Those who know me know that I like tech, but I don’t talk about it a whole lot on the ol’ blog. So, today, I am.
One of the topics that has caught my mind lately is the challenge of mobile optics for the big software+tech companies. Specifically I am referring to Google, Apple, Sony and Microsoft. The reason why I mention these four companies is because of some interrelationships that the four of them are exercising, some in different ways than others. For the sake of making a point, I am writing this with the knowledge I currently have, and not doing additional research so I can make a fair observation on each company’s marketing reach from my current point of view as a consumer. I am not attempting to be objective, and I will not be comparing spec sheets.
Who is making your phone?
Google has something in beta called Android. I do not know a whole lot about it. What I do know is that no one is talking about it except for some tech people, and that is that. I am sure it will be impressive, but Google has some work to do on user interfaces if they want to compete with the mobile devices out there today. The good news for Google is that everyone already trusts them. The bad news for Google is that they may have missed the boat on this one.
There were rumors that Google and Apple were collaborating on a phone to replace the initial model of the iPhone, but that did not happen. Instead, Apple released the iPhone 3G and launched it world wide. To say the least, it is known that Apple makes the iPhone. Google’s “Android” operating system for mobile devices is .. well, it has made some news of its own.
I have a Sony Ericsson phone, but it feels very disconnected from everything that goes on. The screen is tiny, the browser is a bit of a joke, and I am not using it for anything other than phoning. That is fine, that’s what I bought it for. However, there is no future for phones like this compared to the other devices out there. There is a games store, but the games are very small and pathetic. It’s a good medium for some of the console classics, but that may be because the phone has similar processing powers to the original Nintendo. Maybe a little more (to play MP3’s). I don’t know if Sony has a competitor to the iPhone – if they do, nobody has mentioned it to me. Ok, in the middle of writing this, it turns out they’ve just announced one called XPERIA X1 – but it’s not on the market yet.
Microsoft has a Mobile platform called Windows Mobile. I know that it exists because I have seen a few people using HTC mobile devices, and Windows Mobile is what it runs. I do not know if Microsoft makes any mobile devices of their own with that operating system on it. They make two button mice though.
Microsoft Office is successful due to the ubiquity factor – that is, to say, since it is already everywhere, people want it. Everyone knows what it is, everyone hates it, but everyone uses it anyway because of that. Thats the power of ubiquity. But it is not the only choice.
Apple has a suite called iWork. Hardly anyone I know uses it for anything besides presentations, where they use Keynote. Keynote is a fancy version of Powerpoint and it’s what Steve Jobs uses during his, you guessed it, Keynote presentations. Usually you find out about new iProducts via a Keynote presentation, or the media (who tell you about those new products) finds out this way.
Sony, well – again, if they have something, nobody talks about it. They make pocketable radios – fair enough. Perhaps they’ll make a comeback here.
Google is making the most interesting progress in this department. Google Docs is easily the most modern office suite out there, with multi-user documents being a core strength. Also a strength: Portability. Google Docs operates entirely in the web browser, and your documents are stored on Googles own ultra-fast and ubiquitous hard drive space, for free. Collaborating? Look no further. First of all, the one copy that you allow others to edit (by invitation) can be opened by several authors at once, and it will lock paragraphs or cells of a document or spreadsheet so that you can all actively contribute. No sending around old versions, or having 100 different file names and wondering which one is newest, or if two people have been editing the newest version on their own – it’s all centralized on Google Documents. This is a big deal if you’ve ever worked in group environments. I know you’re sick of seeing file names like “Education Report (Revised) FINAL [Edit 5] Dec 30th.doc”. Move on from the madness, divorce yourself from Microsoft Office. Changes are tracked by user and you can go back in the history of the documents at any time. For group projects, Google Documents can not be beat. This is destined to be a Microsoft Office killer.
Sony’s marketing has pretty much always been the same – premium product offering like Apple, but completely different approach. Sony’s marketing right now is exactly what Apple’s was before the first iMac, and that was a long time ago. “We’re cool, you’re cool, this is sophisticated, and you will be too once you own one.” That seems to work for them, so I’ll leave it at that.
The Apple campaigns are an example of the power of marketing. Apple understands how to manufacture desire and you only need to look at their cheapest product to understand this. The iPod Shuffle does very little, but it does it with style and extreme simplicity. Apple’s elegant products are being matched by elegantly clever commercials, and the simplicity of both is causing people to really get it. The second part of this advertising is their Switch to Mac (from PC) commercials, which are also being received fairly well. This has bothered some people, and I am sure not the least of which is Microsoft.
Microsoft is the proud owner of an optics problem. What does that mean? It means that Microsoft owns 100% of the fact that people do not trust them – so much, that a lot of folks, when prompted to do critical system updates, will not allow them, because they think Microsoft might mess up their computer. Probably not far from the truth in some circumstances, but nonetheless Microsoft has felt the need to reconnect with their market. To do this, they have the amazingly uncharismatic Bill Gates star in a commercial with Jerry Seinfeld. I have no doubt that the intention is to rebuild familiarity, which is one of the building blocks of trust. This is what they came up with, as of two weeks ago:
If Bill Gates is what everyone perceives to be the face of Microsoft (and it is, regardless of his off-payroll status), then this is not a very endearing move on Microsoft’s part. They did a second commercial with Seinfeld and Gates, but I’ll leave it out. It was four and a half minutes long and I have no idea where they thought they were going to air it. As you may have heard, Microsoft has decided to scrap the Seinfeld commercials and are going to move more directly towards Apple’s campaign by hiring someone who looks a lot like someone from the Apple commercials. Well, Windows Vista is a rather poor rip off of Mac OS X, so at least they’re being consistent with their inspiration. You would think they would have learned their lesson with the response to Vista, though.
I find it genuinely puzzling that Microsoft initially used Bill Gates to personify Microsoft. He is not likable, and there was no evident synergy with Seinfeld. He is the face, but he is not a marketing campaign, nor is he capable of being a part of one. Apple’s man is Steve Jobs, and although his used socks have more charisma than Bill Gates on his wedding day, Apple doesn’t put Steve in the commercials. Apple does not have a problem with trust or a desperate need to connect, because they are already connected. Microsoft has their back up against the wall, and that could be why they dropped $10 million on Seinfeld for some commercials that they didn’t even end up using. Their image is in trouble and these floated commercials did not help. We did get a funny Penny Arcade out of it though. Thanks to Adam for the link.
Google’s advertising is themselves. They’re in the dictionary, look ’em up. Their strategy is to innovate and not be evil. It is working, and people like them as a result. This matters when people are deciding where to store their email, pictures, files etc.
Calendars, Email, etc
The stuff we would probably prefer to do without, but would be a colossal mess if we didn’t have: Email and Calendars.
Apple has a very slick app called iCal. If you have seen this or used it, you also now know how to use Google Calendar. The two are practically identical except Google Calendar is on the web, so you can access it from any computer and also update it from anywhere. iCal requires a paid “Mobile Me” account (formerly known as .mac) for synchronization between devices. Mobile Me is a subscription based service, meaning you pay and you get some services which seem like they should be free. To me, this seems like a lost opportunity – we have superior alternatives (Google Calendar) so why make us pay for something that isn’t as ubiquitous? That is how Apple lost me on their iCal and I switched to Google Calendar a couple years ago. Apple’s “Mail” is not a bad program, but the spam filter needs some serious work. It was smart for the first couple years but then spammers got smarter, and the filter didn’t. Return to sender.
Google has gmail – and it rocks just as much as you’ve heard it does. You don’t have to delete anything, the spam filter is tight, integration with Google Calendar is smooth, labeling and multiple mailboxes are supported, and it’s on the web, so again you can check from anywhere and you are not tied down to your computer, nor are you taking up space on your computer or slowing it down. It’s all stored on the Google cloud – a vast network of computers and storage space that is shared and continually built up.
Microsoft’s flagship email client is Outlook. Not a big surprise there – it’s as old as the wood paneling on the walls in your parents basement. Outlook has a calendar, it’s fine for what it does and probably suits the needs of most people who don’t feel like looking any further than what is provided to them. It is, however, a clunky piece of software that you’d never choose if you actually gave it some thought. It is the Big Mac on a menu of fine Italian food that you’re too embarrassed to try and pronounce, but you really should try. The new version of Outlook actually uses Microsoft Word’s incomplete, non-standard HTML rendering engine. It doesn’t support full CSS, so that means emails you receive, such as newsletters from any professional association you might be a part of, will not appear correctly. Things like margins and background images will be absent, and it is a step back into the mid-nineties so far as technology goes. You can do better than this.
Sony has some sort of calendar on my Sony Ericsson phone, but it doesn’t synchronize with iCal or Google Calendar, and I refuse to install outlook on any of my home computers so I don’t know about that. The interface is small and the screen on the phone is too small to be of much use when it comes to a table-based layout like a calendar.
Instead of trying to use my Sony Ericsson phone calendar, I use the iCal on my iPod Touch. The iCal is a native app for the iPod Touch/iPhone, and I prefer to use it over the web interface for Google Calendar on small screens. You can sync your iCal with your Google Calendar via NuevaSync – a third party app that gets Apple and Google to play nice together. How sweet it is – another thanks to Adam for passing this on. The funny thing here is that NuevaSync uses a Microsoft Exchange server to make them all work together. Data portability moves in mysterious ways. Apple’s iPod Touch/iPhone also allows you to set up your Gmail account directly as an IMAP account on your hand-held device, allowing you to respond and read messages directly on the server through a very slick interface. I like it when these devices and services play nice together. Sony could take some notes here.
When will the pace slow down?
If you are the type that likes to wait until things settle down into more concrete forms before you get into something, the bad news is that it wont. Technology is a constantly evolving arena and that means that you will be seeing new items and advances all the time. The good news is that competition between companies is strong, and that means that these businesses are spending lots of money on matching features from others and innovating. This healthy competition means that the consumer is left with superior products for their dollar, and better choices all around as a result.