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Do They Care?

I recently listened to a podcast where a couple of Apple geeks were discussing their careers and their philosophy on work. The conclusion they eventually reached is that you should do what you love. That is, if you want a balanced, rewarding life, and want to make a positive difference in society, then do what you are good at, what you think matters, and what makes you happy, and don’t be so concerned with what will just make you money.

Of course, if we are going to live and work in our modern consumer, technological society you will need money, but maybe if you do what you love then the money will just happen naturally because you will be doing something you care about. That’s the theory, anyway!

While I’m not totally convinced by this argument it is something I have noticed in my dealings with various individuals and companies. The best ones always have a “higher purpose” rather than just making money. The ultimate example is Apple. There’s no doubt that they want to make a lot of money (if necessary by using dirty tax avoidance tricks as I have reported in previous entries) but I don’t think that’s why they really exist. They exist to make the best products they can and to really make a difference to their customers. The money just comes along as a consequence of this. So clearly this is an example of where the theory works.

Compare that with companies like Dell, which make rather tedious, generic PCs. Do the employees of that company get much from their work rather than just a salary? Do they look at what they create and think “that’s something beautiful?” I really doubt it. But to be fair, I guess there’s a certain amount of skill in making something like a PC which is functional and cheap, but so many other companies are doing the same thing so I would wonder where the satisfaction in doing that sort of work comes from.

You could make a case saying that not everyone can be at the cutting edge in terms of elegant design, new technology, and great performance. If every company used the same principles then there would be no extremes. But should everyone at least strive to attain those standards even if they don’t all succeed? Should they have a design goal in mind instead of just doing the minimum necessary to make a profit? I think they should.

Apple have been through that in the interval between Steve Job’s periods of leadership. They had competent, conventional leadership but they seemed to lack any need to strive for excellence (apart from the Newton of course, but I’ve ranted about that enough in previous blog posts) and that showed in their products… and their profits.

But what about other leading tech companies?

Microsoft have never seemed to have that creative spark. They have been far more concerned with keeping their corporate customers happy and with maintaining their existing power base than with doing anything genuinely innovative. Again, there is a challenge in creating new versions of products while maintaining compatibility with existing ones, but I just can’t see that as being as high an ideal as making something genuinely new.

Google are the most obvious company to rival Apple for innovation, creativity, and quality. I never cease to be amazed at the elegance and pure power of something as seemingly simple as Google search, especially compared with “me too” products like Bing. It’s undoubtedly a fantastic achievement. Google Maps (especially Street View) is also a great product. I’m not so positive about some other Google efforts, for example I always find Android clunky compared with iOS.

So getting back to the initial question I think there are plenty of examples where pursuit of quality has worked. But there are many where it has failed too. Like most philosophical approaches to society and the economy, it sounds great in theory but doesn’t always work.

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