Just Because You're Big Doesn't Mean You're Good at Everything

Big companies are not necessarily evil. But just because they are big, that doesn't mean they are good at everything.

One of the most cited example is, of course, today's Microsoft. We all know how overstretched and tired the company is, especially in the field it has been dominating for almost the past two decades—software. Paul Graham already sad it a while ago that Microsoft is Dead—not in the sense that DEC or SGI is (or maybe Sun to some extent), for sure, but more like being irrelevant, losing their innovative steam.

Graham does mention Apple's exceptional comeback in an industry not known for rebirth. Graham also mentions that Google is the big guy in town now. But perhaps both history and corporate logic would dictate that they overstretch themselves in one way or another too. Or at least, they'll start to try everything that is outside their game, only to find, probably, that they don't excel in everything.

Two quick examples are some of Google's desktop apps (Desktop on Windows is memory hog and not a good citizen with some types of system utilities—I have first-hand experience for that; Map is fun and well-designed, but on Mac lacks native-y feel) and Apple's web apps (e-commerce like online retail store and iTMS/App Store are merely OK with today's standard—some of their non-US stores are even notoriously bad, almost laughable1; web services designed for developers feel still like late 1990/early 2000-ish thingy; some improvement lately but at a slow pace).

Of the two, Apple's maladroitness2 at web apps is the more glaring one. The company excels in consumer electronics industry design and software interaction design. I don't believe it has problem recruiting excellent web developers and architects. But probably it reflects that the company's culture is not shaped for doing services (it's more like for doing things).

All this, although we know those expansionary measures are often the next logical steps of a big organization3.

  1. I have many horror stories of how, for example, the default Apple Store Taiwan doesn't issue corporate invoices; how ADC's site still has problem with Unicode chars in our names in 2009; how their trapdoor DB schema design could mess up your profile and in turn deny your access to App Store-related services. That will be another post. 

  2. I find one of the most awkward product presentations is when Apple introduced MobileMe. Phil Schiller's demo per se was not a problem. But touting it as being just like desktop app, connecting you to the cloud, with instant push updates in the age of gmail or other now taken-for-granted AJAX technologies really shows how out of touch with web development Apple as a collective corporate is. Similar thing can be said when Steve Jobs touted Safari as being the best and fastest browser a while ago at previous WWDCs—although Safari does make quite a lot advances now to give those claims substance. 

  3. I don't write this to lambast Apple or any big company per se. As a developer I find the engineering brain of Apple impressive, responsive and often helpful. But some parts of the company, particularly the web part, are dysfunctional, ineffective, moody, or even capricious. When your company is big, though, you don't expect every part of it to be as effective as your gems, hence my post title (the "gems" allude to one of the most famous line in Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, but I'll save the citation here).