Yesterday someone asked me a question which I’ve been asked before but never covered it on this site… “What company do I think is the most consumer-oriented, innovative technology company?”
The context of the question related to Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, who do I rate as the most innovative?
First we need to ask another question – “What is innovation?” To me, innovation is the skill to keep inventing new stuff, to keep redefining products and/ or business models. It’s the constant strive for change for the better, not just the sake of it.
Many people think Apple is one of the most innovative companies, but I disagree. Apple has rarely created a new technology. They have often packaged a technology to make it look new to the masses. They are possibly the leading experts at packaging technology products. They are also masters at making a technology product fashionable.
There were mp3 players before iPods. There were touchscreen phones before the iPhone. There were interactive set-top boxes for TVs before Apple TV. There are already smartwatches from other companies while the Apple Watch is limited to a public announcement and some photos.
Apple doesn’t necessarily innovate technology. It evolves technology. The iPhone is an evolution of an iPod touch. And the iPad is an evolution of an iPhone. Look at an iPad next to a first generation iPod Touch from 2007 and beneath the presentation veneer, they are the same product in a different form factor.
My favourite innovation from Apple is their business models. Revenue splits with mobile operators through the iPhone. Legitimising mp3s again through iTunes. The App Store. These are innovations.
Microsoft are the opposite to Apple (and let’s remember that if it wasn’t for Microsoft there probably wouldn’t be an Apple). Few consumers think Microsoft is fashionable. One of their only products that is ‘cool’ is Xbox, which Microsoft try to remove their company branding from as much as possible.
Microsoft have a specific challenge in trying to satisfy both corporates and consumers. Granted Windows 8 wasn’t the slickest of Operating Systems (and I use it on a touchscreen which is supposedly its favourite environment), but hats off to Microsoft for trying to redefine a modern Operating System.
I have a number of favourites from Microsoft. I had a touch screen phone before the word smartphone was invented. It was an HTC device running Windows Mobile. To date, Kinect is the game changing (no pun intended) consumer technology of the 21st century. I describe the iPad as an expensive entertainment devices, where the latest Windows Surface 3 (with that Windows 8) is far more powerful and useful – they are almost beyond comparison. Microsoft Office reinvented office applications at the time. Live ID was the first consumer web single sign on system I can remember.
Amazon have turned expensive hosting infrastructures into commodities, at the same time as turning a huge cost centre (their own hosting environment) into a profit centre by renting spare capacity. They made public cloud affordable and accessible, providing the building blocks to the second dotcom boom. Not just that, but by making computing power and storage so affordable, they have reshaped the hosting market from the ground up (bandwidth to servers to storage to computing power), providing the early seeds for Big Data.
After Amazon rented its spare hosting capacity, they then repeated the business model with warehouse space. There are businesses which send their products they’ve either manufactured or bought from suppliers, to an Amazon warehouse. Amazon then takes care of the fulfilment. It’s E-commerce-as-a-service and in-a-box.
Amazon weren’t the first eReader on the market, but they were the first to create an entire ecosystem capable of supporting a mass market eReader.
However my most innovative company in this category is Google.
Google started off as a search engine, innovative even in its early days of trying to structure the web. Since then Google has pretty much revolutionised the advertising market, enabling small businesses to advertise to whomever and wherever, entirely self-service. They brought CPC (Cost Per Click) to the masses.
Similar to Amazon’s model of turning cost centres such as hosting and warehousing into a profit centres, Google rewrote office apps, put them online and then charged businesses for using them. This turned Google from a consumer-focussed organisation to corporate-focussed too. While Microsoft offered Hotmail and Yahoo! offered its own Mail product, Google have been constantly finessing their Gmail product for both businesses and consumers.
Google Wave was a good example of witnessing Google’s innovative culture from the outside. They try new products. If they don’t work out, well at least they tried and they can move on to the next product trial.
Even though Google has grown to a modest sized organisation and gone public, it hasn’t backed off from the pace of innovation – it’s increased the pace.
Google Glass is still the most revolutionary technology I’ve used in recent years. It’s so revolutionary that I don’t think the mass public isn’t ready for it (and unfortunately can’t afford it). It’s a magnificent piece of kit – low weight, power, style, comfort and user interface.
And then cars. The car industry has needed a shake up for years. Cars haven’t really changed very much for decades. Dashboards haven’t changed much beyond car stereos.
Collectively, the car industry sat on its laurels and is now finding itself competing with technology vendors including Panasonic and Google who are offering driverless cars. The car industry is about to face up to a market which is going to start choosing to buy a driverless car from traditional car companies and a whole breed of new ones. I didn’t understand why Google bought Motorola. I would understand them buying a car company.