28 December 2010

Product Companies Vs. Technology Companies - by Trent Oster

      Posted 08/10/10 01:43:00 pm  

Apple is not a technology company. Sounds crazy doesn't it? My hypothesis is that Apple is instead a product company and as such is oriented around different priorities than other technology firms.

I've been in game development for 15 years and I've seen a wide variety of game products created and some were true products, while others were more technology showcases. Technology is seductive. Technology is excessively seductive to software developers. Good technology offers a chance to show your naked ability, almost a billboard for your skills. As a result, technology development can be somewhat masturbatory in nature and gone too far can lead to disaster.

During my career at BioWare we had a term for technology gone awry, we called it Cathedral Building. What happens is the developer focus shifts from developing a solution to a problem to developing a beautiful bit of code or architecture for a system.

The end result isn't a solution to a problem, the result is usually overcomplexity and a poor user experience. What does any of this have to do with Apple, you ask? Well, unlike most technology companies, where the means sometimes becomes the purpose, Apple is able to keep the true target in focus and create great products and not great code.

Im not an Apple fanboy, in fact I was a hardcore PC guy for the last 20 years. I'm starting to become an Apple fan, not because of the cult of Steve, but because they make some good products, they concentrate on the user experience.

I'm a fan of Google, but I can see the differences in the software. Google is a technology company who happens to make products. They dont follow through A-Z in the same way Apple does on user experience and polish. I'd argue that Google has become obsessed with everything in a browser even when it doesnt make sense. They are pursuing the technology, not the problem.

Now, I'm a user of Gmail and Google docs and I think these are great products (free helps a lot). These make sense in the current connected world, where collaboration is a requirement. Some of the newer initiatives seem off track and seem to ignore some truths. We are in an era of unprecedented processing power at our fingertips. My iPhone has more power than most of the computers I developed games on over the years. To me it makes a ton of sense to use that local processing power as much as possible.

That power can be used to deliver consistent, quality user experiences. To push everything into a browser (which to me feels like a sub-OS) ignores the quality you can deliver by leveraging all that local power. As a developer I also want to optimally use every pixel on the screen for my software, especially on the smaller mobile screens, A browser does not let me do this and in fact forces a number of unpleasant concessions on my software, limited my ability to deliver a quality experience. Technology is a means, not the end.

The major technology company offender I've seen lately has been Microsoft. I've used Microsoft products since I started using PCs and I've always had a love/hate relationship with the software. Ive lost count of how many times I've wanted to administer a virtual punch to some Microsoft developer for some haywire feature. MS has been focused on platform and software justification for a long time now.

Rather than creating the best solution for problems they look for problems that the platform they have can help with. The end result is often a square peg in a round hole, like all the tablet computers MS has built over the years. They also lack an ability to turn a new concept into reality. Take Microsoft surface. When it was first shown, it blew a ton of people away, but, where is it? Why couldnt I have a surface based PC years ago? Id argue it didn't fit with the MS goals of pushing the platform and software so they didnt fast track it to market.

I recently read an article calling for the death of Microsoft in the Globe and Mail. I think it is sensationalist, but they are somewhat correct in the assessment of an inability to innovate at the company. They've lost focus on the user experience.

So, since this is my blog and I'm allowed to ramble, I'll end this discussion on technology vs product. Apple is doing some things well right now by focusing on the typical user experience and the product. Google is doing quite good, but I think is at risk of getting lost in the technology.

As for Microsoft, I personally know some smart people who work there and the problem isn't in the trenches. The problem is leadership and vision, or rather lack of both. Without a clear focus from the top on the user and the product you have a rudderless technology company. In summation, product and user experience is what technology development is about, not just technology development for its own sake.

    Comments
Prash Nelson-Smythe
10 Aug 2010 at 12:36 pm PST

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