The Type of Companies That Publish Future Concept Videos

Joey deVilla, defending Microsoft’s “Future Visions” concept video:

As you might expect, Jon [sic] “Daring Fireball” Gruber, who’s often been called Apple’s freelance PR guy, viewed it with a jaundiced eye.

This video encapsulates everything wrong with Microsoft. Their coolest products are imaginary futuristic bullshit. Guess what, we’ve all seen Minority Report already. Imagine if they instead spent the effort that went into this movie on making something, you know, real, that you could actually go out and buy and use today.

Of course, he’d never say such a thing about Apple’s classic Knowledge Navigator video, which at the time it was made — circa 1987, when the Macintosh II and SE, IBM PS/2 series and Amiga 500 and 2000 were brand new machines — was at least as pie-in-the-sky as this newest Microsoft video.

DeVilla isn’t the only one who accused me of Apple-biased hypocrisy regarding my stance on Microsoft’s “Future Visions” vs. Apple’s “Knowledge Navigator”. It is true that when I linked to Andy Baio’s post about “Knowledge Navigator” a few weeks ago, I didn’t add any commentary.

But the exact same criticism I have for Microsoft today applies to 1987 Apple. “Knowledge Navigator” encapsulates everything that was wrong with Apple in 1987. Their coolest products were imaginary futuristic bullshit. The mindset and priorities of Apple’s executive leadership in 1987 led the company to lose what was then an enormous usability and user experience lead over the rest of the industry, and eventually drove the company to the precipice of bankruptcy. That 1987 Apple was a broken company is so painfully obvious from today’s vantage point that I didn’t think it needed to be mentioned.

“Knowledge Navigator” didn’t help Apple in any way. Apple never made such a product. It didn’t bring Siri to us any sooner than if that video had never been made. It only served to distract from and diminish Apple’s then-current actual products.

“We’re like Apple in 1987” is not a badge of honor — it’s a flashing red warning light.

Apple today, from a strategic and operational perspective, is nothing like Apple of 1987. Apple today would never release to the public a concept video speculating on what sort of products they might be making 10 or 20 years from now. The attention of the public and the media is a rare and precious commodity. Apple today uses what attention it gets to focus on actual new products, ones that you can go out and actually buy and use.

Apple today is a company that, several times a year, every year, releases new products that millions of people literally line up to buy the first day they’re available. Apple in 1987 was a company that began work on the Newton, a product that nobody ever had to wait in line to buy. The Newton was a brilliant design and full of terrific industry-leading ideas. And it struck the market like a wet match.

I’m not lambasting Microsoft just because they’re Microsoft (or because they’re not-Apple), and I’m not praising today’s Apple just because it’s Apple and even when Apple farts I proclaim that it smells like roses. I praise Apple for its successes, which are undeniable.

Putting this “Future Visions” video in public squanders attention that Microsoft could otherwise have focused on its current and imminent new products — like Windows Phone. Take a new iPhone 4S and a Windows Phone 7.5 device back in time 20 years and they might seem equally impressive to a pair of 1991 eyes. But one of them sold more in a weekend than the other does in an entire financial quarter. Is not Windows Phone scarily similar to the Newton? Innovative design, much to praise — and but striking the market like a wet match?

DeVilla writes:

I would argue that if Microsoft wants to rehabilitate its image and regain its relevance in the hearts and mind of both the alpha geeks and the public at large, they should probably make more of these videos, not only for the public, but for their own benefit as well. Without visions like concept videos to guide them, especially with the lack of someone in the visionary role, they may remain stuck on their current course: doing well but effectively coasting, content to make incremental improvements to already successful products or playing catch-up as with Internet Explorer, phones and tablets in efforts that are in danger of being too little, too late.

That sure helped Sculley-era Apple.

DeVilla then cites old examples from Sun and AT&T. Sun went out of business, and AT&T never accomplished anything in their concept video. Not a damn thing.

I’m not arguing that making concept videos directly leads to a lack of traction in the current market. I’m arguing that making concept videos is a sign of a company that has a lack of institutional focus on the present and near-present. Can you imagine a sports team in the midst of a present-day losing season that makes a video imagining a future championship 10 years out?

The designs in these concept videos are free from real-world constraints — technical, logical, fiscal. Dealing with constraints is what real design is all about. Institutional attention on the present day — on getting innovative industry-leading products out the door and creating consumer demand for them — requires relentless company-wide focus.

1987 Apple didn’t have that focus. 2011 Apple does. Only one of those Apples releases futuristic concept videos. But you know who else does release futuristic concept videos today? RIM. Great company.