Three Kings and Their Visions: Schmidt’s Bet, Gates’ Spin, and Jobs’ Win

As 2006 closes, the titans of our computer industry have, one way or another, made their visions known to mankind. Three in particular have made interesting, if not influential, comments on the future of the Internet and the world as we know it: Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, Apple’s Steve Jobs, and of course, Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

Google has captured more than the imagination of the business community — it is increasingly converting small businesses and savvy consumers into Internet-based services. In a world where desktop applications dominated by Microsoft Office don’t interoperate as well as they should — all too often you have to use Paste Special to paste something into another application’s window, just to avoid formatting problems — Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt makes the case for the future of Internet applications in The Economist: The World in 2007:

In 2007 we’ll witness the increasing dominance of open internet standards. As web access via mobile phones grows, these standards will sweep aside the proprietary protocols promoted by individual companies striving for technical monopoly. Today’s desktop software will be overtaken by internet-based services that enable users to choose the document formats, search tools and editing capability that best suit their needs… Simplicity is triumphing over complexity. Accessibility is beating exclusivity… We’re betting on the internet because we believe that there’s a bull market in imagination online.

And we all know the largest company he’s referring to, that is striving for technical monopoly. But Schmidt really takes the cake for the best overall vision at the end of 2006.

Bill Gates is unfazed, noting only that Google is hiring excellent people and that there may be some areas where they overlap. Gates is out there promoting Vista and blithely explaining Office 97’s improvements — such as the following classic case of spin recorded in an interview with CNET News.com (“Gates: Ushering in Zune, Spiffing up Office” by Ina Fried):

You know, [Office,] the world’s most-used application, as you say, hundreds of millions of people who know just without thinking, you know, fifth menu, seventh item, they’re going to have to look at that ribbon [in Office 97], but they’ll find what they want. It’s not like you need to go to a training session. You just need to sit there and look at the screen.

One wonders how long you’d have to sit there to find the feature you’re looking for. Gates acknowledges this dilemma:

Remember part of the reason we took this leap is that some of the great things we’ve done in Office people would say, “Hey, why don’t you have a feature to do this?” And we’d say, “Well, that’s interesting, we do have a feature to do that.”

Thank goodness Bill has something better to do with his time. He also acknowledged that he’s not much of a PowerPoint user and doesn’t do animation. He really has gone soft — his vision of a wireless connection for entertainment everywhere is interesting but far from reality, and is beginning to sound more like spin control for the failed Zune roll-out:

You’re going to have entertainment capability built into the car, and we’re working on that with the car manufacturers. You’re going to have it in the new-generation set-top box. You’re going to have it in your phone, you’re going to have it in your PC, and you’re going to have some dedicated devices — dedicated media devices. We thought to really fulfill our vision of connected entertainment that we wanted to have a device that had the wireless connection.

When pressed for specifics about how this wireless connection for Zunes will be any better than just beaming music from one Zune to another, Gates was optimistically spinning the spin:

They’ll figure out — the product group — exactly what to do. But (it’ll be) things like just listening in or, as you go into a sports stadium, being able to see replays and information; as you go into a store, being able to listen to things, see what’s on special there.

Cool. So Microsoft hires good people, too. Let’s hope they figure out what to do.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs is still keeping the industry interesting. Apple brought out feature-length movies for the iPod and iTunes back in Sept. At that time (see “Apple forges path to digital living room” by Tom Krazit and Ina Fried of CNET News.com). Jobs pointed out that a new product, to be introduced in the first quarter of 2007, that lets consumers stream their movies or music to televisions wirelessly. “We think it completes the picture here,” he said. Characteristic of the Apple CEO and the company, Jobs delivered his vision one month ahead of his competitors (see “Good for the Soul” by Newsweek’s Steve Levy):

The way you can tell that you’re onto something interesting is if everybody who knows about the project wants one themselves, if they can’t wait to go out and open up their own wallets to buy one. That was clearly the case with the iPod. Everybody on the team wanted one… We believe that customers are smart, and want objects which are well thought through.

Steve also has the last word on Zune:

I’ve seen the demonstrations on the Internet about how you can find another person using a Zune and give them a song they can play three times. It takes forever. By the time you’ve gone through all that, the girl’s got up and left! You’re much better off to take one of your earbuds out and put it in her ear. Then you’re connected with about two feet of headphone cable.

I couldn’t agree more. Microsoft wants to take on Apple with the Zune? Good luck with that.

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