whole Android versus iOS debate. People who use Android and evangelize it don’t notice the frustrations I am experiencing. Or if they do, they don’t seem to mind them. Notice that I never said Android is worse than iOS. I just said that it’s not for me. If you’re the type of person who prioritizes functionality, practicality, and customizability, Android may be right for you. It definitely gives you more freedom, and by proxy, more power user features. It’s very much open to tinkering. 

In the other jean pocket, we have iOS. If you are more of a perfectionist, who cares about every single interaction, gesture, design, pixel, Android will never lend itself to you. It will feel foreign and cold, whereas iOS will feel friendly. You will be at home with the iPhone. 

Different people like different things. The important part is finding the thing that works for you. I tried both platforms, and I can’t see myself leaving iOS until Android improves the user experience to be on par. Alternatively, Android users will never use iOS until it embraces more of an “open” approach – a day I doubt will ever come. There’s room for both platforms, and maybe a third. And that, we can all appreciate. 

 

The Birth Of A Fanboy

Note: I originally wrote this post on my previous blog, which has since been deprecated. To my surprise, the post became a hit, and The Tech Block contacted me to publish it, which you can find here. I am adding it to this site because this is where it belongs, as this is the place I will be doing my writing from now on. With that said, here's the piece below. 

 

How exactly does one become a fanboy? To understand how this transformation happens, let’s begin with the birth of a fanboy. 

Birth

A fanboy for company X isn’t born a fanboy for company X. Nobody loves Apple just because Apple exists. They have come to love it for various reasons. The products, the actions, the values - all of these things make a person align themselves with a company. And there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong, however, is when that company is no longer what it used to be, and yet you still see it for its past behaviors. You staunchly defend it from criticisms even though you subconsciously know that the critics are at-least partially right.  

Let’s get back to the birth of a fanboy. You’re new to tech, so you don’t have a favorite company…yet. You read various blogs; The VergeEngadgetCNET for comprehensive coverage of all things technology. Google news, Apple news, Microsoft news, you absorb it all, but you still don’t have a favorite company. Until you buy your first iPhone. Now you’re invested in Apple. Apple’s success is now your success, Apple’s failure is your failure. But why? 

First, you want more people to buy iPhones after having bought one yourself. If Apple keeps making money, the iPhone you own will keep getting updated. Apple will see the demand for it, and they will focus their attention on the product you own. You know that, so you tell all your friends how great your iPhone is. But you hate some aspect of the phone, such as the fact that you can’t set a default browser such as Chrome. Guess what though? You leave that part out from your friends because you want them to buy an iPhone, and that little quirk can make them purchase an Android phone instead. And you don’t want that because that means more people buy Android, and thus less iPhones, and even further, that Apple makes less money. “What if so few people purchase iPhones that Apple eventually stops development for it" you ask yourself. That would also mean less developers are incentivized to create apps for you. Finally, you’re left with an abandoned phone without applications!

Not only does that leave you with an abandoned phone, but it also means that you made the incorrect phone choice. You made a bad decision, and you were wrong. Nobody wants to be wrong.

Every rational human being thinks in that way. Nobody wants to end up with a forsaken phone on a dead operating system, so they glamorize the phone they own. People who don’t own that phone, or who don’t have a vested interest in the success of company X will write terrible reviews about the product. They will criticize the faults, features it’s missing, and other qualities of the phone. 

So to defend your investment, you post comments that we categorize as “fanboyish". You try to dismiss these criticisms because, even though you know they are correct, they decrease the value of your investment. And there you go, a fanboy is born.