You need to be Cool to be Tech

Kevin Turner, Microsoft COO, would often get asked by internal employees, “Why can’t Microsoft be cool like Apple?”.  He would always reply, “I would rather have 90% market share than be cool”.  I think the question actually made him upset. I found his dismissive attitude towards Apple rather naive and offensive.  All I can say is its dangerous to use the past to justify the future.  It has been a interesting twist of events to get to this point and by all accounts great product execution by the people at Apple.  With the latest earning release, Apple continues to be operating on all cylinders, forging ahead full throttle.  Their Apple iPhone now has 5% global market share, an increase over last quarter of 115%.  It is now more profitable than Microsoft.  No small feet given they make hardware, which naturally has higher COGS.  How does something like this happen?  It’s an interesting journey.

I think you have to take a step back before you move forward.  When technology  was first thrust upon us in the late eighties/early nineties it was new and foreign.  You needed a grease monkey to help with running it.  Grease monkey being men who had not showered in a week and slept under their desk.  Not a pretty site.  Speaking of pretty sites the technology we were given was not pretty either.  It was big, clunky and beige.  You needed to hide it in a home office as it did not make for pretty home decor.  But the people behind these new innovations were proud of what they had created, like they had unlocked the mysteries of the universe.  The early phase of technology was exciting but very intimidating, as many of the people who were the first to use at home and at work started their word processing experience on a typewriter.  If you made a mistake you used something called white-out.  Some of my readers of middle age will be laughing now, while my younger audience is clueless as to what I am writing about.  This new computer based word processing was intimidating and frustrating.  Auto-save did not always exist.  If your computer crashed after working two hours on a midterm, late at night, you lost everything.  No joke, I know from experience.

Along the way though something else was happening.  A generation if kids were growing up with this technology.  They were used to interacting with technology.  They had higher standards.  They had lives.  Kids today have no fear of technology.  Give them a device and they naturally start poking around trying to figure out what cool things it can do.  There is no intimidation about technology.  It is just something they are accustomed to.  Their natural curiosity just takes over and takes them away.  You see it in school with 2nd and 3rd graders walking around with a iTouch.  The presentations they do on the Mac at school is better than most presentations I give at work (supposedly I am a pro) – they are more lively and more colorful.  It is most amazing how seamless the whole experience seems to the younger generation.  They are not intimidated, they do not need to learn, they just know.

Thirdly there is digital convergence.  The lines between PC’s, Television, phones, music, etc..were all being blurred as everything is going digital.   The debate today of is a Tablet a PC or not highlights this for me.  Who cares except for a bunch of marketing and industry analyst folks.  At the end of the day consumers are buying what they desire and if a Tablet can perform all the tasks they need, great.  They will forgo the purchase of a Netbook or Laptop, but they are still interacting with a whole host of offerings that they used to do on a laptop (or not).  It could be streaming Netflix.  Browsing the web for a great deal on sports attire.  Listening to  music.  With everything going digital how we view and interact with technology is about to explode well beyond where we are today.  Flat screens will be on and in everything we buy or utilize.  Our home appliances,, our transportation (private or public).  All the lines are becoming blurred and in doing so things are becoming much more interesting as a wave of new devices become available and better yet they are all mobile,  They are thin, sleek and in color.

For technology companies to be successful, in particular in the consumer space, they must pay heed to this fact.  If they want to be successful if they want to take market share, they have to get the “cool” factor going.  They need to pay attention to design.  Those consumer behavior studies that discuss things like emotional response are relevant.  They should be scrutinized and thoroughly studied, not in a effort to disprove them but to learn from them in intricate detail.  Most people in the world are not engineers or software designers.  It’s Bobby Joe who is a mechanic. Terri who is a nurse.  Jack the insurance salesman.  They may seem drab to some but they are a large part of the economy and they want and use technology, is it wrong for them to want a sleek silver mobile device with cool apps?  Do not dismiss their opions as irrelevant. Respect them or lose them.  And if you lose them watch all you have worked for wash away with the tide.

We are numb to technology.  It has become pervasive and we are seldom wowed by what we see or experience. What will catch our eye is how it makes us feel. How it makes us look.  It is all in our basic human emotion.  So deep yet so shallow.  When I see the latest iPad are people wowed by the operating system?  I honestly doubt anyone really thinks about that.  The fact is technology is becoming more and more an extension of the human experience, it is becoming an ingrained part of that experience.  In some instance blurring the lines of fiction and reality.  Those lines will only become more blurred moving forward as technology accelerates, we accelerate.  But one thing is for certain we want to feel good about where technology takes us and we want to look good doing it.  We want to be cool.  It may be shallow but it’s who we are.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann May 2, 2011