Free idea: Tech companies, please stop doing so much
Microsoft’s announcement that it’s going to purchase Activision Blizzard — the people behind Call of Duty and World of Warcraft — is the kind of story that drops like a bomb and leaves everyone sorting through the rubble, trying to understand what happens next as the dust settles.
The intended and unintended consequences of the purchase on Xbox Game Pass and everything else is almost impossible to consider all at once, as Waypoint spells out in its discussion of the proposed acquisition. It’s also not likely going to go unchallenged from a slowly sharpening U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission.
But when I’m personally met with such a blatant example of a company trying to do a little bit of monopoly “as a treat” I can’t help but fixate on a simple question: what if everyone just did less?
Doing too much
This year Apple is expected to announce a mixed reality headset, the company’s first major new product category since the Apple Watch (I’m not going to count AirTags, sorry), and what many assume will be its big post-iPhone play. There are now comically vague rumors that Apple might delay the headset yet again. But the fact remains everyone assumes Apple has big plans to get into augmented and virtual reality and intends to follow through on them soon.
These are big companies with massive resources that already have a hard time maintaining consistency year-to-year. Is a new product category going to help that?
The problem with trying to do and be everything (besides it being unsustainable) is that quality suffers. As much as I’m excited by the idea of Apple getting into AR/VR or Google making its own foldable because I know these companies have the resources to make a good, inventive product, I know it comes at some cost to their other products, and the workers that make it all happen. Does a fiasco like Apple’s easily broken MacBook keyboards happen to a company that isn’t printing money from new types of iPhones? Can we really expect a focused, successful smartphone from Google, when it’s busy launching and retiring multiple software products at the same time? These are big companies with massive resources that already have a hard time maintaining consistency year-to-year. Is a new product category going to help that?
These are “people problems” on some level. Throw enough resources and time at the issue and nothing really needs to change, right? But already bloated tech companies becoming even more bloated to stay on top of trends — like having to have an answer to the “metaverse,” a concept that doesn’t even exist in any real way — doesn’t promote innovation or competition. To put it in terms that might be more appetizing to the Silicon Valley set: nobody was exactly winning when Meta was snapping up companies and cloning features to stay relevant. We now know having fewer social media options may have been actively hurting us. We’re losing by being stuck with Meta and the various social apps it owns.
Building out an ecosystem of products, be they phones, computers, or VR headsets, has the added advantage of making the idea of leaving that much harder. This has long been Apple’s strength. When it adds a new product, it’s usually closely integrated with the company’s previous ones. You can access iMessage across almost all of Apple’s products, along with Apple TV+, Apple Fitness+, and the Home app for controlling HomeKit devices. Not everything is designed to perfection — despite Apple’s pedigree — but it all just works. And now Google’s trying to replicate it with Chrome OS, Android, and Google TV.
There are disadvantages to building out that ecosystem haphazardly. OnePlus, which became known for making great, affordable phones, now makes earbuds, smartwatches, and even TVs, that are all affordable, but not nearly as neatly and universally integrated as Apple’s walled garden. It’s diluted OnePlus as a brand (to be fair, the company’s relationship with Oppo hasn’t helped) and hasn’t really benefited its most devoted customers.
My modest request to do less and to do it better, could not only lead to more meaningful products, but it might also give companies who are already making great, focused products room to breathe.
I often think of Notability as the best notetaking app on iOS. It’s the first thing I recommend when someone finally decides to start taking notes on their iPad, or just buys an Apple Pencil and is looking for something to do with it. But it’s hard to not see the company’s recent decision to roll out a subscription for some of its most enticing features like handwriting recognition as a solution for struggling to make enough money just selling copies of the app. The problem likely has to do with capable-enough notetaking apps being offered as a built-in part of iOS and iPadOS. Why spend money on an app when Apple is giving Notes away for free?
Another example that comes to mind is reMarkable, whose reMarkable 2 E Ink tablet might be my favorite way to take notes, but also requires a Connect subscription to really do all of the things that make it a usable device (like getting notes into cloud storage like Google Drive). I imagine slower sales on a dedicated, niche, notetaking device needed to be made up for, and squeezing a subscription fee out of new customers made sense.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but when larger companies can burn money on things that might not even be a major focus, it’s the reality of doing business.
The impulse to expand into new product categories is the same impulse that motivates Microsoft to purchase giant publishers and well-regarded game studios. In the short term, it shores up Xbox Game Pass, but long term, it’s about being everywhere, and also being impeachable in everyone’s mind. It’s a capitalist impulse, one that’s demanded by shareholders, but also pushed forward by employees who legitimately believe they might have a better way of doing things.
That doesn’t mean that it comes without a cost, and that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change. Especially when Xbox Game Pass or Apple’s headset is in every household. Once sales slow is always when the subscription services get rolled out and the prices raised. Look at Netflix for an obvious example you might have already experienced.
I don’t expect any of these companies to focus for their own sake, or to stop trying to get even bigger. As we head into the next few years of neverending expansion, it’s worth remembering that things could have gone another way, though, and we might have been happier for it.