Saturday, 23 October 2010

This Week In Tech - Tech Wars

Have you ever found yourself watching two adversaries beat the pieces out of each other and stoop to new lows of insults and trash talk every week? If you follow politics, professional sports, or celebrity feuds, I believe you may be familiar with this phenomenon and may even openly or secretly enjoy it. Well, don't look now, but a high-profile, high-level enemy rivalry has spread to a new sector: there's beef in the tech industry. It seems that the stakes for smartphone supremacy have never been higher, judging by the trash talking going on between Apple and RIM. The CEOs of these two firms are getting so nasty with each other, so public about their disdain and dislike toward their respective rivals that I think the public may soon need a fight that settles Jim Balsillie and Steve Jobs' differences once and for all. Like a cage match, geek version 2.0. Maybe they can square off over seeing whose smartphone screen light shines brighter by having a draw. Ten paces, then turn around and reflect it off their bald pates and into each others’ eyes, to see who can blind the other guy first. Or maybe they can have a masturbatory faceoff, Jobs on his iDick and Balsillie on his blacktool, to see who is truly the king manufacturer of awful, self-aggrandizing devices.

Sorry if the last analogy is a little crude. But I couldn't resist the irony of adding phallus envy to the feuding between the heads of firms that manufacture devices that encourage people to reside in addictive and insulated bubbles that in many ways represent the technological apex of narcissism. And I do feel bad for Balsillie, as bad as one can feel for a billionaire, because at least he turns some of his energies towards semi-interesting things like buying bankrupt southern U.S. hockey clubs and bringing them to Ontario and starting a schools of international affaires, and I don't think he honestly wanted to get drawn into something as ridiculous as this. Jobs, on the other hand, seems to focus most of his time maintaining the pathetic cult of personality investors and a hardcore community of apple users (let's call them "applephiles") have built around him. This is not the first time his words have taken on religious characteristics, by him basically calling his rivals (and by extension, their users) heretics for not giving up and bowing at his altar. These criticisms are then repeated by millions of applephiles and regular consumers on forums and in the media, making Jobs' ego skyrocket to ever higher proportions. Apple technology does raise your raise eyebrows when you use it and impresses with its smooth intuitiveness, no doubt, but this man claims 100% personal responsibility for that when there is a whole company/machine toiling under him. He is the face of this multibillion dollar corporation, and its success is disproportionately linked to him, if you notice how the stock price follows his calculated actions/pronouncements. This is because every business news channel and publication pays close attention to his ridiculous larger than life presentations during which he talks about himself and his company, portraying himself, if not as divine, then definitely as several cuts above the ordinary citizen, who he belligerently demands be in awe of his genius and buy his awe inspiring products.

But what is this war really about? Why did he go pick a fight with RIM? And why is so much ink and analyst breath, including my own, being wasted on it? It's because this is a big deal. This is literally a fight to the finish to see who can finally triumph and have 100% of the disposable income-possessing, time waste-searching segment of the population walking around all day with their heads down, pressing little buttons, being 20-30% present in real human conversations and interactions, staring at miniscule screens, and messaging on facebook and BBM every two seconds. When I go out in public, that's all I ever see anybody doing anymore anyway, but clearly these gents sense that there are still enormous anounts of ground to be gained. Even though some of the heavy metals required to make their devices were quite rare to begin with and are now bordering on scarce, the business community obviously backs the companies and also feels that the growth possibilities are limitless. No wonder. If two percent of the population is important and in high enough demand to need these devices, the other 98% just needs to be sold on the idea of pretending they are that important. There you have the explanation for the non-stop growing demand for these machines. And analysts/investors/mainstream media commentators’ pathological searching for growth means that this demand trumps far and wide any feeble concerns such as the aforementioned ones of materials and social effects. How could a world of six billion people distracted by constant buzzing, ringing, messages, dinging, tapping and clicking not be in everyones best interest? In meetings, on the bus, crossing the street, driving the car, on the crapper, in exercise class and at Christmas f----- dinner, the smartphone knows no boundaries and has made people who can still get by with a simple call, a simple text, or turning it off and letting it go to voicemail an obsolete and dying breed.

What is in fact obsolete and dying is this pathological and frenetic search of markets for profits and growth. A firm like Apple that has built itself up to titan status and can now swagger and bully its way around the industry with led by pontifications of its CEO is actually in early stage decline because it stock price can go nowhere but down This is normal, and as we are going to find out soon, no company or country can grow forever. You can see the most optimistic market gurus hitting that wall of logic right now on BNN, but like a stranger in a foreign land they keep retreating into the only word that exists in their language, but is not going to save them this time: GROWTH. Even if they got their wish and every single person got one of these gadgets and clutched it like a PFD 24-7, where would the company grow into from there? Nowhere but down. But why do we insist on pushing everything to that point in the first place?

Awhile ago, on a trip home from visiting a friend, I listened with some interest to two gentleman debate on the radio about the future of RIM. One said it was going to be gone in ten years and the other said it would be an even greater Canadian “national champion” than it is now. There really is no way of knowing or predicting the future on a subject like this. The guy who said they were toast said it was because they were a one device company, and this is what Apple seems to beat up on them for as well. The other guy mostly pandered to cheap nationalism. The real question is not where these companies will go from their peak of the last couple years but why they suscite such intense fascination right now. I believe it is because they have played a major role in evolving our species much too quickly down paths it was maybe not ready to go down i.e., being unable to tear our eyeballs away from tiny little screens even though possession of them gives us “connected” and “important” status (And just status. Do you know what the monthly bill on one of these things is?) And their hubris shows their intention to prolong their day of reckoning as much as possible.

I think the idea of a world of collaboration, exchange and interconnectedness that was predicted at the dawn of the internet era in 1996, and is reprised with the arrival every new or improved technology, especially smartphones, has not materialized. And that is because these devices’ principal audiences are people who think they are important and the applephiles / tech geeks. When they see Steve Jobs up on stage, doing his own more serious take on the hilarious and ridiculous Steve Ballmer rants of yesteryear, it is either the savvy daring entrepreneur they wish they were or the ubercool tech savvy male role model lacking in a life filled with writing code and playing call of duty or world of warcraft. Tech workers are mostly male and mostly make good money, understandable given they represent the 5% of the population who actually understand how the machines 100% of us use work. Yes, those are generalizations, but the men take the stage with such a pretension of supremacy that you can’t help but feel that they are the generals for an army of tech soldiers who are ready to defend their chosen company’s products, brands and accomplishments to the death. They are also blindly and fiercely loyal enough to mimic the leader and deride the opponents’ technology as moribund, inept, and crappy, in one of these manufactured “wars” where you have to pick a “side”. The war of words between tech CEOs is insignificant compared to the real wars that are happening in the world. But as of this week, it gets treated like one.

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