“Time and tide wait for no man.” -- Geoffrey Chaucer
Recently, Nokia was caught faking an ad that showcases its smartphone image stabilization feature. I am fascinated by that story on several levels, technical and social.
First, the decline of Nokia seems awfully similar to the fall of Apple in the mid 1990s. Mr. Jobs was long gone, and while the spirit of Apple remained with the employees, it didn’t seem to be present amongst the senior executives. It was just a company. Get up in the morning, go to work, fight the good fight. But nothing happened. Nothing changed.
No matter what Apple did in the period before Jobs’s return, the company couldn’t gain any traction against the entrenched Microsoft machine. I perceive it as a virtual flowing mindset current, propelled by several sub-currents.
- Microsoft products checked the IT manager’s boxes.
- Communication amongst IT managers and their industry publications reinforced the efficacy of Microsoft business tools.
- Consumers who needed certain tools to work at home chose PCs, Windows and MS Office.
- Large companies, doing business with each other and the government needed excellent interoperability.
- There was a natural fear of being different, being an unruly outsider.
Microsoft achieved a mindset current that carried millions of people along, like Class 3 Whitewater. The momentum was too great to overcome until the genius of Steve Jobs arrived. He saw the sub-currents pulling people along, but he also understood how to attack them. He also understood PC customer pain and offered an attractive, easy to use alternative, the August 1998 iMac. Plus, he understood how to legitimize the process of Thinking Different. Every PC conceit and strategic weakness was addressed with engineering, not hutzpah.
Nokia: Watching From the Shore
The faked video, even though Nokia has admitted the deception and says it is now conducting an ethics review, seems to be a symptom of desperation. That can happen when you do your level best, try to innovate, dump your old smartphone OS, partner with Microsoft, and develop a pretty good phone series, the Lumias. And get nowhere.
The problem is that these mindset currents are so very strong. Once a company gets out in front, playing catch up, as Apple found out with the Macintosh, is really, really hard. Customers can become blindly immersed in a technical flow in their lives and are stubbornly indifferent to shouts of feature superiority. Whether real or contrived. Man does not live on features alone.
It’s like being in a raft in whitewater, struggling with the paddle, and suddenly seeing your girlfriend on shore waving an offer of a beer and a burger. Tempting? Yes. But she gets 500 milliseconds of recognition, and it’s back to paddling furiously. The current is irresistible.
The Apple Macintosh remained in this dilemma for years, and in a sense, is still there. But Apple didn’t panic and grow desperate. The company kept its dignity.
What Apple Did
What was different at Apple was that there was a fellow named Steve Jobs who kept telling the engineers that they could do better. Year after year, we saw the results at WWDC where the engineers ruthlessly, relentlessly, threw away anything that didn’t further the Apple cause. Mr. Jobs opened by removing the executive deadbeats. Then he canned OpenDoc. Mr. Jobs brought a brilliant team over from NeXT and saw to it that additional brilliant engineers were hired by Apple. Innovative industrial design, by Ive, made it genuine fun to own a first generation iMac. Amazingly, it didn't even have Mac OS X yet, but its allure was enormous anyway. (The parallels to Symbian are interesting.)
The movement to NeXT technologies got people mumbling that Apple had become a NeXT subsidiary. Apple seized control of development with Xcode. The engineers moved smartly, briskly to compatible 64-bit systems and began the process of leaving Carbon behind. The bold move to Intel brought the magic sauce: virtualization. Apple worked hard to make multi-threaded code easier and then analyze with performance tools. I could go on... Every year at WWDC after Mr Job's return was a dizzying spectacle of moving forward at warp speed, a process that often left developers dazed but also dazzled. That’s how it goes when the mission is to change the world.
I find it interesting that so much has been written about Apple’s technology development over the years, -- not just the vison of the legendary iCEO -- that hasn't been absorbed by the competition. For example, Apple engineers didn’t just settle for a cool BSD UNIX. They used it as a platform to steadily improve the state-of-the-art. For example, while the launchd daemon replaced a host of legacy UNIX functions and annoyed and confused the Linux IT crowd, it also prepared a modern foundation for iOS and the iPhone. Serendipity wins when you’re aggressive.
Turning the Tide
The bottom line isn’t the development and marketing of features. The mindset current carries most customers right past your feature set. The key is the investment in technologies that lay groundwork so that when the vision and the technology converge, something new and better arises like a phoenix. I’ve seen it said that Nokia isn’t going anywhere until they do something dramatic and leap ahead, but to suggest that some feature set alone can achieve that is short-sighted. The Mac has always had lots of cool features but has remained stuck at single digit marketshare world wide.
And then there are some significant social factors. The whole affair with that ill-conceived ad exhibits a profound misunderstanding of how social media and smart bloggers can turn the tide of public opinion against a company. The swells and tides of the mindset current are found in Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
A final factor is the tribal mentality. Customers are known to select a tribe, hang their self-esteem on it, and exhibit a religious fervor when their (technical) tribe is attacked by outsiders. It was the hallmark of the Mac vs. PC war and was punctuated by Apple’s “Get a Mac” ads. Nowadays, just how Apple and Google have created the iOS and Android tribes and how those companies, in turn, nurture their tribes has been fascinating to watch. Nokia, headquartered in Finland, never built a strong North American tribe.
So what’s left when you just don’t settle down and do the right things? Desperation may be all there is.
Image credit: Shutterstock.