When Product Quality is Inherently Optional

June 25, 2012

Betanews tries to figure out if anyone’s going to be able to compete with the iPad, and comes up with this piece of analysis.

But Google, like Microsoft, doesn’t have a reputation for quality that’s required to compete in this space.

This unintentionally hilarious quote tells you pretty much everything you need to know about how lazy and entitled most of the electronics & software industry has gotten thanks to the go-go 90’s and 00’s. I mean think about it – Google and Microsoft have advantages and disadvantages when it comes to competing with Apple, but one major problem they share is, you know… product quality.

Don’t you love how “quality” is just one of any number of checkboxes on a long competitive analysis list? “Well, we have more USB ports, and a discrete GPU, but your stuff isn’t detestable crap, so we win, two to one.”

The fact is, with the exception of the Xbox (which isn’t the driving revenue leader at the company, and has been loss leader for most of its existence), Microsoft’s (genius) business model simply doesn’t hold them accountable for its design decisions and product quality. Don’t get me wrong, that’s absolutely brilliant from a business perspective, and it’s given them the ability to experiment with all kinds of nutty cross-product integration ideas (Microsoft GrooveLiveMesh Professional 2009 Edition!) over the years without any real sales consequences. But the fact is, when required to deliver something that appeals to the people who have to use it every day, and especially when attempting to unseat an incumbent who’s already doing it, the non-Xbox part of Microsoft isn’t prepared to go much further than  a big press event, concept video, or acquisition. Their biggest, most impressive achievement is building an enormous, amazing partner and channel system tasked with the sole purpose getting other companies to build products for them, get them in stores, and deal with angry, confused end-users. It’s amazing, it’s innovative, it’s complicated, and it’s made Microsoft a staggering amount of well-deserved cash. People focus on products (which makes sense), but Microsoft’s incredible “get other people to make us money” program is the defining secret sauce of the company, the way supply-chain management is rapidly becoming a key, understood-but-still-underrated difference-maker at Apple.

And while that “don’t call us, call Packard-Bell/Compaq/Dell/HP/Lenovo/etc.” system served as the backbone for the PC explosion that changed everything and made the modern internet – such as it is – commercially viable, it doesn’t result in a consistently positive (or consistently anything) end-user experience, and never has. Consumer environments where five different vendors can blame each other don’t often foster accountability. And now, all of a sudden, that user experience, and that accountability matters A LOT, partially because of unprecedented competition (both in innovation and price) from Apple, and partly because years and years of free corporate IT money has allowed the world of third party hardware manufacturers to lose any kind of competitive edge or empathy with end-users.

Google, on the other hand, appears to be going through serious growing pains, and seems unable to execute on much of anything these days. They may or may not figure themselves out sometime in the near future, but I don’t expect them to put out a high-quality, end-to-end (software + hardware + ecosystem) consumer product before they do. 

Either way, the push is good for Apple. But so much of the push is talk, and concepts, and vaporware. Even if they get caught up to in specs, or features (as has happened with phones in some ways), their huge advantage in distribution, support, ecosystem, and brand is something that takes years to build, if you’re even able to pull it off. Apple is doing this stuff right now.

I think, if fully committed, Microsoft could do it. But I don’t think they’ll ever be fully committed to anything, and they’ll ultimately fail. The easy-enterprise money is just too tempting, and it’s too deeply infused into the company’s DNA at this point.