Last weekend we held a company conference in Visegrad, Hungary. It was a mixture of instruction, inspiration, and a drink called Jagermeister.
We are not a large group (LLP Group) but we managed to assemble around 70 of our marketing, sales and consulting staff from seven of our European branches at a pleasant hotel in Visegrad on the Danube for two full days of talks and discussions. Most of our presentations were about ourselves and what we do, but we decided also to step back from the day to day and contemplate the future. So we invited Microsoft and Google to present their visions of how the world will look in two consecutive formal sessions. We were lucky, I suppose, that both took us seriously enough to send a representative.
Whilst the worlds of Microsoft and Google overlap in some areas (their interest in cloud computing, in desktop tools (spreadsheets, word processing, etc.), in mobile technology (Windows Mobile and Google Android), and in search tools (Bing and Google)), what was surprising about these two giants of the tech-world was how different they are, to some extent in substance, but enormously in style.
First to go was Microsoft. A man in a dark suit from Microsoft’s Dynamics business software division talked about the ‘cloud’. This wasn’t enormously interesting. The future of computing is the cloud, he said, and it sounded like a dull future. It was the usual business PowerPoint presentation, heavily branded with the Microsoft logo, corporate and unremarkable.
The young lady from Google, by contrast, started with a picture of herself and her family and went on to present her ideas (and perhaps also Google’s) in an engagingly idiosyncratic, and almost entirely ‘unbranded’ way. ‘No brand’, it appears, is the Google brand. Be personal, individual, unusual, and cool, is the theme. Bring your family to the ‘table’. Life and work are a continuum. It’s the same message, I suspect, for both internal and external consumption, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it isn’t calculated.
She spoke about how the nature of IT is changing, how devices assail us (well, that’s probably an old-fashioned way of putting it!) in all sorts of ways all day, everyday and everywhere, but that predominantly it’s the mobile device that is determining the way we work and play. IT, even business IT, must live up the expectations of the new generation who spend their time on mobiles. If IT isn’t easy to use it will be forgotten.
I asked her afterwards how she thought this would affect the world of business software. It’s hard to see SAP or accounting systems on mobiles, I suggested. Maybe, she said, but young people don’t want to join corporations any more, they don’t want to be working with heavy-duty old-fashioned ERP, so business software must adapt. Young people have individual, creative, even ‘moral’ aspirations. Google the ‘anarchists’, it seems.
There’s a little truth in this, perhaps. The young are always idealistic. But the business software juggernaut will nevertheless roll on, adapting slowly and painfully to the easier-to-use styles of consumer software. The fact is that business systems become ever more complex, and will always take man-millennia to write and adapt. Complexity isn’t easy to fit into a mobile device.
You might as well say that literary authors must write novels of pamphlet length if they’re to be taken seriously by the next generations. Let’s make things easy, if that’s appropriate, but let’s not dumb down.
So the differences between Google and Microsoft are more about style than substance. Both are, in fact, highly organised and enormous business, juggernauts themselves. The first presents itself as anarchic and individualistic, the second as more sober and business-oriented. Both have been creative (occasionally) but neither can seriously pretend to be anything other than a large well-organised multi-national corporation, disciplined and deliberate.
And neither can Apple. All three of these are highly competitive and meticulously calculated in their moves, Microsoft perhaps driven more by business, Google more by the consumer, but both slaves to their respective markets. True, the consumer and the business worlds nowadays overlap, but there are still some things each company does that are unique. We’re tempted by Google’s cloud-based desktop tools, but they don’t yet have an answer to MS SQL.
When it comes to style, consumer-facing companies need a different image from business-facing companies and both must be careful when they need to face in both directions (note that Skype, largely consumer-facing, isn’t heavily branded by Microsoft as a Microsoft product). But I don’t strongly believe that the capacity of these companies for innovation is a function of their presentation style.
That said, during a separate presentation that I gave on our own systems@work products, I asked my colleagues what devices and what browsers they use. The majority use Android, and the majority use Chrome, so in that respect (and I was surprised), it’s 2-0 to Google. But then we all use Windows on our PCs, and SQL servers for our business applications, and Google doesn’t even compete with these.