In the PC era, the big rivalry was between Microsoft and Apple. Apple’s products were considered to be better, but Microsoft’s ability to leverage its operating system across a number of manufacturers proved to be the stronger model. By 1997, Apple was in such bad shape it needed an investment from Microsoft to keep the lights on.
Yet Apple came back with a vengeance in the post-PC era, in which its ability to seamlessly integrate across devices was decisive. Apple products became more than just productivity tools, but fashion icons and soon Apple took Microsoft’s former place as the most valuable company in the world.
That rivalry is mostly over now, but a new one is brewing between Google and IBM. It’s an unusual business rivalry because the two rarely compete in the same markets or for the same customers. In truth, it is a rivalry for technical rather than market dominance. Yet much like Apple vs. Microsoft, it’s likely to determine much about how technology shapes our world.
You only need to look at any Apple product to understand our fascination with simplicity. The sleek lines, intuitive user interface and human centered design give us a feeling of power over our technology. You don’t need a complicated user manual to instruct you, you just pick it up and go.
Unfortunately though, that simplicity is mostly a mirage. Underneath it all lies complex technology that is vastly more powerful than a supercomputer was a generation ago. What’s more, many of its applications are mere conduits to the power of the cloud, which is exponentially more complex and powerful still.
The truth is, as Sam Arbesman points out in his new book, Overcomplicated, complexity in our modern world is all but unavoidable. It is one thing that we don’t fully understand the devices we use, the markets that drive our commerce and the body of laws that govern our activity, but experts don’t either. We need to find a way to make peace with complexity.
Data has been called the new oil and for good reason. While as recently as a decade ago our ability to use data effectively was limited by technology, today our access is nearly unlimited. New platforms like Hadoop and Spark allow us to analyze hundreds —or even thousands — of databases at once. Open data initiatives have expanded our reach even further.
Still it’s becoming clear that there is a data divide opening up. James Manyika, a director at the McKinsey Global Institute, once told me that he sees vast differences in effectiveness even among companies in the same industry, with similar IT budgets, competing for the same consumer.
Gautam Tambay, CEO of Springboard, founded his company to help close the data divide. His company offers online education in data science that pairs executives with personal mentors in order to help them navigate an increasingly data intensive world. So to gain some insight, I talked to him about what managers today need to know about working with data.
A recently as a decade ago, the world was largely dominated by “pipeline” businesses with linear value chains. We would buy products at retail outlets, or possibly their online versions, stay in hotel chains when traveling and hail taxis one the street and nobody thought much about it.
Clearly, a lot has changed. Today, platforms like Amazon, Airbnb and Uber are dominating those earlier, linear business models. Two new books by prominent economists, Matchmakers and The Platform Revolution, ably explain the dynamics of how platforms like these function as multi-sided markets.
Yet while understanding how platforms work as economic entities is both interesting and important, unless we’re planning on designing a platform ourselves — and very few of us are — it isn’t very helpful. The real value of platforms for most businesses today is that they allow us to access ecosystems of talent, technology and information.
In 2004, Charles Lickel was eating in a dinner with some colleagues when he noticed that all of the patrons were rushing to the bar. Curious, he followed them to see what all the commotion was about. As it turned out, they were going to see Ken Jennings’ historic six-month run on the game show, Jeopardy!
He was transfixed. Paul Horn, then director of IBM Research, had been bugging Lickel to come up with an idea for the company’s next “grand challenge,” Big Blue’s tradition of tackling incredibly tough problems just to see if they can be solved. The last one drew wide attention when the firm’s Deep Blue computer beat Garry Kasparov at chess in 1996.
The rest, as they say, is history. Seven years later, in 2011, IBM’s Watson beat Jennings and another Jeopardy! champion, Brad Rutter. Today, Watson has become much more than a clever parlor trick, but a potentially huge line of business for IBM. CEO Ginni Rometty expects it to become the heart of Big Blue’s future plans. Yet there are still challenges ahead.
When Steve Jobs was trying to lure John Sculley to be Apple’s CEO in the early 1980’s, he asked him, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Sculley would achieve little at Apple, but Jobs would later make it the most valuable company on the planet.
But did Jobs actually change the world? Sure, he was amazingly successful, but would the world have been so different with a PC and no Macintosh? Android and no iPhone? Dreamworks and no Pixar? Something less, maybe. Still, it’s hard to argue that things would be profoundly different.
That’s not to diminish Jobs’ accomplishments, but they do seem to be more on the order of Starbucks’ Howard Schultz or Nike’s Phil Knight than they are of Einstein, Pasteur or even Edison. The truth is that what has passed for innovation over the last 20 or 30 years has been more focused on disrupting markets than changing the world. We need to do more.
In 2013, startup guru Steve Blank published an article in Harvard Business Review, titled Why The Lean Startup Changes Everything, in which he argued that, rather than follow the rigid concepts taught at business schools, entrepreneurs who seek to start a business take a much different path.
“Start-ups are not smaller versions of large companies,” he wrote. “They do not unfold in accordance with master plans. The ones that ultimately succeed go quickly from failure to failure, all the while adapting, iterating on, and improving their initial ideas as they continually learn from customers.”
That’s good advice for startups, but it also applies to anyone looking to bring a product to market and there’s no reason that established firms can’t follow it as well. In fact, Experian, the global data giant, has found that by leveraging its vast resources and deep customer relationships, lean startup techniques can be a great fit with its existing business.
The writer Andrew Solomon has said that travel gives you both a window and a mirror. You encounter people and ideas very different than your own, which makes you aware of new possibilities that never occurred to you before. At the same time, these new experiences give you a different perspective of your own culture.
That’s certainly what I found in my 15 years living and working overseas. As I learned to operate in different cultures and contexts, I often found myself facing questions I never had to answer before and, cut off from my native environment, I had to hack together solutions from bits and pieces I picked up along the way.
But mostly I gained an appreciation for the unique combination of scientific leadership and entrepreneurial energy that has made America the exceptional nation. If we are to continue to dominate in the 21st century, we need to leverage those core assets, while minimizing our capacity for self-destruction. Here are four things we need to do to achieve that:
When the first industrial robot, Unimate, appeared on a General Motors assembly line in 1961, it was a modern marvel. The job it performed, transporting die-castings and welding them onto car bodies was not only onerous, but dangerous to human workers, who faced both the risk of injury and being exposed to toxic fumes.
Over the last 50 years, robotic machinery has been vastly improved. Due to more sensitive motors and actuators, they’ve become incredibly precise, which enables them to work with small components, often with far more accuracy than a human can achieve. That’s what’s has allowed robots to move from making Buicks to smartphones.
Yet the future lies not in greater precision and accuracy, but the ability for robots to collaborate effectively with humans. Rethink Robotics is one of the companies at the forefront of this revolution, so I talked to Jim Lawton, the company’s Chief Product and Marketing Officer, to learn more about what we can expect the future of robotics to look like.
In the early 20th century, the great sociologist Max Weber noted that the sweeping industrialization taking place would lead to a change in organization. As cottage industries were replaced by large enterprises, leadership would have to become less traditional and charismatic and more organized and rational.
He also foresaw that jobs would need to be broken down into small, specific tasks and be governed by a system of hierarchy, authority and responsibility. This would require a more formal mode of organization—a bureaucracy—in which roles and responsibilities were clearly defined.
Over time, the likes of Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Ford were replaced by professional managers and the nature of work became less that of sweatshops and more that of “the man in the gray flannel suit.” Today, we are undergoing a transformation every bit as dramatic, a shift from hierarchies, strategies and tactics to networks, platforms and movements.