Corporate “Projects”

I grew up on the western side of Baltimore. The only white people I saw were the store owners on Edmonson Avenue, and the few brave insurance salesmen unlucky enough to have our neighborhood as part of their area and desperate enough to try to make money there.

My neighborhood wasn’t a bad place. Parents sat out on gleaming white marble steps on hot Summer nights and watched us kids play while passing hot gossip and cold watermelon between them. Crossing guards knew each child: get out of line and your parent knew about it before you got home from school that afternoon. I have many fond memories of my early childhood in West Baltimore.

Just as it happens today for many people whose lives are pushed over the edge by circumstances beyond their control, so was my family’s. We had to move from our idyllic neighborhood to the dreaded “Projects” in Dundalk, a southeastern neighborhood in Baltimore. There I learned one thing: It is very hard to see yourself in any situation other than the miserable world you currently live in.

Having access to just one way of life, doing things just one way because it’s the only way you know how to do it, saps your mind, drains any shred of optimism, and makes you believe that your world is it. It’s a mental cage almost as effective as any physical fence, and if it wasn’t for my early years in West Baltimore, had I been born in the Projects, I would have believed that that miserable place was all life had to offer. I would likely be jailed, drugged out, or dead by now.

You don’t have to be in The Projects to feel as if you’re living in one. Many of us, from time to time, get so deep in a rut that when we look up all we see are the walls of that rut, the world beyond may as well not exist.

A little bit ago my friends and fellow TMO Towers residents, Bryan Chaffin and John Martellaro, were discussing the new Mototola Superbowl Xoom commercial where the company that gave us the Razr is trying show off its new Xoom tablet by re-visualizing Apple’s 1984 commercial.

Basically what my esteemed colleagues said was that the commercial is a misfire, that Motorola, attempting to show that it is somehow cooler, more of a maverick than Apple. Actually it only winds up showing the world that it isn’t in the same league as Apple. So much so that not only is it copying the iPad, but Apple’s commercial as well.

Motorola’s commercial reminds me a bit of the mentality I had when I was in the Dundalk Projects. Just as it was hard for me to stretch my mind to see myself in a life beyond the Projects, Motorola, like nearly every other device maker, seems stuck in a corporate “Projects” where innovations amounts to “me too”, and true creativity is beyond them. They literally cannot see beyond the spreadsheets, and Powerpoint presentations. They can’t imagine taking a chance for the sake of chance.

I left the Projects for the Air Force. I wanted a life so different from the one I was living in that continuing to live the way I had been was simply unimaginable. It worked. I now know that my life is not my environment, and that I can make it what I want it to be.

Motorola, like ASUS and HP,  is looking to beat Apple at its own game. The problem is that Apple isn’t playing a game, at least not one that these folks can see. Apple is out to make products that people want. If Apple owns 50% of any particular market or 5%, it makes little difference to them as long as enough people buy their product to turn a profit. Of course, having a big market share is nice, but unlike those other companies, Apple is not controlled or limited by it. It can make itself into whatever it chooses to be.

It’s a liberating feeling, and one that HP, ASUS, or Motorola seemingly can’t imagine exists, which is why you’ll continue to see products that look and act like Apple’s, “only better” (but aren’t really), and commercials that are little more than reheated Apple leftovers.

Now before you dismiss this as fanboy musings understand that if any company would make products the way Apple does (as oppose to trying to make products like Apple does) then I’d root for them too. It’s why I’m handing Rupert Murdock my $39.99 for a year’s subscription of  The Daily, and why I intend to buy as many articles from The Atavist as my budget will allow. It’s why I’m a fan of  Ford and Mazda, and Saturn before GM screwed them over. It’s why I seriously looked at netbooks when they first arrived, and why I’ve sponsored several projects at Kick Starter.

It’s not the company so much as the philosophy Apple follows that i’m a fan of.