Election time is a crazy time here in the U.S. I’m fascinated by what happened when John McCain, the presidential candidate of the Republican Party, chose a woman that no one on the Democratic side clearly anticipated. In campaigns, people can say some rather hurtful things, and given the feelings surrounding Hillary Clinton’s loss, really stupid things. The goal generally appears to be, on both sides, to say whatever it takes to win an election.
So too, in technology, it is increasingly clear that the battle is more political than anything else. Apple’s Mac vs. Windows campaign looks like a variant of what one politician will do to another while on the campaign trail. Now I’m going to do something incredibly dangerous this week: I’m going to try to both argue politics and technology and draw parallels between how both types of battles are fought.
As some of you know, I used to be a competitive analyst specializing in strategy, and I’m aware of several folks who have been on the technology side that are now working on this election and who have been on the political side and are now working for technology vendors. So this isn’t as big a stretch as you might otherwise think.
We’ll end with my product of the week, RingCentral, which is an inexpensive way for a small company to appear much bigger and more professional than it otherwise could.
The Sarah Palin Example
A few months ago, I used a book titled True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society to argue that the only way to beat a charismatic person like Barack Obama was to find a way to get Hillary Clinton to fragment the party. That is effectively what McCain is trying to do with Sarah Palin.
The Democrats, clearly caught by surprise, moved to disqualify Palin and get her off the ticket. Suddenly there were leaks, apparently both true and untrue, about her children, fidelity, ethics, husband and qualifications. The strategy, which if better planned and executed, could have worked, aimed to get McCain to reconsider and pick someone easier to beat. Had the other side been forewarned and better prepared, the attacks might have been both timelier and more effective but, so far, they have failed, and it appears Palin will now go the distance.
Like many of you, I’m actually looking forward more to the VP debate than any of the Presidential debates. Biden is expected to win, but given the feelings surrounding Hillary Clinton and his tendency to speak first and think later, he could actually sink the ticket. If this happened, it would be Palin, not McCain, who won the election for the Republicans. It would put a high cost on the Democrats’ first-strike failure to remove her from the ticket. Through their failure, we the voters got a more interesting and arguably harder choice. The reality is that regardless of which side wins, a ceiling will be broken and history made. Right now, I think I could personally be happy if either side won — and unhappy only if either side won by cheating.
Mac vs. PC
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of interesting behind-the-scenes events. Somehow, Apple got word of a planned MP3 player that HP was building and convinced Carly Fiorina to enter an unfavorable agreement that effectively kept HP out of the market.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a leak that introduced a yet-unfinished Dell MP3 product to the market and allowed Apple supporters to attack it prematurely. Some actually attacked it through me — even though my involvement at the time consisted of a 55-minute briefing, five minutes of feedback and a couple of speculative columns. This may have stopped or delayed this product to market, also benefiting Apple, making me wonder how far Apple would go to stop a competitor.
Most recently, a secret campaign using Jerry Seinfeld was leaked by the Wall Street Journal in what appeared to be a very similar fashion. This too resulted in a massive amount of negative commentary, which seemed to me to immediately assume the result would be stupid even though the agency was known to be one of the best, and Seinfeld himself, historically, one of the most successful. The effort seemed to be focused to either kill the campaign or pre-position it as a failure.
Initial coverage would suggest that it is at least partially successful, and I know that high-concept ads like this are very dependent on the mindset of those initially viewing them. However, I wonder how many think about the fact that much of what was initially leaked about the campaign was false. This wasn’t about truth — it was about killing a project that competed in some way with Apple.
A few days ago, the WSJ (anyone notice a trend here?) violated an embargo to release a negative review of a new iPhone-like product using Windows Mobile from HTC. This review likely set the tone for others. The Journal traditionally is one of three publications that Apple trusts to honor its nondisclosure agreements, and this incident showcases that it does honor them if they are from Apple, but apparently not — at least, in this case — if they are from their competition. Once again, the effort seemed to be to damage a competing product before people could form independent opinions. Forget the review, given their history with Apple and keeping embargoes — why break this one?
This just goes to show that the practices that exist in politics are drifting more and more into technology. I’ve been looking at the NPD numbers, and Apple is now dominant or approaching dominance in a number of lucrative markets: high-end phones, MP3 players, and high-end (read high-margin) laptops. Is Apple getting there honestly, or by ensuring that competitors can’t enter the market or compete? Apple does build very good products, typically, but given the number of class-action lawsuits suddenly naming Apple as the defendant, you do have to wonder.
In the end, shouldn’t the voter or the consumer get the choice? Whether in a political race or in a competitive situation, if these kinds of things prevent voters from being able to vote for candidates they might prefer — or from buying products they’d rather have — aren’t “we the people” hurt? Should someone else get to choose what we buy or whom we elect?
Thinking about this another way, if you can only win by cheating, doesn’t that mean the other side should win? This is true regardless of which side you are on. It’s something to think about this voting season and something I also pondered while watching the Olympics earlier this month.
Product of the Week: RingCentral
Speaking of lopsided competition, small businesses often have trouble competing with larger companies because they lack access to similar resources. Hosting companies and a variety of services can often help close that gap, and one I’ve liked for a while is RingCentral.
What RingCentral does is give you a telephone service at a reasonable price that rivals a full PBX. With call following that ensures calls get to you whether you are on your office number or cell number, and e-mail alerts, you can be more connected than most of your enterprise counterparts.
Sometimes it’s fun to bet on the underdog. If you are the underdog, products that help you win that bet should be on your short list. Because RingCentral is such a product, it is my product of the week.