The key difference between Apple and Microsoft

John Gruber had an interesting observation today about the departure of Apple’s Scott Forstall:

Forstall was an obstacle to collaboration within the company. Now he’s gone, and his responsibilities are being divided between four men who foster collaboration: Ive, Mansfield, Cue, and Federighi.

This, in a nutshell, is why Apple is the world’s second most valuable company and Microsoft, even after today’s announcements, is circling the drain.

Microsoft is organized as a loose federation of largely individual companies, all competing for the same resources. Each division at Microsoft has its own P&L statement, literally its own bottom line. Why does the new Microsoft Surface tablet only come with a half-assed “desktop” version, and even that only the Home & Student license, meaning it can’t be used for commercial use?

I don’t have any sources inside Microsoft telling me this, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts it’s this: because the Office group doesn’t see any percentage in their offering more. They don’t know if Windows 8 is going to be a hit, so they haven’t invested their own resources into a native Windows Store version of Word, Powerpoint and Excel. And Home & Student was all the Windows group could afford, given that they have to pay the Office division for every copy shipped while not allowing that cost to drive up the price of the Surface past being more or less competitive with the iPad.

A very large part of the Surface’s problems can be laid squarely at Steve Ballmer’s feet, and for one very simple reason. He, as CEO, didn’t force the Office division to do what was necessary to make Surface a winner for the Windows division. Surface will fail because there isn’t one Microsoft, there’s several, and they’re all trying to kill each other. Eventually, they will succeed.

Now, compare this to Apple. Apple has one P&L for the whole company. They have different teams, but everyone quite literally contributes to the same bottom line, and everyone is answerable to the same boss, Tim Cook. Apple’s new boss is quieter, more cerebral than Steve Jobs, but he’s even more ruthlessly efficient at running his company. And when he saw that Forstall, the man who has guided iOS from the very beginning, who came over to Apple from NeXT with Steve Jobs, was getting in the way of moving iOS forward, he showed Forstall the door and split his duties among proven team players. No one team within Apple will ever be allowed to threaten the well being of the company as a whole.

Steve Ballmer would do well to learn from Cook’s example.

My iPad-based laptop

Picked up an InCase Origami for my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard over the weekend at the Apple Store. For those that haven’t seen it, this is a sheet of polyurethane with a clip to hold the keyboard in place and velcro pads allowing you to either use it as a wrap around cover for the keyboard or to fold the corners back to form a stand for the iPad. This essentially turns my iPad into a minimal footprint laptop without adding any bulk whatsoever to the iPad itself.

It’s a little pricey at $30 if you just think about the cost of materials, but the way I look at it this has saved me $70 because now I have no need of a Logitech Ultraslim Keyboard. If you already own an iPad and an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, highly recommended.

How SF has changed and why I don’t read dystopias

Saw a fascinating panel at Mile Hi Con about how SF has changed over the last 50 years, moderated by Paolo Bacigalupi. Really good observations by all, but what really struck me is the loss of optimism about the future.

Dystopias are big. Series like Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games are megahits, and you can’t seem to get away from them. And when you stop and think about it, you can understand why. We live in what we would call the second Great Depression if we were really honest about the economy and unemployment numbers. Time are tough. People are looking for hope. And if you start your story in tough, desperate times and ultimately triumph over them, you can give your readers inspiration to triumph in their own lives. These stories grab us so hard because they amplify very real fears we have about the real world and then deal with them.

Only, I’m not so sure that works. It’s kind of the inverse of the Old Yeller problem Phoebe had on the TV series “Friends.” She thought it was a happy movie because her mother had never let her see the end of it. With dystopic fiction, I get so depressed reading the book that I never make it to the end where things get better.

In my mind, things are bad and getting steadily worse. Even if promised a happy ending, I don’t want to read about a dystopia because to my way of thinking, why waste my time on “entertainment” when eventually I’m just going to have to live through the damn thing anyway? Dystopic fiction cuts close to home for a reason, but for me it cuts too close. I can see all too easily the things in Daniel Suarez’s books actually happening. I can see the Hunger Games actually happening. We have enough trouble with the ever-deepening class divide in this country without making it into the basis for entertainment.

And that’s what I miss from the golden age of SF. (Yes, I know A Clockwork Orange was published fifty years ago. Shuddup.) Before fifty years ago, SF held a lot more optimism about the future. Yes, people had problems and conflict. You can’t have fiction without them (or at least, you can’t have fiction anyone would want to read). But the world in general was a better place in their imagined future than the world the authors lived in. (The episode of DS9 where Cisco dreams he and the rest of the cast were actually SF writers in the 50s, and he was a black man trying to write about the black commander of a gleaming metal space station is a great example of this.) Things have gotten too gritty now, and I think we’ve lost something.

I miss the idea that smart people can change the world for the better. One of my biggest influences as a writer when I was growing up was Michael Crichton, and my love for his work lost a lot of steam when I realized that his books weren’t just about really cool science adventures, but the dangers inherent when science– inevitably– gets out of control. I much prefer now the optimism of Isaac Asimov, whose Hari Seldon was able to use science to vastly shorten the dark ages between civilizations. We need more of that, and less of post-apocalyptic horrors that are all too likely to come true.

Notes from MHC and the future of the tablet computer

I’ve been spending the weekend at MileHiCon here in Denver this weekend, an annual SF convention that often also has really good sessions on writing and technology. This morning, they had one on the future of the tablet computer.

My biggest surprise was how many people on the panel and in the audience were still taking seriously Windows 8 in general and Surface in particular. Despite the repeated observations in the tech press about how abysmally Microsoft is screwing this up, they might have enough brand power left in Windows to succeed in spite of themselves.

Although it could also be a last gasp before they poison the brand forever. One person was really looking forward to getting a Surface tablet “because it runs Word.” Once she buys the Surface RT (which is the only one available until much later this year or early next) I wonder if it will be an unpleasant surprise that it isn’t the full version of Word (Does Word RT support Track Changes, the “must have” feature for most professional writers?), and that she legally can’t use it for writing anything she plans to sell commercially without buying an additional license?

There was also a lot of discussion about what a tablet actually was. Does the iPod touch count? The iPhone? The Galaxy Note? Apple has done an interesting job in defining the tablet as the iPad, but it’s clear that consumers are interested in a wide spectrum of flat glass touch screen devices capable of general purpose computing. That last bit I mention because the consensus at the panel was that Kindles and similar special function devices are _not_ tablet computers. So what about the Kindle Fire? It’s a general purpose computer with a special purpose user interface? Where does it fit?

As far as the “future” aspect of the panel, the thinking was pretty unanimous that tablets, whatever their size, will become the standard for mobile computing, that laptops without touch interfaces are destined for niche status. Writer types like myself will probably have some kind of hybrid that includes a full size keyboard, but even that is negotiable.

The other big surprise for me was that a lot of the panelists and audience (but certainly not all) still considered tablets to be primarily for consumption, entertainment devices rather than tools for real work. Writers like myself and my friend James Kendrick over on ZDNet who use our tablets as our primary work devices and produce lots of content directly on them remain a minority. Tablets just aren’t fast enough to keep up with the pace of real work, the doubters say, and there was a lot of interest in something like the Surface Pro that could be a tablet when you were out and about, then dock into a station giving you access to a large monitor, mouse and keyboard when you get back to your office. It’s a great idea in theory, and I remain curious to see how well it works in practice given the compromises Microsoft has made with the formerly-known-as-Metro interface in Windows 8 Pro.