If you were to ask someone on the street who the top technology company is, you'll likely get one of three answers: Apple, Google, or Microsoft. Whether you agree that these are the best technology companies or not, you have to admit these three own the broad mindshare. While I listed them alphabetically, I'd bet you'd hear them in that specific order. It all comes back to mindshare. IBM and Oracle are definitely top technology companies in the enterprise, but without a consumer focus, both are sacrificing this all-too-valuable metric. You can see how important this metric is by looking back at how technology was driven in the past. 15 years ago, technology was driven by enterprise needs. Over time, however, technology has become less expensive and more accessible, which has flipped that trend. Now, most technology trends are driven by the consumer market. But what did these three do to get that mindshare?
Ask anyone with an Apple product what they like the most or what their first impression was and they'll comment on how beautiful the device or interface is and how easy it is to use. Apple's core competence is exactly this: visual design and, to some degree, user experience.
Taking the same look at Google, first impressions are typically on simple interfaces and speedy responses. Alone, this doesn't tell us much, but if you take a deeper look, you see that Google is driven by algorithms. After all, search and advertising can only succeed with solid algorithms. This is Google's core competence: engineering.
To put it simply, Apple and Google represent the art and science of technology. As such, those are the crowds they attract. Apple attracts artists and creative professionals and Google attracts engineers and hard-core geeks. This is the key to both companies' success -- a targeted audience.
Having a targeted audience allows these companies to build precise, unambiguous experiences aimed at a specific type of user (or persona). You might say that neither Apple nor Google can do this because their products are used by a wide range of users. That's very true, but just because you target a specific persona, that doesn't mean your user base will never grow beyond that. In fact, it's just the opposite. By targeting a specific persona, you're able to focus your efforts and not only meet, but exceed that persona's expectations because you truly understand what their needs and goals are. With this, you're affording yourself the primary key to product success: passionate users.
Take a look back at the iPhone's debut. Were people not passionate about its sexy interface? Of course they were. And that passion was a virus that spread like a pyramid scheme. Google had the same effect, albeit much slower.
When Google first launched their search engine in the late 1990's, there weren't too many people using it. Yahoo was the most popular search engine at the time, with it's gaudy interface, attempting to be everything to everyone. Perhaps the biggest interaction mistake Yahoo made was attempting to follow the mythical 3-click rule, where users "must" be able to get to any feature within 3 clicks, or they will stop trying. I don't want to get into it here, but this is completely wrong. The way Google succeeded was by getting all the crap out of the way. By focusing on finding what you want, Google attracted geeks -- and a lot of them. Geeks told other geeks who told their family and friends and before you know it, less than 5 years later, Google was the #1 game in town -- all because they drove passion in a small subset of possible users. Of course, passion alone isn't going to earn you a multi-billion dollar business, but passion in the hearts and minds of the right audience can. Passion can also be dangerous.
If you're reading this, you're probably well aware of the stigma of Windows Vista. It's the worst operating system in the world, right? Not so, but the passionate few who did have bad experiences sure did let everyone know. As with the passion of the iPhone and Google search users, Vista haters shouted it out, loud and proud. But I'm not here to defend Windows Vista; I want to show you the value and impact of passion. Speaking of which, if Apple is #1 in the hearts and minds of artists and Google fills that spot for engineers, where does Microsoft fit in?
We can all agree that Microsoft isn't known for its superb aesthetics or engineering prowess, but it is good at both. And, when it comes to these three companies, Microsoft is arguably second in both areas, despite the fact that neither artists nor engineers will accept or admit it. Don't get me wrong, there have been some major blunders on boht fronts, but this is exactly my point. By not excelling in the art or science of technology, Microsoft is taking a back seat to both Apple and Google. When it comes to end-to-end user experience, Apple has the most mindshare, as I mentioned before; but I'd argue that Microsoft is second in this game. Yes, Google does have some wins in this space, but Google is nowhere near as dedicated to or capable of delivering the end-to-end user experience Microsoft is -- just look at Bing and Windows Phone. Admittedly, Microsoft has only started showing its ability in this space over the past few years. On the other side, Google drives mindshare for technology engineering; but once again, Microsoft comes in second. I can cite examples of why Apple sucks at engineering and Google can't quite cut it with end-to-end user experience, but I want to focus on the culmination of all this.
Microsoft has a tendency to attract people who want both beauty and brains; people who understand that beauty alone will get you nowhere and brains alone will leave you as exactly that -- alone. Together, beauty and brains will reach an even broader audience. This is the 80% Microsoft is known for targeting (for better or worse), which is exacly why Microsoft is as popular as it is. Everyone like to look at pretty pictures or solve problems .6825 seconds faster than the next guy, but the vast majority of the populations doesn't care -- as long as they can figure it out and their problem gets solved, they're happy. Let's face it, the best interface is no interface. If human beings could achieve their goals without interacting with your product, they would. Your product is a necessary evil.
Microsoft hasn't been successful by purely being a runner-up, tho. Microsoft has their own niche: developers. I know of absolutely no company that has ever had the ability to drive passion in developers as much as Microsoft has. Sure, iPhone development has seen a great boon, but that was forced (on Apple) and it wasn't because Apple had a great development platform; it was because users were flocking to the product. Microsoft has continued to deliver compelling platforms for developers to take advantage of year after year. This is only heightenedby the fact that Microsoft's partner ecosystem is fiscally 10 times the size of Microsoft itself. Said another way, partners make $10 for every $1 Microsoft earns. Given Microsoft's gross earnings, that's a huge market. I'd say that's definitely something to be passionate about.
While having 80% of the market sounds outstanding, this group is quite fickle and has no allegiences. They aren't opting out of the artistic and scientific approaches; they just don't care. So what drives them? Each of us has something inside that motivates us. If you want to be successful, you need to start with a core demographic, the primary persona you want to target. Remember that, by meeting everyone's needs, you meet no one's needs. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's been proven time and time again. If you target a specific type of user, you're giving your primary users an opportunity to get passionate. There's no mathematical formula to cultivate passion -- if there was, Google would've figured it out by now -- but it all starts with targeted experiences. If you want to win in your market, drive passion.
To bring this back to those top 3 companies, Apple and Google are both fairly stuck in their ways. Both companies have art and science built into their DNA. I don't expect to see either company change. Microosft, on the other hand, has an immense amount to learn and I think they're on their way to correcting those. I can't say I expect Microsoft to surpass Apple in artistry or Google in engineering anytime soon; but I do expect Microsoft to give both companies a run for their money. We've already seen Apple reacting to Windows Phone 7 and Google reacting to Bing. As slow as the company is, Microsoft is a huge innovator. We've seen it in the past and I suspect the next 12 months will be full of opportunities for history to repeat itself as Kinect, Windows Phone 7, and IE9 come to fruition. Okay, there's some wishful thinking in that last one, but each of these platforms has developers chomping at the bit, eagerly awaiting their release. And, with each of these combining best-of-breed user experiences with solid, top-notch engineering, Microsoft is giving us something to be passionate about -- on all three screens (phone, computer, and TV), no less.
For the developers out there, how about your products? How are you driving passion in your users? For everyone else, what makes you passionate?