The Rise of the Incompetent Experts

Recently, the backlash against Apple has become relentless. Even the more mature, balanced sources for news from experts have begun to take potshots.

donglesOne reason for this is related to the growing number of “Incompetent Experts” online, also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. As Wikipedia explains, the D-K effect is “a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.” It has become so prevalent recently that ArsTechnica published an excellent post on it called, “Revisiting Why Incompetents Think They’re Awesome” based on the original APA paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (PDF).

Of course, when it comes to technology, Reddit has the largest number of incompetent experts. The Verge article mentioned above was only five hours old when I wrote this and it already had almost 500 comments on Reddit. It’s hard to understand the haters. Apple transformed the personal computer first with the Apple II, then with the Graphical User Interface in the original Mac, the music industry with the iPod / iTunes, the mobile phone with the iPhone, the laptop with the MacBook Air, and tablets with the iPad. You would think by now people would give Apple the benefit of the doubt, but these so-called experts have proclaimed (again) that their newest products are flawed in a huge wide variety of ways.

One corollary of the effect is that it is hard to tell who is really an expert without a basic level of expertise. Also a true expert opinion might be “context sensitive,” i.e. an expert with an opinion that helps one person might be completely inappropriate for a slightly different person or situation. The article explains this in detail in sections entitled, “Context is everything,” “Culture complicates things,” and “Education and work.”

Of course, this effect not only applies to Apple: In the first paragraph of the ArsTechnica article, the author points out tongue-in-cheek, “Another election day in the US is rapidly approaching (Tuesday, Nov. 8—mark your calendars!). So for no reason in particular, we’re resurfacing our close examination of the Dunning-Kruger effect from May 25, 2012.”

Monthly Recap: Insanely Great Products

The title of this post comes from a 1985 Steve Jobs quote in Playboy magazine, “Making an insanely great product has a lot to do with the process of making the product, how you learn things and adopt new ideas and throw out old ideas.” He said this only a year after the release of the first Macintosh. Fast forward 21 years and you can find a similar quote in the recent Washington Post interview of Tim Cook, “Tim Cook, the interview: Running Apple ‘is sort of a lonely job’.” Cook commented, “The North Star has always been the same, which for us, is about making insanely great products that really change the world in some way – enrich people’s lives.” The similarity is exciting because it highlights a concept that has withstood the test of time and has resulted in products that have truly changed the world.

August’s posts explored the idea of insanely great products from a variety of perspectives.

  • Exploring the Digital Ocean of Cloud Computing” featured a company called Digital Ocean that provides virtual servers for software developers which run in the cloud. While their core value, “Love is what makes us great” is my favorite, “striving for simple and elegant solutions” has certainly resulted in amazing products.
  • What Cameron Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple” was a reminder that despite recent criticism, Apple still adds value to a massive number of customers and, just as importantly, consistently communicates that value effectively.
  • Finally, “Is Google Heading Down the Same Path as Yahoo?” explored the challenges that Google is facing in light of Yahoo’s recent demise. There are definitely some “insanely great products” at Google (Search, AdWords, Gmail, Maps, etc.), but the concept is far from a corporate philosophy.

Obviously not every company needs to be an Apple to change the world. Even imitators fulfill an important role in technological advancement. For example, many people prefer Android over IOS for good reasons. It is often considered more customizable with many hardware options available at a much lower cost. However, there would be no Android without the breakthroughs that the iPhone pioneered such as the multi-touch touchscreen, IOS, and the App Store. Today Apple continues to be a pioneer in new areas that have expanded beyond pure technology such as the environment, social responsibility, shifting investor focus to longer term thinking, and protecting individual privacy.

What is critical is the positive intent and focus on improvement and advancement. It sounds cliche, but it is the one thing that separates humans from the other species where survival is the primary focus. If you have one more minute, watch this moving Apple ad called, “The Human Family.” The final line is beautiful and appropriate: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” (From a poem by Maya Angelou.)

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The Original Apple Newton and the iPhone 1
Photo courtesy of Blake Patterson from Alexandria, VA, USA (CC BY 2.0)

Is Google Heading Down the Same Path as Yahoo?

This post is a continuation of last week’s post, “What Cameron Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple” which ended by asking if Google could eventually end up like Yahoo. It was a sad ending for the company that was the Google of its day. Verizon paid only around $5B for it (it was worth $125B in 2000). One of the reasons commonly cited for Yahoo’s prolonged decline was simply “a lack of focus.” A recent New York Times article, “Yahoo’s Sale to Verizon Ends an Era for a Web Pioneer” has the details and there are some eerie similarities to Google.

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On the one hand, Google is doing well at the moment. Android is extremely popular, their stock price has tripled in the past three years, and their advertising business continues to generate massive revenue ($50B in 2015). However, the trap of losing focus is a seductive one. Are they beginning to head down the same path as Yahoo? There are some worrisome signs.

GSearchFirst, the “2016 Doodle Fruit Games” is certainly strange and complex. It even begins to break their strong philosophy of keeping their search homepage pristine. Also, if you have four hours to spare, you can compare Google’s “Code I/O” conference keynote to Apple “WWDC 2016” keynote. If you don’t, the TL:DW (too long, didn’t watch) version is that almost everything Google announced is still “coming soon.”

Even Google’s most recent major product releases have been met by yawns (and head scratching) by the Android community. Their new video calling app Duo seems to work well, but adds additional fragmentation to an already crowded product area. Are new Duo users really going to convince all their friends to switch from Skype, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, WhatsApp, etc.? This is especially problematic when users have been burned by Google discontinuing products that don’t immediately succeed such as Hangouts, Reader, Wave, and others. Even if the Duo does generate interest, only 14% of Android users have upgraded to Marshmallow (the version released in October 2015) compared to 85% of IOS users.

GMailOn the positive side, Gmail is still the king of email solutions with excellent spam filtering and a clean interface  while Google Maps is still the best option for navigation with accurate routing and traffic information. So is Google doomed? Not in the near future at least. There is still no better option for searching the internet and that alone will insure that their advertising business remains insanely profitable. Is there reason for concern? Definitely. With the incredible pace of technological change, it wouldn’t take much for Microsoft Bing or a scrappy search engine like DuckDuckGo to make a dent in Google’s critical search business. Hmmm. Sounds like a good topic for the next post in this series. Have a great weekend!

What Cameron Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple

A recent post about the Cloud Computing company, Digital Ocean, got me thinking about what makes certain corporations superstars in their industry. It seems to be an elusive combination of outstanding products that add value to peoples’ lives and great communication about those products. Cameron Craig highlights his five most important communication lessons in the Harvard Business Review article, “What I Learned From 10 Years of Doing PR for Apple.”

  • Keep it simple
  • Value reporters’ time
  • Be hands on
  • Stay focused
  • Prioritize media influencers

It’s a fascinating read and the article was so popular that he wrote a short follow-up on LinkedIn called “One more thing.” This post explained the importance of Apple’s Surprise and Delight philosophy as well as the benefits of in-house versus outsourced marketing. I worked with Apple before, during, and after their “turnaround” and saw their acoustics team apply these concepts. Apple went from one acoustic engineer using the anechoic chamber as a storage room to multiple state of the art chambers staffed by the best and brightest acoustic engineers in the industry. We were all “surprised and delighted” when even the first iPhones were a breakthrough in cell phone audio quality.

ApplePainting smallThe pros and cons of Apple’s products are constantly argued, sometimes quite vocally. For example, a recent Reddit thread “The Galaxy Note 7 is miles ahead of the iPhone” has over 1,200 comments. However, the fact remains that Apple still adds value to a massive number of customers and consistently communicates that value effectively. It’s a lesson many tech companies ignore at their own peril. Even Google, with a virtually unlimited marketing budget has some questionable practices like announcing news too far in advance. Yahoo, of course, is the ultimate recent example because less than a decade ago, it was in Google’s dominant industry position. Could Google succumb to the same fate? The next post in this series will explore some of these questions.

Exploring the Digital Ocean of Cloud Computing

A recent Monthly Recap introduced a company called Digital Ocean (DO) that provides virtual servers for software developers which run “in the cloud.” If you are unfamiliar with this concept, it’s fascinating and their minimalist homepage has a 20 second animated GIF that explains it.  To summarize, you click a few buttons, wait 55 seconds, and can then login as a superuser to your very own barebones Unix server complete with Internet access. A basic server can be created for an arbitrary length of time for just $0.007 per hour or run continuously for only $5 per month. In either case, the price is the same: 30 x 24 x $0.007 = $5. There’s no hardware to configure, no monitor/keyboard to plug-in, no USB memory stick needed. Just click and poof, a server magically appears ready for use.

Needless to say, this service has become extremely popular and scrappy little DO has been compared very favorably with massive solutions from Amazon (AWS) and Google (GCE). However, DO’s founders certainly have had a rough path to their “instant success.” You can see from one of the founder’s public LinkedIn profile that he has spent years in a wide variety of roles honing his skills.

DOFounder

He is clear about the challenges he has faced along the way. In his description of his position as President of ServerStack, he says, “Where I learned how to do things wrong for a decade so that we could make DigitalOcean an overnight success.” He is even an active participant on Quora answering a wide variety of questions on startup strategy including questions on his own company like, “Is it still worth to copy DigitalOcean?

DOCreds

Also, as I mentioned in the previous post, DO has crowdsourced their documentation. It’s a genius idea. Many techies love to play with servers and the incentive of up to $200 for writing an in-depth tutorial makes it even more compelling. To their credit, DO has made it easy by providing “Writing Guidelines” that explain how to write a technical article describing their services and a comprehensive author application.

The result has been a set of 1,379 tutorials covering all the major features of their products which are available at no charge. There’s always so much to say about companies that seem to be run well with the right intent, but I’ll close by simply posting DO’s Core Values again. While “Love is what makes us great” is my favorite, the rest provide that glimmer of hope that there are some companies out there that continue to “Think Different!” and still succeed.

DOCoreValues