Why you’ll never see Apple’s “Kin” moment

Much has been made of the death of the Microsoft Kin, and I think the contrast between the aborted Kin launch and the runaway success of the iPhone 4 is an important lesson for anyone who runs a business.

Engadget posted this extraordinary piece about the politics that killed the Kin. It’s such a damning (and drop-dead-accurate) piece on Microsoft that there’s not much to add but to contrast them with Apple.

The people at Microsoft are scary smart and extremely well funded. So why does the much smaller Apple make launching products look easy?

Apple doesn’t tolerate departmental infighting.

Their structure doesn’t allow it. Have you ever worked for a startup? These companies are too small and tightly woven that any project requires the support and buy-in from the whole team. Every single project is all-in, from the CEO to tech support. Steve Jobs recently said that Apple is the biggest startup in the world, and they’re structured just that way. The top managers meet at length, every week, to make sure there aren’t any inter-departmental snafus, and that everyone is on the same page.

John Gruber can tease Roz Ho for blowing the Danger acquisition, but it was doomed from the start. Microsoft is organizationally incapable of producing a first-class product. While Apple is run like a startup, Microsoft is run like a government.

One department can OK something, and another department can overrule it later. Trying to get approval across the management layers at Microsoft is like trying to send a message via carrier pigeon. This is the number one reason things don’t get done at Microsoft, and it happens more often than not.

Apple doesn’t hammer square pegs into round holes.

Largely due to these communication issues, Microsoft will allow a project to go a long way on its own, and then try to cram existing Windows software in later.

Danger was the first to market with a consumer-focused “smartphone”, and they did a hell of a job with the Hiptop. They actually set the bar that Apple had to exceed with the iPhone. So if you or I were running Microsoft, we’d have tried to integrate their UI, existing software, and brainpower to make the best possible product.

Microsoft doesn’t roll that way. Their vision is Windows running on every electronic device, and I feel sorry for Roz Ho and her team for believing the person that told them they could have any leeway with that policy. (The Xbox is a notable, and uniquely successful, exception).

Setting aside the fact that their “Windows everywhere” strategy is fundamentally flawed, their acquisition strategy is broken. Apple’s style is to acquire “talent and technology”, according to Jobs. Microsoft’s is to jettison both post-acquisition.

Most importantly, Apple isn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board.

“Throw things to the wall and see what sticks” is not a viable corporate strategy. Apple famously says that they’re most proud of the products they don’t release.  They shelved their “Safari Pad” tablet for years so they could focus on the iPhone, and canceled the “Asteroid” hardware GarageBand interface outright (if it ever existed).

Most of us will never see Apple’s shelved products, but even if they leak, one thing is certain: it’s never too late to put the brakes on a lackluster project.

So what the hell was the benefit of Microsoft releasing the Kin while it was half-baked? Why not kill (or at least shelve) the project? I’ve said it before: Microsoft is just a wreck.

The worst of it is that Microsoft’s moneymaking engine has so much momentum that they can’t see that they’re headed for disaster. I don’t know if it’s fixable, but they’ll have to fire Ballmer to even have a chance at a turnaround.

Listening for your Cassandra

I had a coworker remind me recently, when confronted with some negative talk, to not be too dismissive of our “Cassandras”. I am not intimately familiar with Greek mythology, so I had to look up the reference.

Cassandra is the story, in Greek myth, of the woman who received the ability to see the future, only to be cursed that no one would believe her. This would be an exquisite form of torture that all of us, at some point, have the unfortunate ability to relate to (particularly those of us that have attempted to advise teenagers of the rocky shoals ahead).

In today’s society, as in those before us, we tend to be dismissive of those that approach us with such negativity. We’re conditioned never to bring up problems without pointing out a silver lining, for fear of being perceived as naysayers.

As I was perusing The Consumerist today, I was reminded that some of us just didn’t get that message:

Jim Cramer 1 year ago

And a year later, unlike Cassandra, he can recall his prescience to those that called him crazy 1 year ago.

Now the Consumerist calls this “gloating”, but if you watch the follow-up, you’ll see more of a general feeling of frustration that people ignored and still aren’t fixing the underlying problems that caused our current economic meltdown.

It was a sobering reminder that all too often, when we hear the voices yelling for us to stop the line because we’re walking into disaster, we dismiss them as “tactless”, “negative”, or “crazy”, and push forward with our admirable exuberance.

I understand that if we spent all day pondering the doomsday prophecies coming from society’s fringes, we’d never sleep or get anything done. But we’d do well to at least consider these viewpoints from time to time.

How do you listen to find your Cassandra? The nice thing is that you don’t have to look too hard, as they’re usually vocal enough to attract attention to themselves. If you’re working on a project and someone predicts impending disaster, it tends to stick out a bit.

Rather than dismiss, correct, fire, or ignore them, it might be in your best interests to indulge them for a moment and let them explain their reasoning. You can teach them tact later.