Apple, Google, or Microsoft?

For me, the answer is yes.

I try them all, I love them all, I hate them all. Ok, maybe I don’t hate any of them, but the products produced by Apple, Google, and Microsoft elicit some very strong emotions from their users, myself included. Being old enough to remember living through the rise of each of these tech titans, the hopes and dreams of new and better futures promised by them, allows one to look back and evaluate who was, is, and will be most likely to deliver. To do so, we need to look back at not only the founders, but also to the ones chosen to succeed those founders, and why.

Steve Jobs wanted to create beautiful things. He loved beauty, and thought the world would be a better place if it were filled with more beauty, produced by more people. The Mac was his solution to that problem. Another thing he loved was music – simply look at what he decided to name his company, after the record label of his favorite band, the Beatles. So he continually threw everything he could behind music:  sound on the Mac, iPod, iTunes, ripping and burning, Apple Music streaming, Beats and headphones, Apple Music (formerly iTunes) Festivals, headphone jacks in EVERYTHING, including the iconic ads for iPods featuring silhouettes of corded headphones worn by people listening to music on their beloved devices.

Bill Gates wanted . . . well, I’m not exactly sure what. But business dominance was his early pursuit, and he was comfortable with winning at any cost. So, perhaps his dream was to dominate in the nascent arena of computing, and to do so by outsmarting, or more specifically, outmaneuvering, his competitors. If the burgeoning world of corporate computing, with its logical extension of personal computing, were a game, he would lay it out as a strategic battlefield with pieces to be moved, escape avenues for adversaries to be cutoff, and unconditional capitulation the preferred outcome. Only the full weight and resources of the U.S. federal government and court system thwarted his ultimate victory.

Sergey Brin wanted something other than the Soviet Union. In other words, something other than a crumbling, totalitarian society paralyzed by corruption and the lies that were required to maintain that power structure. For him, born in Moscow and then transplanted to the United States and immersed in its institutions of higher learning and cooperation, information and the freedom to use it were all the power that he seemed to desire. That impossibly altruistic motivation for him and fellow Stanford Computer Scientist Larry Page was enough to drive the creation of a company that would grow to be potentially more powerful than Apple and Microsoft combined, and conceivably as threatening as the Soviet Union was, minus the nukes and troops. You might say that does not sound like much of a threat, but remember, the objective of the Soviet Union was not to annihilate civilization. It was to control it. To manage any threat that may be posed to the Soviet Union itself. No different, really, than any other country’s overriding concern. The most valuable resource the Soviet government had was its intelligence apparatus, which could identify and eliminate small or medium threats before they became larger and more dangerous to the state. The Soviet Union’s leadership would have done anything to acquire the information that Google now possesses on billions of people around the world:  where we go, who we talk to, what we say, what we buy, read, watch, and cheer for, the schools and classes we have attended, who taught them.

Somewhere along the line, something in each of these companies changed. And it changed when the original leadership was replaced. In the case of Apple, it remains to be seen whether the change was for the better or the worse since Tim Cook took the helm; yes, they are more protective of consumer privacy, but they are not as obsessed with providing the best tools with which to create, and they have approached or even surpassed Microsoftian levels of anti-competitive consumer lock-in behavior. Not to mention the seemingly trivial, yet really not, decision to eliminate headphone jacks not only from their own portable devices, but also by virtue of their market leadership, the headphone jacks of most of the important portable devices being turned out today. With Microsoft, it seems as though it is better now that Gates and Gates Jr. (Steve Ballmer, an even more hyper-competitive, less nerdy version of Gates) have been succeeded by the more cooperative, plays-well-with-others Satya Nadella. And for Google, we are all far worse off than we were before the founders brought on “adult leadership” in the form of Eric Schmidt, who introduced maximum profit as the main reason for Google to exist, rather than organizing the world’s information with a guiding principle of “don’t be evil” (which has recently been officially dropped by Google as a guiding principle as they pursue censored product offerings monitored by the Chinese government as well as the use of their internally developed AI advances for military purposes by national governments).

Where does all of this leave us? Well, it means that in order to figure out where we might be headed, it is really useful to understand where we came from. And in a world where so much of our daily existence incorporates certain devices and services, we can ask ourselves what we prioritize in those devices, and what we are willing to give up in exchange for what they provide for us. Will we give up more money? Camera quality? Some freedom of choice in how to do things? Interoperability with our families and friends? Privacy? That’s what I endeavor to explore and explain here. Not only for you, but for myself. As one who freely and happily employs technology and devices from all three of these extraordinarily powerful entities (I exclude Facebook from all of this for the simple reason that, given what has already transpired so publicly with that company, I can only recommend that people stay as far away from any Facebook product as possible; please know that I am exercising tremendous personal restraint in the measured word choice employed here, and that I do believe that it is just a matter of time before the company is really taken to the woodshed by various governmental authorities including those in the United States and Europe), I am keenly aware of the trade-offs that I make with each decision. I would like to share some of that experience and insight with anyone who is interested in it, with whatever small slice of finite attention he or she is able to spare.

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