When it comes to ‘out of the box thinking’, one specific box I’d like people to get out of (or at least use significantly less) is our boundless love of n-by-n tables, matrices and grids that help us organize our thinking. People seem to really like to categorize things with right angles- as if, should we put one factor on the X axis, another on the Y, and a third on the Z, their perpendicular arrangement will specifically lead to insight and clarity. This technique works, sometimes. But every once in a while, we see something totally different that is simpler, more elegant, and more illustrative than an n-by-n table. This can happen when we stop thinking rectangularly and to start thinking circularly.
For anyone reading this article who is geek-friendly, consider the 3-by-3 grid of character values used by the Dungeons and Dragons universe. A player (or character, or monster) can be placed somewhere on a scale from Good to Neutral to Evil, and then again from Lawful to Neutral to Chaotic, leading to nine possible combinations (and more, if you accept intermediate cases). That’s a lot of categories, without being all that interesting or illustrative. Compare this categorization scheme to the far more innovative and beautiful colour wheel from Magic the Gathering – one of the great frameworks of the gaming world. The colour wheel is simple, elegant and perfect: five colours (White, Blue, Black, Red and Green) arranged in a circle, each having two neighbours (its allies, with shared common values) and two opposites (its enemies and moral opponents). Green, the colour of life and nature, allies with white (Life / Good) and red (Spontaneity / Chaos) while being enemies with Black (Death / Evil) and Blue (Artificial / Unnatural). Every point on the circle has its unique perspective, complete with perspectives, allies and enemies, forming a framework that says far more than any square matrix ever could.
Thinking about the MTG Colour Wheel, and how perfectly it captures these values and differences, got me wondering why this circular framework hasn’t yet been applied to the tech world. No rectangular matrix quite captures why Google can see so eye-to-eye with Twitter or Amazon yet be so perfectly antithetical and hostile to Apple and Microsoft. No table really shows why products like the Kindle Fire Phone, iCloud, and Bing were/are so dysfunctional, while the prospect of Google buying Twitter, or Uber partnering with Amazon, just feels natural and right.
With this in mind, I put together what I think could qualify as a first draft for the ‘Colour Wheel of Tech’. I chose seven companies – Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter and Uber – that I feel form the core ‘agenda setters’ in the tech world: the ones who, when they announce something new, people really listen. Obviously this list is not a full representation of the big players – I would’ve loved to include a few Asian tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent, and Uber stands out as the only young Unicorn of the group (although I feel deservedly so). That being said, I think there’s more than enough to work with just from these seven companies, so here goes:
In this representation, we see a few unsurprising features as well as some interesting new ones: Apple is at the polar opposite of Google (which we knew) and Twitter (which also makes a lot of sense); more interesting is the notion that Facebook and Microsoft are actually adjacent neighbours (more on this later). It’s fun to consider many of the out-of-left-field product launches from these companies in terms of the wheel: the Kindle Fire Phone shows how clearly Amazon reached across the board from its core competencies in trying to build a productivity platform, while iCloud shows the same for Apple. To go a bit further into these across-the-board differences, let’s look at our six groupings and the three pairs of opposites that emerge:
1. Information About X (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon) versus Premium Enablers (Microsoft, Apple, Uber):
Information about X companies see the world as a set of information to be organized and understood, whereas Premium Enabler companies see the world as a set of objectives and tasks to be accomplished.
This is probably the most straightforward of the splits: it boils down to ‘We care about lists’ versus ‘We care about tasks’. Ever wonder why Google, for all it’s brilliance, can’t make a spreadsheet tool that even begins to compete with Excel? Or why iCloud, despite Apple’s perfectionism and design-oriented thinking, is still such a disaster? It’s in these companies’ DNA: Google, a giant data processing and machine learning engine, is naturally going to excel at knowledge and understanding-type questions and attracts world-class talent to solve these kinds problems. But when you think of everything in terms of data, you won’t be as good at building tools – and vice versa. (Bing still sucks, six years in.)
Compare Microsoft’s mission statement: “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more,” versus Google’s: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Those are both great mission statements: they each perfectly capture what Google and Microsoft deeply care about, while being completely orthogonal to one another in their underlying values. That’s why Google Search and Excel are great, while Google Sheets and Bing are bad. As an additional example, Bing’s original slogan – Bing is for Doing – sounds sort of silly, but perfectly captures what Microsoft cares about – doing stuff. Of course, that’s great for Microsoft and their internal mission consistency but it’s also why their search engine stinks and no one voluntarily uses it.
2. Identity (Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Google) vs. Interface With the World (Apple, Uber, Amazon):
For Identity companies, what’s interesting is the user’s perspective on the world; for Interface with the World companies, what’s interesting is the world’s utility for the user.
Consider the question: what is it that companies are constantly asking their customers in order to excel and improve at what they do?
For companies that focus on the user’s perspective on the world:
Google: How can we help you organize and understand the world around you?
Twitter: How can we keep you engaged and up to date with your personal interests?
Facebook: How can we better connect you to your friends and unique social graph?
Microsoft: How can we make you and your business more productive?*
Versus companies focused on the world’s utility for the user:
Apple: How can we build a perfect device that makes the whole world more responsive, useful and at your command?
Uber: How can we provide a universal service to organize the physical world and its contents for the benefit of our users?
Amazon: How can we provide a common logistical framework to fulfil any purchase or facilitate any service for our customers?
— *One could certainly argue that Microsoft is an edge case between these two categories. Microsoft definitely cares about the world’s utility for the user as well, and is the best candidate for an organization that truly cares about both of these perspectives. This makes sense, seeing as it’s right at the edge and could plausibly be assigned either way. But I think New Microsoft under Satya Nadella counts as an organization where individual people, with their individual needs, networks and cloud, are the fundamental building blocks in question. —
I think this split is best framed as the juxtaposition between a service like Facebook or Twitter, where each and every one of its users will have a profoundly different experience, versus Apple (where everyone gets the same iPhone – more or less – and it’s perfect every time), or Uber (where every cab ride may be unique, but really they’re all the same service). People use iPhones and Uber and Amazon Prime to many different ends, but as tools to interact with the world, they’re pretty much the same for me as they are for you.
3. Productivity Platforms (Facebook, Microsoft, Apple) vs Organize the World’s X (Twitter, Google, Amazon, Uber):
While close to the first split, (Information about X vs. Premium Enablers), this divide is different – two companies at the edges, Facebook and Uber, jump ship for the opposite teams. For Productivity Platform companies, the principle problem to be solved is one of scarcity; for Organize the World’s X companies, the principle problem to be solved is one of abundance.
This is my favourite. Productivity platform companies are organized around a common purpose to maximize finite resources. Microsoft’s is the most straightforward: you and your organization have a finite amount of time and money, and we will help you to maximize them towards your goals. Apple: you have a finite amount of time and attention, so we’re going to build the most perfect device possible for you to achieve your life objectives and control your world around you. Facebook is particularly interesting: you have a finite amount of time and social capital, so we’ve built a suite of social productivity tools for you to manage your social input and output.
Organize the World’s X companies, on the other hand, tackle the opposite problem: to harness the vastly complex and reduce it down to something manageable. Twitter is an open protocol to organize the world’s collective conversation; Google takes in all the world’s information and makes it readily accessible and usable; Amazon does the same for the world’s goods, services and products; Uber (who has perhaps the greatest challenge of all) aspires to organize the entire world’s physical contents.
This split reveals a lot about Facebook. While it may be tempting to think of Facebook as broadly similar to Google or Twitter (after all, it deals with information and the internet), in this respect it’s very different. Yes, Facebook’s social graph across it’s multiple products and platforms is vast and contains over a billion people. But for any given Facebook user, the task at hand is not so much to organize a vast sum of user data (and reduce it down to a single search bar, a la Google or Amazon) but more to maximize your attention span and social capital. In short, it’s a productivity platform for your social life, just like Microsoft was a productivity platform for your job. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that Facebook is in some ways the next Microsoft: the true social- and life-heir to Redmond’s omnipresent workplace productivity platform. After all, in addition to setting the agenda when it comes to social (when it comes to new features, acquisitions, and product strategy), it’s currently trying to do to the smartphone ecosystem what Microsoft did to the desktop PC manufacturers in the 2000s – that is, sit on top of a huge value chain and capture all of the attractive profits.
It also speaks to Uber’s terrifyingly large ambition to be the de-facto organizer of the entire physical world and all its contents. While in the original split, Uber was appropriately classified as a Tool-oriented company rather than a List-oriented company, the current divide highlights Uber’s real challenge. That is, to truly operate on mission and at scale, Uber must essentially build and operate PageRank for the Physical World: to index, categorize and deliver the entire physical world and its contents much the same way Google did so for the web. So while Uber ultimately operates in ‘Tool mode’ as a Premium Enabler company, their principle problem is one of vast abundance rather than one of scarcity – categorizing them as a ‘Organize the World’s X’ company rather than as simply a productivity platform. It’s why, although I totally think that Apple could build a car (they’re also a premium enabler / productivity platform company, and do it very well), they could never be Uber. After all, do you really think Uber hired the Carnegie Mellon math department and the original Google Maps team just to make its taxis a little more efficient?
Finally, it’s worth taking a look at the outermost ring of text in the circle – how these companies make money, and how well aligned these companies are to their revenue generating mechanisms. Building a premium productivity tool to help you interact with the world? Looks like you’re Apple- you should be making money by selling devices. Do you cultivate engagement and eyeballs through a social network organized around people’s interests and conversations? Looks like you’re Twitter- you should be selling advertising. Do you organize all the world’s purchasing, transactions, goods and services? Looks like you’re Amazon – you should be facilitating transactions and monetizing each one. When everything lines up perfectly, great things happen – as Ben Thompson of Stratechery puts it, “Powerful things happen when culture, competency and opportunities are aligned.”
All of this being said, there’s one major product that on the surface appears to make no sense in this framework:
What about Android?
Android (by some lines of argument, the world’s most successful product to date – having reached a billion users in barely over five years) makes no sense on this graph. It’s a key piece of Google’s weaponry, by all accounts a massive success, yet falls in nearly every category opposite Google’s side of the circle. It’s a productivity platform (like iOS), a horizontal software enabler that extends into apps and the web (like Windows Phone was designed for, kind of) and an interface to help you interact with the world around you.
So what’s the deal? In my view, although Android has undoubtedly been a huge success, this circle layout offers some explanation as to why, 6 years later, Android still at times feels very foreign to Google. Consider the recent Google I/O developer conference where the Android half of the conference felt very stiff, unnatural and uninspiring while the Google Services half of the conference was so full of life and ambition it almost felt like magic. Yet that’s not actually a knock against Android – in fact, it’s even more impressive that Google pulled it off, given how opposite it is to Google’s core competencies. Remember, Google acquired and launched Android not to compete with Apple but to compete with Microsoft – they desperately needed to make sure that the mobile internet would not be locked up behind a proprietary operating system they didn’t control, and they succeeded. The fact that they were able to do so while reaching so far across the board – even if Android still feels like a foreign limb to Google at times – is especially impressive.
In conclusion: think in circles! I’ll follow up on this post at some point with some extensions, such as what future moves and products this framework suggests, as well as perhaps an abstracted version that is truly more like a colour wheel (rather than simply seven companies arranged in a circle, and their core characteristics laid out accordingly). In the meantime, I invite you to comment on whether you agree or disagree on this framework and placement, and where you’d put other big movers like Alibaba, Xiaomi, or Airbnb – feel free to add your thoughts to the comments section, or tweet at me @alex_danco.