In the first part of this series, I have written about the strengths and foibles of two enormous tech giants — Apple and Microsoft. In the final part of this series, I am turning my attention to another giant and delving deep into the big G.
They’re responsible for a sixth of Korea’s economy, played the protagonist in the Miracle on the Han River, tower above giants in an elite group of conglomerates called chaebols; and if you happen to visit Seoul, the name ‘Samsung’ is a leitmotif and its influence, epic.
Most people do a double take when they’re told that a brand we associate most with phones and televisions was also the primary contractor for the world’s tallest building, are the second largest shipbuilder around, fancy aeronautics and weaponry and own a theme park to round it off. Reminds you of some sovereign ruler? This is Samsung, and its $288 billion empire is huge, multifarious and flourishing.
Samsung electronics is the crowning jewel of the Samsung group, a powerful arm which has earned it high praise, immense recognition and multiple billions. It employs more than 370,000 people and prides itself on being the world’s largest maker of LCD screens and mobile phones. Founded as a trading company, Samsung forged its legend through the Korean War and a prolonged period of economic turmoil to become the titan that it is today.
Their rise to prominence in the consumer electronics segment has been accentuated by some stellar mobile devices they’ve produced. When no smartphone could hold a candle to the mighty iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy SII got heads turning with its brilliant execution of an Android OS which was still nascent. It was fast, bright and asserted that the world will not be dominated by just one company’s ideas. Following it up with an even more imperious Galaxy SIII a year later, Samsung really took the bull by its horns. While the competition was still learning the ropes of creating truly great devices, Apple, dented by Samsung’s increasing prowess, took the Koreans to the courtroom to ban handsets, dictate interfaces and allege theft. It wound up to be a vicious, protracted battle fought with such ferocity that at one point, the judge held up an iPad and a Galaxy Tab above her head for a Samsung attorney to tell them apart. He couldn’t.
Yes Samsung’s devices changed their profile radically in the wake of the iPhone because they had to compete with an entirely new animal. The iPhone fired everyone’s imagination when it came out and continues to inspire designs even today, but that’s perfectly alright; they’re inspired, not ripped off. Samsung’s Galaxy line is their interpretation of the smartphone, just like the iPhone is Apple’s. If Apple wants to blur the line between inspiration and copying, well I am afraid, they themselves owe the court an explanation for a few new iOS 7 features then.
Samsung has already paid Apple more than a billion dollars in ‘damages’ and if Apple has their way, Samsung will have to shell out a couple more billions. Notwithstanding the steady courtroom, jibes, Apple still continues to ink deals with Samsung in the boardroom. Irony abounds!
People inside Samsung describe a state of crisis, abetted by a persistent fear that the company might lose everything at any moment. There are no breaks to celebrate wins; there’s only what’s next. The workplace is run by martinets. It’s normal to see employees bow to their superiors. With little power vested in small teams, innovation entails going through a labyrinthine hierarchy to get approvals, and yet being coerced into rushing a product to the market, even if it’s not truly first-rate, just like the unwieldy Galaxy Gear.
Never known for producing top-tier applications, Samsung has lately been panned for choking phones with slipshod apps that are, at best, show boats. Truly well designed, practical interfaces have been regular fair in organizations like Apple and Google. Samsung though is either yet to hire those developers or give them the laissez-faire to write elegant code. While an iPhone 5s or a Nexus 5 will never be manufactured ingenuously in Apple or Google, their operating system is coded to the T by the Americans. It’s an open secret the installed software creates experiences; hardware is just a vessel to host it. Samsung puts together probably the best hardware available but the same can’t be said for the software they push. Looking into the crystal ball, they want to ship devices with a home-grown operating system, creating a seamless experience for the user and maybe forgoing Google’s Android in time. It is a far-fetched idea, one that is still a reverie, but first Bada and now Tizen are determined to get a foot in the door.
One of the people behind Samsung’s new-fangled focus is David Eun, a Korean-American executive who has worked at AOL and Google. In a stroke of genius, he suggested that some top Samsung executives go round Silicon Valley and explore software’s polestar.
Lee Kun-hee did not take long to execute perhaps his most ambitious move yet; trying to bring a bit of the Silicon Valley culture to Samsung. A 10-story building geared towards research, sprouting in the tony San Jose, a bold accelerator program and a little startup ethos are signs of things to come. They welcome the fading puritanism in the Korean powerhouse, and underpins that Samsung could really be onto what they’ve painted on a wall in their upcoming 1.1 million square feet office — “The Next Big Thing”.
It’s extraordinary that a service which occupies so much mind share uses a an absolutely stark homepage. What seems like brilliant design now was actually born out of its creator’s thirst for express searches and some ineptitude at HTML. Early tests on the website had users gawking at their screens, waiting for the page to load, which it already had, seconds ago. Simplicity is a feature and limited knowledge, a latent advantage.
What this spawned, over the next few years, was the true democratization of the Internet. As with most things, we did not know we needed better search before it became indispensable. We did not know that threaded conversations were better than disjointed emails. We wished for, but never knew that cars might seriously be driven by computers in a not so distant future.
This is Google. By their own proclamation, they do “cool stuff that matters” and prefer not being evil, a claim validated when they rent goats instead of lawn mowers to trim weed at the Googleplex, in an activity they say is both “cute” and “low-carbon”.
It might not be best product possible when Google releases it, but they will iterate and hone it so quickly that version 1.0 would soon become a relic. The sheer speed and tenacity with which Google moves to augment functionalities and simplify interfaces is a study in itself. Every now and then, when you open Gmail, YouTube or Search itself, a revised look or a fresh feature appears, dissolves without a trace and cumulatively improves the quality of the service. Gmail was infact famously kept in beta even after it had been widely adopted. Chrome too, has quietly been through thirty-four iterations. Its innards have been tweaked and fine-tuned for an experience which Internet Explorer, Safari or Firefox aren’t capable of, despite a huge head start.
With Google, change is constant and happens fast; within two years Android has gone from clunky to elegant, Maps have been redesigned from the ground up, Drive, with peerless pricing has truly arrived, and good old search just keeps getting smarter.
Continuous improvement is precisely what separates the companies that stay relevant from those which don’t. There’s hardly any room for slack in organizations which are truly committed to their cause. People ask, ‘Why fix it if it isn’t broken?’ To which I say, ‘Why wait for it to break?’ Why can’t we honestly assess ourselves and work on our weaknesses? Didn’t we learn that prevention is better than cure?
Traditionally, Google was never known for excellent software or hardware design. That honour was always Apple’s to enjoy. The summer of 2011 however, was going to wreck the status quo. Within a week of taking over as CEO, Larry Page got together the people in command and presented a vision of a revamped Google which is so delightful that searching for something seemed more like doing magic than using technology, one where all apps look consistent and speak the same design language. He called it “One Beautiful Google”. They did not appoint a Jony Ive. Instead, they gave free rein to design leads and their teams to collaborate and concoct what they feel would appeal to the user. There were no design ‘standards’ to conform to. There was just an appeal — to make it great.
Google’s designers employed an enduring design trend called the card. These little white boxes of information are designed to serve up nuggets of information, display items of importance and strip away distracting gradients. Carrying neat typography and sharp icons, cards soon became a dominant design motif and made their way to Google+, Google Now and even Google Glass.
Always strutting its data-driven efforts, Google has been known to examine traffic logs to find out which of its 41 shades of blue garner the most clicks on the search results page. A rather progressive analysis of user data was carried out to design Gmail’s new compose window which was going to sit in a corner instead of overlaying the inbox view. Designers burrowed into logs to grasp the average length of sentences and arrive at the right size of the window. They also realized that most people never used to format text, so they hid all those buttons for formatting inside one single button. Neat.
That Google really empowered its designers to create something new came to the fore during the inception of the intelligent mobile assistant Google Now. The key technologies for accomplishing this were well in place. What wasn’t, was a way to articulate the reams of dynamic information. Here for the first time in Google’s history, designers determined how a product would work. Teams from search, mapping and the likes worked together, prototyped and polished what turned out to be a truly remarkable interface for providing answers when you need them.
Google’s approach to beautiful design is a company-wide thrust which is also rubbing off on Android and Chrome OS. The Chromebook Pixel is a another shining example of stellar industrial design with a price to match. The immensely popular Nexus family of devices on the other hand, is proof that good-looking, cutting edge devices can be sold at very attractive prices.
The world’s most used mobile operating system, loved by millions and the sole reason why a certain fruit company is bleeding. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out to acquire Android, Eric Schmidt wasn’t even in the know. Andy Rubin sold it off at a price so low that it has never been revealed.
It was one of those acquisitions which Google makes every week and would have probably gone unnoticed had it not made it big. The earliest version of Android was an experiment, a callow project, whose potential no one fully understood. HTC Hero, the first Android powered smartphone looked exactly like one of those devices from the time which stood up to the mighty iPhone only to be humiliated. Only a few sagacious minds said that Android could at least make a mark if not a crater. What Android did- created a crater, invited everyone to contribute to the party and presented free desserts to the rest of the world. Android advanced at breakneck speed, its features multiplying with every release and optimizations coming in thick and fast. Geeks loved its openness, Symbian users went gaga over the fluidity, iPhone users were hard to convert, but secretly admired the ability to customize a phone. Google knew it needed a Herculean effort to match the eloquence of iOS, let alone surpass it. Eventually, Android dethroned iOS in spectacular manner. The fledgling software, came of age; from a frail 1.5 Cupcake to the now mature 4.4.2 KitKat, and the difference between the two is like night and day.
Yes, the fragmentation issue is unsettling. It hurt the Android of yore terribly. Moving forward, a bit more benevolence from device manufacturers in issuing timely updates has greatly mellowed the din against the biggest F word for Android. Moreover, the latest version of Android is designed to run smoothly even on lower-end devices, bolstering its endeavor to have everyone on the same page and ease development.
Today Android represents the wide gamut of opportunities present in gadgets that had long been accepted as being far removed from computing. With Android Wear, Google is making a serious foray into wearable computers. Moto 360, running on Wear, looks like someone has finally cracked the smartwatch after several failed attempts. Expect to be notified of heavy traffic, unaccomplished fitness goals or cab reservations at a flick of the wrist. It won’t take long to erect a sizable app selection for wearable tech given Google’s affinity for open-source development. More importantly, unlike with Android, Google wouldn’t have to work its tail off to stay ahead of the curve; it just created the curve. Android Wear gives it a real shot at transforming more electric gadgets into electronic ones.
What Google has created from Android is unmatched. They have shaped a malleable operating system which is free for all and can be installed on everything from refrigerators to game consoles. Everything is tied into one giant ecosystem and controlled from simple gestures or voice commands. That is one big inroad into obtaining the keys to the future.
While Google strives to sharpen existing products, it never loses the foresight to work on some completely offbeat projects which might have no connection with their current line of businesses. Called ‘moonshot’ projects by Page and conceived at the clandestine Google X Labs, this is where Google aims to generate truly disruptive ideas. Google Glass, driver-less cars, robots and internet delivery via balloons are dogged about creating reality from fiction. They are harbingers of tomorrow. Thermostats, drones, watches — seemingly humble devices are being thrown into the web of boundless power. They are a peek into the future — crazy ideas which could be called brilliant inventions in hindsight. As Internet companies like Amazon and Google start infiltrating markets with tangible products, it is becoming clear that they want to interact with customers at a more personal level. This isn’t just organizing information and making it easily accessible, it’s much more.
When the air conditioners and ovens in our households finally start talking to our mobile devices, it wouldn’t be a battle for supremacy between a Hitachi or a Siemens but instead between companies whose customers are connected to the Internet. It is an opportunity for anyone to grab, yet very few tech companies seem genuinely interested. Imagine asking your self-driven car to open the door to your house, ignite the fireplace, set off ambient lighting and park itself in the garage when you return home from a busy day at work. Sounds like a ton of convenience, but in Google’s world, we’re barely scratching the surface of technological dexterity.
Google knows when to acquire a company and when to retire an existing service. The Nest acquisition was perfectly timed. Motorola’s acquisition did not exactly turn out to be a money-spinner, but it did give them rights to an enviable dossier of patents which won’t be leaving their hands even after Lenovo overtakes Motorola. Likewise, it is swift when it comes to shutting down services which never really took off or are no longer relevant, allowing them to focus on stuff that really matters.
For a company whose revenues have grown multiple folds on the back of targeted advertising across all its services, it is but natural that at some point, these had to begin feeling intrusive. The adage goes ‘If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product being sold’. Truth is, ads have been here since before the dawn of electronic media and are here to stay. Commercial breaks have been fed to us since time immemorial. Brands pay millions every year for a few seconds of presence at the Superbowl. The only difference between online and offline advertising is that the former can be made relevant to each user. Therein, lies the key to making ads likable. An example — if a search for a ‘Blue striped polo’ throws up sponsored results from e-commerce websites where I have a history of making purchases and am inclined to again, ads are helping me out and I am all in. However, if the sponsored results are sprinkled with bleak, obscure websites which I’ve never heard of and which can’t guarantee good service, the chorus against advertising will just get shriller. Tailor ads to really be helpful, make them more personal and meaningful, and attitudes will change.
At the moment, Google is hard at work to make our lives easier, more connected and rather enjoyable. This has always been a company with a proclivity towards the human touch to keep its customers smiling. This becomes evident with those clever easter eggs, well-timed doodles for very occasion and impassioned product videos; the one which tells the story of a reunion of two childhood friends separated during the partition of India and Pakistan really warms the cockles of the heart.
There are many things which sets Google apart from its contemporaries. Beneath it’s facade of a crusading Silicon Valley giant, it has got happy (and well-fed) employees which make it happen. It fosters innovation and has been continuously rated as one of the best places to work for. Despite an enviable suite of services Google is more than just a sum of its parts. It understands the power in people and their potential impact on technology like no one else.
It is often said that on the Internet, nothing is too big. Everything eventually crumbles and makes way for new order. But what if one held the keys to the future and the resources to start working on it today. That is Google, and the future belongs to them.