The title of this piece must seem a bit disingenuous. What could the end of the world have to do with tech news? Nothing really. But apocalypse does. Let me explain: In modern literary theory apocalypse is about much more than flaming cities and collapsing continents. Apocalypse is an end, any end, that can serve as a metaphor for broader collapse or human fragility. The fall of humanity in I Am Legend is certainly apocalyptic, but so is the implosion of RJR Nabisco chronicled in Barbarians At The Gate. One story is fiction, the other non-fiction; both record an apocalypse. Apocalyptic writing can be depressive, pensive, tragic, or some strange, melancholic blend of the three. It pays attention to the ends and the beginnings within them.
An apocalyptic writer is especially powerful in the technology space, where the constant push forward leaves behind it the scattered graves of forgotten standards and battlefields full of failed gizmos. Great tech bloggers need to be cognizant of the apocalypses—both small and large—that litter the newscape. They pay attention to the end, not just the beginning. It’s easy in consumer news to focus on the fresh, newborn products. Companies are eager to highlight their take on the next big thing or the latest fad. They make keeping track of the new a breeze—enthusiastic press releases and “leaks” are tossed out into the tech blog echo chamber for easy consumption by readers who care about nothing but what’s coming up. A constant barrage of positive information creates a narrative of forward motion that makes it difficult to step out of the moment and place what is current in a broader context, to see what is as the product of what has been. But for writers who can step out of the moment the rewards are immense. Looking at the negative as well the positive, the old as well as the new, provides the opportunity for unique introspection and analysis that pinpoint where a product line’s future lies.
When J. Allard left Microsoft it was the end of an era, and justly reported as such. But no technology site, at least not one that I could find, provided an in depth analysis of what era exactly was coming to an end. If they had, the recent resurgence of a more focused, ambitious Microsoft would have been anticipated by more pundits than it was. J. Allard was a brilliant man, but his presence at Microsoft was one tinged by discord. Yes, the Xbox was the brain child of Allard – but so was the Zune, the Kin, and the never released Courier. Allard was not a Microsoft executive who appreciated Microsoft’s strengths. Unlike Ballmer or even Steven Sinofsky, he did not want to craft (very profitable) multiple vendor software solutions to technology problems. Instead, he wanted to create a company known for Apple style hardware and software integration. He wanted hardware he could shape with his own two hands, not software he had to trust to OEMs. His time at Microsoft brought with it some astonishing wins, almost all of them in the form of the Xbox 360 and it’s associated services, but their impact was mitigated by the discordant messages Microsoft kept sending out. On the one hand Microsoft was the preeminent enabler of third-party vendors, on the other they sought to do everything themselves. Allard’s exit signalled an end to Microsoft’s schizophrenic expansion of first party hardware paired to exclusive software and a return to the ethos of old. Since then, Microsoft has been a company with a vision; a vision named Metro. Microsoft’s decision to take their best product – the design of Windows Phone 7 – to it’s entire consumer product line was not entirely new (anyone out there remember Windows Everywhere?) but the quality of execution was. Had the removal of James Allard been treated as an external indication of the destruction of a dissenting corporate faction, a beneficial internal apocalypse, critical analysis of what was going on could have dramatically changed coverage of the event.
A similar approach can be applied to an analysis of Research In Motion. The company’s performance has been utterly abysmal. They lost high level executives, including their two co-CEO’s, and failed to field an inspiring product for years. But what’s most interesting about the story surrounding RIM is not what is, but what isn’t. Healthy high-tech companies constantly discard crusty old products. A steady apocalypse of the old makes way for the new. Even Nokia at it’s worst recognized the need to break with the past—before Windows Phone, MeeGO would have been the instrument of destruction, the executioner responsible for killing off Symbian. RIM, on the other hand, has shown itself to be a company terrified of death. All of its efforts have been about maintaining a continuity with a storied, almost mythical, ancestry. Legacy designs running legacy software targeting legacy users are the norm, as is an addiction to marketing features that are no longer relevant. In a world where most of our data is stored in the cloud, and on-device information can be wiped remotely, security is not as important as unbridled functionality. In a world with mobile Skype and Google Talk, the average user, even the average enterprise user, could not care less about Blackberry Messenger. BlackBerry OS 10, the ephemeral QNX-powered savior of keyboarded phones, is not immune from the institutionalized fear of taking corporate assets to a well deserved grave. The name is still BlackBerry, even though the brand has been trashed by years of standing still. Icons and graphical elements are largely drawn from the BlackBerry operating system of old, and RIM executives lavish the same praises on their new operating system they used to heap upon their old operating system. There is little in the operating system to appeal to users of other platforms, just a vain attempt to hold on to existing market share. The PlayBook, RIM’s first device to rely on QNX, famously shipped without email or calendar clients. Why? Stupidity had to have played a role, but part of the reason has to be that Research in Motion was simply terrified of cannibalizing phone sales, of risking mobile phone revenue.