If Nokia is a bureaucracy, and Microsoft is a political party, then what are Apple and Google?

So I was reading Andrew Orwlowski’s “What sealed Nokia’s fate?” which concludes elegantly:

The problem Stephen Elop faces now is not a technical one. I’ll offer another Unpopular Opinion here: that WP7 is really remarkably good already. If it wasn’t called Microsoft Windows Phone 7, and had it instead originated with a plucky startup more people would be able to appreciate it better. The Microsoft imprimatur ensures WP will never be cool – but does at least give it some assurance of backing.

Elop is correct in identifying Android as a mad sharkpool of manufacturers thrashing around in pursuit of a tiny profit, eating each other in the process. If he had to plump for an OS to license, of the two, WP was the better choice.

Elop’s problem is that historically you can’t really take a large bureaucracy and expect a lean, mean fighting machine to emerge. You usually just get a smaller bureaucracy.

and Adam Greenfield’s blogpost on working inside Nokia:

Nokia’s problem is not, and has never been, that it lacks for creative, thoughtful, talented people, or the resources to turn their ideas into shipping product. It’s that the company is fundamentally, and has always been, organized to trade in commodities. Whether those commodities were stands of timber, reams of paper, reels of cable, pairs of boots, or cheap televisions for deployment in hotel chains, much the same basic logic applied: acquire, or manufacture, great quantities of a physical product for the lowest achievable cost, and sell for whatever the market will bear.

Which got me thinking: well, then, Nokia is a bureaucracy. A formidably effective one, but a bureaucracy nonetheless; and of course the purpose of a bureaucracy is to sustain its processes – not to change.

In that light, what sort of organisation is Microsoft like? In my opinion, a political party. Because: it has certain core principles (revenue from Windows must be protected, revenue from Office must be protected) but it is willing to reinvent itself around other areas of what it “believes” – so it’s perfectly willing to dump Windows Mobile and cook up Windows Phone instead. It’s just like the way that New Labour reformatted itself – dumping “old” ideas like Clause 4 while holding on to “core” beliefs such as social justice (don’t let’s argue about whether it managed that; just that it was in its manifesto) or the Conservative Party under David Cameron, (doing its best at) dumping European hatred but holding on to other core Tory beliefs such as smaller government.

Looked at through that lens, you can see Microsoft reinventing itself with the Xbox, and Kinect, and Windows on ARM, while remaining true to its core principles.

In which case, what is Apple? Please don’t say “cult” – that doesn’t embrace its willingness to tear apart things that are working, such as its readiness to dump the iPod mini and replace it with the iPod nano. And how about Google, with its multifarious products swimming in a sea of competitors?

In each case, what is the best analogy or metaphor for those two? Is Apple like an army led by generals who are ready to tear up the rulebook? Is Google like a university? Over to you. Suggestions please..


About charlesarthur

Freelance journalist - technology, science, and so on. Author of "Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the battle for the internet".
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8 Responses to If Nokia is a bureaucracy, and Microsoft is a political party, then what are Apple and Google?

  1. njr says:

    I’ll bite.

    Apple’s a bit like a band. It has a charismatic front man, a strong creative vision and isn’t trying to please everyone. It divides opinion strongly, goes its own way and reinvents itself periodically. While innovative itself, many of its biggest successes borrow ideas from lesser-known/less successful rivals, which Apple then polishes and simplifies and improves for broader appeal.

    Google’s harder, but I think despite being (in terms of revenue and monetization) really an advertising company, I think it still sees itself as being all about search/information. I think its defining feature is that it had a much larger success with its first idea than it could ever expected and, having rather skillfully monetized it, it’s now rather unstructured about where to go next. To say it’s like a Pools Winner is a bit unfair, because Google gained its position in search largely on merit and was very clever in the way it took monetized it; so perhaps it’s more like an investor that made an skillful early investment that paid off beyond its wildest dreams and now has immense resources but a rather unclear idea how best to harness them.

    • charlesarthur says:

      Fantastic response, and I think you’re completely right about Apple: it is indeed like a band (more than an orchestra) with a charismatic front man. Which keeps on pumping out the hits.

      Hmm, Google a pools (or lottery) winner? It’s a bit more focussed than that, though, isn’t it? Stuff like Android, Google Docs, Google Mail.

      Also I’m not sure that the lottery winner idea (or lucky investor) captures the company’s wild-yet-controlled approach to generating software.

  2. Paul Morriss says:

    It’s not really an analogy to say Google is like a company, because it is actually a company, but it’s a bit like a company on a science park next to a University trying to come up with lots of cool stuff, some of which does well.

  3. Google…like a church, because its motto is “Don’t be evil” and everyone holds it to that standard?


    • charlesarthur says:

      Hmm, but a church has fundamental tenets that cannot be broken. ‘Don’t be evil’ is more of an advisement – arguably the move into China wasn’t an unalloyed good move because it involved compromise to a government whose ideas about the internet are the polar opposite of Google’s. It would be closer to call Microsoft a church (or religion) – Windows and Office must be worshipped. But I think that that ignores Microsoft’s willingness to change.

      Google seems to be very hard to categorise in a metaphor.

      • Much later…I suppose all large corporations have their cult-like elements.

        A friend who works at Google (not in Mountain View) invited me to visit him at work for the free sushi. We toured the place a bit, and he finally said, “What do you think?”

        I said, “It’s a very nicely padded cell.”

        Of course, Microsoft in its day was also famous for pushing employees to work all hours (cue Douglas Rushkoff’s Microserfs, and the bunch of young guys going out to find “flat foods” they can push under their colleague’s door when he’s having a nervous breakdown). But there’s something Disney-like about Google’s ubiquitous mini-kitchens and masses of candy, scooters, game rooms, FREE (very good) FOOD, and the colors everywhere.

        Its consumer face is a library. Its back end…


  4. Christian Stewart says:

    Perhaps Google ought to be likened to the Olympics, or the IOC in particular.

    Ostensibly they appear to do good, to offer a product or service that is beneficial, and have a logo that is simple and shares primary colours.

    Behind the scenes however, things are more murky and the “don’t be evil” slogan is harder to reconcile.

    And of course, all we really want to see is the 100m dash.

  5. Daniel's Elm Tree says:

    A little late, but here’s a thought: Google is like Andy Warhol’s idea of Coca-Cola: everybody in America drinks the same thing. (For the uninitiated: “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest…a Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”)

    With Windows, you can buy a better and more powerful version. With Apple, you can buy a better laptop. Google gives everything away, for free, to everybody, but it makes you pay in your time by looking at ads for the privilege. And it keeps most of its secret formulae hidden away, even though it open-sources many amazing gadgets like Courgette.

    That gets them simplicity. There’s no premium search option-everybody gets the same thing. Nobody has to work on taking away premium search features from Google Express, or working out what features Google Premium customers are prepared to pay for. Obviously Google charges businesses, but that’s an exception. But the flipside is that because nobody is paying for many of their products, they can be taken away without notice-and because everything’s on Google’s servers, devoted Google Wave customers can be left stranded.

    Obviously, this hasn’t got much connection to the real Coca-Cola, which charges a massive, fixed markup for its products (compared to its competitors) using an ancient trademark as a sign of quality and unchanging flavour.

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