It’s Been a While Since I’ve Done the Thing Where I Quote the Entirety (or Nearly So) of an Article and Then Dissect/Comment Upon It Line-by-Line, but I Do Still Have a Taste for It, Even Though in This Particular Case It’s a Month Late

Google engineer Ray Cromwell, responding a month ago to my “Google Versus” piece, “Hardcore Apple Fans and Siege Mentality”:

Just got back from I/O and I run into a Twitter thread where Farhad Manjoo, John Gruber, et al are criticizing a strawman Larry’s Q&A session where Larry talks about negativity in the tech press.

Looking forward to hearing what that straw man is.

There’s an underlying current of siege mentality in the Apple blogger world, after years of teetering on the brink, Apple made a come back, but its hardcore users lived under a constant perceived threat by Microsoft, and Steve Jobs cultivated a cult like tribalist view of the community when it came to competing ecosystems as a defense, not unlike I think governments that whip up nationalist or patriotic fervor.

My piece he’s referring to had nothing to do with Apple. I did mention iPhone and Android, but only as one example of Google following the lead of others, commoditizing existing markets, the opposite of Larry Page’s onstage edict that “We should be building great things that don’t exist.”

Now with Apple as the most successful company in the world, they still can’t shake the amygdala urge to fight anyone in their space as an enemy. Case in point, John Gruber refers to anyone who criticizes Apple in the slightest as a jackass, if you run a search restricted to Daring Fireball for that keyword, the search results are ten pages long.

I have indeed used “jackass” to describe numerous people over the years, including a stretch circa 2006-2007 when I regularly named a “Jackass of the Week”. But I strongly believe that a perusal of the DF archive would show that I have never used the word jackass to describe “anyone who criticizes Apple in the slightest”. There are indeed many search results on Daring Fireball for “jackass”, but I regret almost none of them. I’ve used the word very deliberately, and I hope consistently, to describe people who are, in fact, jackasses. To call a jackass a jackass may be impolite, but it is not inaccurate or unfair.

My dictionary defines jackass, in the non-donkey sense, merely as “a stupid person”. To my mind, the word also conveys a sense of willfulness — to be not merely stupid but willfully stupid. In many cases, I’ve used it to describe people who wrote stupid things that I suspect they did not actually believe to be true, but that they wrote these stupid things to be purposefully sensational, to draw attention to themselves and to their writing.

I can think of no better word than jackass to describe, to name one recent example, Peter Cohan of Forbes, who has argued (repeatedly) that Apple’s board of directors should fire Tim Cook. First, that’s a preposterously stupid idea. Second, I suspect that Cohan himself knows that it’s a stupid idea, and that he makes this argument only because making such an argument with an ostensibly straight face draws a lot of attention. He either honestly believes Apple’s board should fire Tim Cook, or he’s purposefully wasting his readers’ attention with an argument he knows to be sensational nonsense. Either way, he’s a jackass.

That said, a perusal of my use of the word jackass on DF will also show that I have used the term much less frequently over the last several years, despite the fact that jackassery (Apple-related or otherwise) is more rampant than ever. It was easier for me to use strong words like jackass years ago, when I was writing in relative obscurity, than it is today. Daring Fireball’s popularity creates the perception that my calling someone a jackass is not calling a spade a spade — which is always and only what I’ve intended — but rather a form of bullying — which is clearly how Cromwell, for example, sees it.

My tendency toward bluntness, however warranted by the facts, results in a loss of persuasion among those who confuse bluntness with shrillness.

To a siege mentality, everything is zero sum.

Again, I reiterate, my piece that Cromwell is referring to had almost nothing to do with Apple. It really was just about Google, and what I perceive to be their institutional hypocrisy and self-deception. Google is the company that has pitted itself as a rival to every other major player in the industry.

Rational followers, customers, and even fans of Apple are not concerned in the least that Apple will any day soon again “teeter on the brink”. (As a point of fact, the company “teetered on the brink” just once, from 1996-97, and with the exception of a few hiccup quarters, have been remarkably successful ever since.) In fact, close followers of Apple should be more concerned not with Apple losing its powerful position atop the industry, but rather with their abusing it.

One recent example: this bit, exposed during the e-book price-fixing trial (as reported by the New York Times):

In July 2010, Mr. Jobs, Apple’s former chief executive, told the chief executive of Random House, Markus Dohle, that the publisher would suffer a loss of support from Apple if it held out much longer, according to an account of the conversation provided by Mr. Dohle in the filing. Two months later, Apple threatened to block an e-book application by Random House from appearing in Apple’s App Store because it had not agreed to a deal with Apple, the filing said.

After Random House finally agreed to a contract on Jan. 18, 2011, Eddy Cue, the Apple executive in charge of its e-books deals, sent an e-mail to Mr. Jobs attributing the publisher’s capitulation, in part, to “the fact that I prevented an app from Random House from going live in the app store,” the filing reads.

I find that worrisome. Not merely because it’s unfair (though it is; apps submitted to Apple’s App Store ought to be judged solely on their own merit) but because it is unhealthy. A new endeavor, such as the iBookstore, should be able to succeed on its own, without any unfair help from a separate Apple property such as the App Store. This path leads to hubris, and hubris inevitably leads to a fall.1

Steve Jobs once said: “We did not enter the search business. They entered the phone business. Make no mistake they want to kill the iPhone. We won’t let them. This ‘don’t be evil’ mantra is bullshit.” In this world, competition is about utterly destroying your enemy until they no longer exist, it’s evil, and Google and Apple were somehow supposed to have an unspoken “gentleman’s agreement” not to pursue each other’s markets.

“Somehow supposed to”? Eric Schmidt was on Apple’s board of directors.2 There’s no “somehow” or “gentleman’s agreement” about it.

But Larry Page is right, competition need not be a zero sum game, especially in circumstances where the market is growing. Note that while iPhone and Android are brutally battling it out in the smartphone market, both Apple, Google, and Samsung have all been enjoying year over year increases in earnings and user base. Yes, Nokia and Blackberry lost out, but that’s mostly because feature phones as a category are dying, and iPhone class smartphones were launched by them too late.

Overall, as far as Apple vs Android, so far, it has been positive sum for the two biggest fighters in the ring. Apple’s biggest problem at this point is not Android, but saturation and overly high expectations.

Agreed. But, again, I repeat, I never said that Apple’s biggest problem is Android, nor that competition need be a zero sum game. The gist of my piece was not that Apple is good and Google is bad. The gist of my argument is that Google is a ruthless competitor that enters existing markets, upends them, and isolates itself with a seemingly unquenchable desire to dominate every single market in consumer online services; yet, hypocritically, its leadership describes Google as just wanting to get along, that Google is institutionally a nice company, and that they succeed by “building great things that don’t exist”, whereas what they actually do is build free versions of things that already exist and make money selling ads.3 Google employees self-identify as not-ruthless while acting ruthlessly, leading to cognitive dissonance.

Gruber and others like to imagine that people who work at Google hate hate hate Apple products and want to destroy them, and that may be the mentality on the Apple side, but I don’t know many Googlers who spend time trying to devise plans to destroy the iPhone, many of them quite like iPads and use MacBooks and would be sad to see Apple fold.

There is no chance that Apple is going to “fold”. No one is worried about that. That’s a very weird thought to have even occurred to Cromwell. And nobody thinks Google employees “hate” Apple products; it’s common knowledge that many use iPhones (including executives) and many more use Macs.

As Larry said, much of the focus is on problem solving, not being concerned with “destroying” competitors like you’d read in internal Microsoft memos. The world has perhaps never seen a corporation with management and culture like Google before in this sector, they can’t process it, and the cynic has to suspect it’s all bullshit, all a show.

Consider the industry landscape today. Apple just announced iOS 7; it adds support at the system level for Flickr and Vimeo (in addition to Facebook and Twitter, which came last year). iOS 7 gets weather, sports, and financial news from Yahoo. Siri now integrates with Bing — Microsoft! — for web and image search results. Who are Google’s allies and partners? What services does Android or Chrome OS include at the system level except Google’s own?

Apple frequently highlights third-party apps in TV commercials and in marketing photos for its devices. When’s the last time Google has promoted third-party apps for Android? Have they ever?

Speaking of solving problems and doing stuff that’s never been done before, Gruber says:

Google is the company that built Android after the iPhone, Google Plus after Facebook, and now a subscription music service after Spotify. They entered the RSS reader market, wiped it out, and are now just walking away from it. Gmail? Webmail but better. Think about even web search: Google search wasn’t something new; it was something better. Way, way, way better, but still.

Consider maps. Google Maps entered a market where MapQuest and others had been around for years. That wasn’t something great that didn’t already exist. It was a better version of something that already existed.

See the trick here? Google didn’t do anything that was’t done before. Gmail, Maps, Search, etc. Those are just refinements. But the iPhone? That’s an entirely new thing from wholecloth. We won’t say “the iPhone came after the Blackberry, after the Nokia Smartphones, after the PalmPhones”, we’ll just pretend they never existed.

Clearly, I disagree with Cromwell almost entirely, but up until this point, I have tried to at least give him the benefit of the doubt in terms of his earnestness. But at this point it’s hard not to suspect that he’s just trolling.

It was Larry Page who said, on stage at I/O:

Every story I read about Google is “us versus some other company” or some stupid thing, and I just don’t find that very interesting. We should be building great things that don’t exist.

I suppose technically Page didn’t claim that Google actually does build great things that don’t exist, only that they (and everyone in attendance) should. But the implication certainly is there.

Of course Apple didn’t invent the smartphone. No one thinks they did; no one has ever claimed they did. That includes Apple. In fact, Steve Jobs specifically and joyfully cited all of the predecessors cited by Cromwell during the iPhone’s introduction in 2007. He even showed them off:

Steve Jobs at Macworld Expo 2007, showing the leading smartphones prior to the iPhone.

Nothing better exemplifies what Apple does best: enter an existing market with a product that blows the competition away, through superior design and engineering.

When does executing on something so radically better count as “never been done before”? Gmail and Maps were some of the first in a new class of Web 2.0 applications, a whole new class of interactivity for a web app. Do Google’s datacenters counter as having never been done before? Co-loc points for hosting servers go back to the first boom, but to compare one of those with the way Google’s Datacenters are engineered as just refining is completely ignoring the depth to which Google reinvented the datacenter.

I agree with every word of this. Google’s success in these markets is based on the superiority of their offerings: the best web search, the best webmail, the best maps. Enter an existing market with an overwhelmingly superior and hard-to-duplicate new product and destroy the competition. That’s what Apple does, and that’s what Google does. That’s what almost all successful companies do. But it’s Page who expresses disinterest in and considers “stupid” stories that pit Google “versus some other company”.

The difference with Google is not the competitiveness, it’s the hypocrisy of denying the competitiveness. It feels trite to accuse Cromwell of projection, but if there’s a company and its “fans” who are engaged in a “siege mentality”, it’s not Apple.

I for one am proud to be a googler because of things like the way Larry acquitted himself humbly, thoughtfully, and authentically at I/O. I’m glad he doesn’t engage in bitterness. Even if you think it’s fake spin, it’s still better than being an angry public jackass.

Uh, exactly?

  1. When I linked to this NYT report a month ago, I quoted the same passage as above, but for my own commentary merely quipped, “Eddy Cue, hardball player.” That’s true, but it was lazy — and in hindsight I regret it, insofar as it does not suggest that I see this as the least bit troubling, when in fact I do. ↩︎

  2. Perhaps Apple’s (and Steve Jobs’s) folly in this case — of Eric Schmidt serving on the Apple board while Google was working on Android — was not in trusting Schmidt to keep Android on track as a BlackBerry-like platform, but in thinking that this was even possible. In hindsight it should have been obvious to Apple that all phones would soon be modeled after the iPhone. Android would have failed along with Symbian, Windows Mobile, Palm, and BlackBerry had it stuck to its roots rather than scramble to catch up to the iPhone as a fundamentally touchscreen-driven platform. ↩︎

  3. Google Glass is a new thing. Self-driving cars are a new thing. But for all the hype surrounding Google’s experiments, these things are just that: experimental. Neither are even products on the market, let alone successful ones. ↩︎