Newsletter February 2012
Reimagining the future: A world without Apple, Facebook or Google?
These three institutions have become so ubiquitous, so central to our being, that life without them almost seems incomprehensible. More than that, these brands have become synonymous with their function, and vice versa. In a film or book for example, where before the terms 'mp3 player' or 'search engine' would have sufficed, now only iPod and Google will do. Indeed, note how now along with cruise control, fold away seats and lifesaving air bags, most car adverts will also include an iPod dock as standard – as if other music devices didn't even matter (that's because they don't – Ed).
These companies even feature in the most sacred of tomes, The Oxford English Dictionary, and have become adjectives in the process. Indeed, it is now common practice to 'facebook someone' or 'be googled'. Yet, everything we know about the past, and about business, tells us that one day these companies will fall and be replaced by something bigger and better. So, the question begs, how might a leviathan like Facebook, Google or Apple meet its end?
Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, as soon as something becomes all pervasive, critics start predicting its demise. Here, Yahoo! offers a cautionary tale. Although still a major contender, Yahoo! has suffered from a prolonged identity crisis and has, in the past, taken on more than it could handle. Indeed, Steve Jobs warned Yahoo! that the company needed to learn when "to say no" and that it must decide, once and for all, exactly what it was trying to be. Somewhat hypocritical, you might say, coming from the man who delved into computing, software, phones, tablets, music and retail – but he makes a good point.
So far, Google has proven to be the most schizophrenic of the bunch. In November 2011, it cancelled various underperforming products and services including Google Bookmark Lists, Google Friend Connect, Google Gears, Google Search Timeline, Google Wave and Knol. Yes, Google is much, much more than just a search engine. But if it doesn't consolidate what it has, and play to its strengths, someday it might end up sharing a bedsit (or indeed, to extend the metaphor, a redundancy package) with poor old Ask Jeeves.
Twitter on the other hand represents the antithesis of this model. Despite the odd injunction breach and organizing the occasional ad hoc revolution, it is still rather modest in scope compared to the other big names – and benefits from it. A simple USP is the surest route to success; just see the paper clip or the post-it-note. But this could all change of course. Facebook and Google were both dreamt up on college campuses when world domination was just a distant, pubescent dream. Now, they must resist the temptation to "be all things to all men" – or else risk ending up "the jack of all trades but master of none".
But the Roman Empire also suffered from chronic infighting and a succession of incompetent leaders. Indeed, leadership is crucial to the successof any company – and is usually instrumental in its downfall. The question on many peoples' minds now is whether or not Apple can survive without their founder and cult leader, Steve Jobs, who left behind a "to-do list" and confidently asserted that Tim Cook, his successor, was the man to see his vision through.
But this leaves Apple in danger of following the "Disney Model" of decline which, believe me, is much less whimsical than it sounds. When Walt Disney was popped in the freezer back in 1966, executives began to fret over the company's future direction and would frequently ask each other, "What Would Walt Do", afraid to follow their own intuition. This was then followed by a few uncertain and rather uninspiring decades until it reinvented itself in the 90s. Now, Apple is living in the shadow of its former founder and CEO, and also runs the risk of stagnation.
Of course sometimes it's not always as complicated as all this. Sometimes, a company just fails to keep up with the rest. Take Polaroid for example. It used to be a market leader, the 'go to brand' for all things photography and film. Now it conjures up images of another time, an archaic talisman of the past. In 2010, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy and in 2011 it appointed Lady Gaga as its Creative Director–desperate times indeed. But take a moment to remember the fax machine. Consider the future of the book even. For all we know, Google, Apple and Facebook are the Polaroids of tomorrow. Fail to adapt, or to keep up with the latest technological change, and risk ending up a monument to the past, rather than a vision of the future.
But how do we know for sure that these companies will fail? After all, we are living in unprecedented times. The rules that govern our society have scarcely changed since the Industrial Revolution, a mere 200 years ago. The Internet was only invented 30 years ago. Yes, we can speculate over what might happen to these companies based on the past, but it is far too early to make any definitive claims about the future. For all we know, we are on the eve of another revolution and Apple, Facebook or even Google will be its chief instigators.
But either way – whether these companies fade away or find a way to live forever – you heard it here first.