All the Mashed Potatoes

Ian Betteridge spoofed my “Google Versus” piece from yesterday, using this oft-cited quote from Steve Jobs speaking at Macworld Expo back in 1997:

โ€œWe have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose,โ€ Jobs said. โ€œWe have to embrace the notion that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job. If others are going to help us, thatโ€™s great. Because we need all the help we can get. [โ€ฆ] The era of setting this up as a competition between Apple and Microsoft is over.โ€

Betteridge is off the mark on this one. That quote from Jobs was very specific. It came at a time when Apple was not making great products, and when Apple’s fans and perhaps even employees were locked into a mindset that the wrong platform — Windows — had won. That Windows’s almost unimaginable success, its spectacular rise to worldwide ubiquity, was an injustice — one that only Apple could right. He wasn’t claiming that for Apple to succeed no one had to lose, only Microsoft (and, really, Windows in particular — as opposed to then-future initiatives like MP3 players and mobile phones, where for Apple to succeed it certainly helped that Microsoft lost).

Note too that Jobs’s message was bitter medicine. He was surrendering a war that the audience wanted Apple to continue fighting. As Jason Breitkopf noted in a comment on Betteridge’s piece, Jobs was booed, resoundingly,1 by the Macworld audience several times during his announcement. Page’s message at I/O was greeted with applause. Page was telling the I/O audience what they wanted to hear, that Google is something other than a ruthless, greedy competitor.

I’m not arguing that Apple is not also a ruthless and greedy competitor. In fact, my piece yesterday had nothing to do with Apple — only Google. (I should have left Android and the iPhone out of it, as that was the only oblique reference to Apple.) The difference is that Apple hasn’t claimed otherwise. Again, Jobs wasn’t claiming in 1997 that no one had to lose for Apple to win. The drum I’m trying to bang here is not that Google is a greedy competitor, but rather that Google is a greedy competitor that presents itself as anything but — as a sort of peaceful, whimsical, happy-go-lucky techno-futurist corporate utopian — and that rather than see this pose as absurd, many people, Googlers and Google users alike, buy it.

All organizations have aspirations. You’re welcome to roll your eyes at Steve Jobs’s spiel about Apple existing at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, or this from Jony Ive:

“We are really pleased with our revenues but our goal isn’t to make money. It sounds a little flippant, but it’s the truth. Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products. If we are successful people will like them and if we are operationally competent, we will make money,” he said.

Mere spin? Perhaps. But those statements from Jobs and Ive are not absurd. If they’re not the absolute truth, they’re at least truthy. Whereas Larry Page’s pablum regarding Google not being pitted against other companies is farcical. Tim O’Reilly had a good line about Microsoft a decade ago:

Microsoft gets a lot of heat for not leaving enough on the table for others. My mother, who’s English, and quite a character, once said of Bill Gates, “He sounds like someone who would come to your house for dinner and say, ‘Thank you. I think I’ll have all the mashed potatoes.’”

That’s Google today. What major tech giant has Google not pitted itself against? Whose mashed potatoes do they not seek to take? Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Oracle, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon — Google has made enemies of all of them. The difference between Google’s predatory rapaciousness today and Microsoft’s of yore is that Microsoft wore it on their sleeve, they owned it, celebrated it.

What rankles about Google is their hypocrisy.


  1. Seriously, watch the video. E.g., around the 2:30 mark, when Jobs announces that Internet Explorer will be the new default browser for Mac OS. The audience is outraged. (And Jobs, clearly, was prepared for the reaction.) 

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