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The Grand Strategy Rathole

Like so many entrepreneurs, I pretty much worship Steve Jobs. As a 40-something entrepreneur in a world of startups run by kids who can’t even grow facial hair, he’s the holy patron saint of the Second Chance and the still-getting-it-on-when-you’re-over-50-CEO.

And most important of all — the Grand God of Great Product Design.

But I gotta say, I just hate what Apple has been doing these past few months.

The genius, the real absolute genius, of the digital age the past 10 years, has been the “small pieces, loosely joined” nature of it. People got out from under the Microsoft and AOL soviet stores of the 1990s and cobbled together cool services that we all (mostly) love and take for granted now (YouTube, flickr, WordPress, Twitter, Facebook and on and on). Most of these services are built on a hodge-podge of open source software, with a thousand lightweight things like Flash thrown in.

Apple (mostly) participated in and benefited from this. Just to give one example: the embrace of MP3 in the iPod. Apple could have taken the purist route and only allowed AAC. They could have made a zillion arguments why it was the right thing to do, and could have bashed MP3 as a bloated, lossy, aged format.

But they didn’t because they were a different company then. A more desperate company. A lot of us had music on our PCs (the Mac hadn’t yet been revived) in the MP3 format. Apple didn’t and couldn’t control the format, but they needed to embrace it for the iPod to win. It made the iPod a better product — no, an awesome product — and made all of us a lot happier.

Starting with the iPod Apple got on a streak of awesomeness, with a great MacBook line powered by OSX, then the iPhone.  With all three of those products, one got the sense that crafting a great user experience was (mostly) paramount. The AT&T lock-in on the iPhone being the most glaringly awful counter-point.

It feels like that has changed over the past months, as Apple has put it’s rediscovered brawn and power on full display. It feels like their focus is changing, from “create a great product” to “dominate the world with Grand Strategy.”

Nothing illustrates this better than Apple’s announcement yesterday about the change in their SDK, and the coverage of that move.  Just look at John Gruber’s defense of Apple’s move on Daring Fireball if you want a taste. The conversation has moved from “Oh. My. God. What an incredible product” to “Well, of course they’re F^$*ng Adobe, here are all the reasons why this is so smart.”

If Apple wanted to make a truly great product, they would have embraced Adobe. Not because Adobe is awesome, but because they’re a part of the fabric of the digital age, a part of the web.  There are tens of thousands of sites out there that found Flash a simple, reliable way to distribute their videos. And hundreds of services (ad serving, statistical tracking, security) that got baked in over time to allow this to flourish.

Apple just changed that, by fiat. Not because it makes their product so much better, but because it fits their new Grand Strategy. Big sites like YouTube, Hulu, blip or even our site Vodpod will make the transition to HTML5 support rapidly. But making that transition is a real pain (if you dare leave a comment telling me how trivial HTML5 is, or that people “should just make an app” I’ll come track you down and punch you in the nose for being a moron) and will be much tougher for  thousands of smaller sites — TeacherTube for fora.tv, for example. Those sites, and their viewers, lose out with Apple’s new strategy.

Brian Lam, in a really terrific review of the iPad, captures this dynamic so well here:

I check my surf and snow sites and most of them work fine. Once, I see a video from some no-name site of the big storm that hit Tahoe with 50 inches of snow last week while covering the iPad launch in NY. It doesn’t work. I am too stoned and cozy in my fuzzy blanket to get up and walk to the office. I bet that video was really good. Every time this happens, I get a little upset, which eats away at my affection for the iPad. This happened 3 times today, and will happen many more times before mom and pop websites get rid of Flash.

It didn’t have to be like that. But sometimes, companies just get too big for their own good, get too caught up playing Grand Strategy, and forget they got there by just making freakin’ great products. Tragic.

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2 thoughts on “The Grand Strategy Rathole

  1. Pingback: The Grand Strategy Rathole « GoodStuff Blog

  2. Very true. In particular, a lot of Mac enthusiasts became enthusiasts because of that past “awesomeness.” Where Windows for decades has been a sandpaper user experience (very high-friction), the Mac has been Teflon, certainly in comparison. As great as the iPod has been, many of us look at the iPhone and, particularly, iOS and say “Steve, yes, that’s a great business, but please don’t disrespect your (very profitable in itself) Mac customers.”

    Apple now looks like the small-town whiz kid who moves to the Big City™ to make his fortune and gets swept away by glitz and glamour. He’s flush with cash because his new-found friends (the music and movie studios) appreciate what he’s done to make them more money. But the dream of making the world a better place through his inventions, his hope of giving later “giants” broader “shoulders” to stand upon to reach their own greatness, is fading fast.

    I think the best thing for everybody would be if Apple were to split into two different companies. One, the reconstituted Apple Computer, would continue to turn myth into opportunity into product into legendary success, as with the iMac and lessons learned from the original Macintosh of old. The second company, Apple Media and Marketing, could attempt to crawl even more deeply into bed with Big “Content,” and see how that plays out.

    The real problem with Apple as one company is, of course, exactly what happens post-Steve. If the company wants to focus on media and “consumption,” the obvious thing to do would be to bring in a (another) well-connected industry bigshot to ride the wave. But, no matter what his intentions, that man will be highly unlikely to have the background or temperament to energize and lead the engineering side of the firm to its next big vision… because he’s not that kind of a visionary.

    Steve, split the company now, while you still hold the high ground.

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