Innovations in Technology Commentary

Matthew J. Belvedere, reporting for CNBC:

The greatest innovator in the world right now is Google—not Apple, said Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography “Steve Jobs.”

Case in point—he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday: Google buying Nest Labs is a bigger development than Apple selling iPhones on China Mobile’s network.

While acknowledging the China Mobile partnership is a “big deal” for Apple, he said Google-Nest exemplifies the “amazingly strong integrated strategy that Google has to connect all of our devices, all of our lives, from our car, to our navigation system, to how our garage doors are going to open.”

In terms of a news story, I absolutely agree. Google buying Nest is a bigger story. Apple selling iPhones on China Mobile’s network has been a long time coming, and was announced in December. But Google being the greatest innovator in the world?

Isaacson says the Google-Nest acquisition “exemplifies the “amazingly strong integrated strategy that Google has”. But that’s it. At this point it’s merely strategy, it’s an abstraction. We have yet to see how Google will integrate Nest into their products. The Nest products on the market today have not magically become any better than they were the day before the acquisition was announced. In fact, there’s been an undercurrent of disappointment that Google purchased Nest. The execution of Google’s strategy has yet to unfold.

Imagine an alternate universe where Steve Jobs’s original iPhone keynote went as well as it did, except that when the product shipped in June, it was an unusable, buggy piece of garbage and it bombed. Would people hail Apple as a great innovator of an idea? No, they would rightfully say it sucks and that Apple screwed up. But by Isaacson’s logic, Apple would still be an innovator, regardless of whether or not they shipped the product as promised. Similarly, Microsoft should be hailed as a great innovator for its original vision of the Tablet PC in 2001, regardless of how ham-fisted the actual implementation was. As should every company that’s ever announced something that looked or seemed revolutionary, but was in reality a shitty product because they botched the execution.

Innovation, as vapid and overused as that word is these days, is not just about the idea, it’s about the execution of those ideas. That’s what makes them real, and allows them to make a difference in the real world. The iPhone, as an idea is certainly not innovative or new: it had existed in our collective consciousness for years through science fiction and our dreams. What characterizes Apple’s innovation is that they take these dreams and make them real. They gave us 1000 songs in our pocket, only to come back 6 years later and give us the entire internet in our pockets.

I’m not saying that Google is not innovative. On the contrary, they’ve done equally amazing things. They took the internet, the collective knowledge of our species, and made it searchable. If we want to know about anything, Google can help us find it. Few things are as empowering as that. They then took this approach and applied it to the real world with Maps. If we need to go anywhere, Google Maps can take us there.

There’s no question in my mind that Google is a company capable of innovation. The Nest acquisition as a strategy just doesn’t make the grade. Neither do Google Glass, nor do self driving cars. At least, not right now.

When you look through innovation this way, as the combination of great ideas and execution on those ideas to make them real, it’s clear that Walter Isaacson does not get it. And nowhere is it more clear, than it in Isaacson’s own work, in “Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson”

John Gruber, writing on Daring Fireball:

Isaacson includes that Alan Kay quote about serious software people making their own hardware, but doesn’t seem to heed it, or to recognize that it perfectly describes Steve Jobs’s career and explains the phenomenal success of Apple’s products.

Note that my complaints here are not about Isaacson being insufficiently deferential. That the book is not a hagiography is to its credit. The personal stuff — documentation of Jobs’s cruelty (and his talent for cruelty), his tantrums, his tendency to claim for himself the ideas of others — that’s not problematic. Isaacson handles that well, and what he reports in that regard jibes with everything we know about the man. My complaints are about outright technical inaccuracies, and getting the man’s work wrong. The design process, the resulting products, the centrality of software — Isaacson simply misses the boat.

You could learn more about Steve Jobs’s work by reading Rob Walker’s 2003 New York Times Magazine piece than by reading Isaacson’s book, but even then we’re left wanting for the stories behind any of Apple’s products after the iPod. Isaacson’s book may well be the defining resource for Jobs’s personal life — his childhood, youth, eccentricities, cruelty, temper, and emotional outbursts. But as regards Jobs’s work, Isaacson leaves the reader profoundly and tragically misinformed.

Isaacson gives us the story of an asshole. But the world is full of assholes. What we need is the story of the one man who spearheaded so many remarkable products and who built an amazing and unique company.

The world is full of brilliant concepts, ideas, and dreams. But what we need is great execution, the insanely hard work of pushing the abstract from our minds and into our hands, to make those dreams to a reality. That’s where the magic is.