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Tech evangelist Robert Scoble is a lot of things to a lot of people.
The prolific blogger, tweeter, and speaker has over half a million friends on Facebook, is in a massive 4.1 million circles on Google+, and has another 350,000 followers on Twitter. He carries three phones and wears two motion-sensing wristbands. He’s written one book on social media and is publishing a second on wearable technology and ubiquitous information shortly. He’s the chief Glasshole, a former Microsoftie, and current startup liason officer for Rackspace. He probably meets more startups and founders of companies both giant and tiny than anyone else. His first act of evangelism was to get Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak to donate $40,000 worth of Macs to his college in 1989.
And he’s got a pretty good view of what’s happening to Apple, Google, and the entire mobile industry, an industry that’s undergoing massive change.
From slow and ugly beginnings six years ago, Android has risen to surpass Apple’s iPhone and capture 80 percent global market share. Phones have long been won by Android, but Apple’s iPad was recently still the king of the tablets, until iPad’s market share was chopped in half. And while critics argue that the high end of the market — and the only end that matters — is still Apple’s, others are saying that this is just Macs vs. PCs all over again.
All of which has led to Apple’s board finally waking up and telling CEO Tim Cook to speed up.
Scoble was once first in line for the Apple iPhone, but he’s now using Moto X and Samsung Android-based smartphones. I met him at the Grow Conference in Vancouver last week and talked to him about tech, Apple, Google, iPhone, Android, and everything in between.
VentureBeat: Global iPhone share is way down. Does iPhone still matter?
Robert Scoble: The iPhone is still dramatically important. If I was doing a startup company for mobile, I would still do iPhone first. But even among San Francisco cool kids, Android is growing.
It used to be the case that Apple was the only brand for the tech passionates. Now, partly because of screen sizes, openness, and choice, Android is growing.
But a lot of people forget about the stores — even me, when I started saying that Apple is going to struggle. Apple has hundreds of stores around the world that are beautiful, and they have a distribution system, and a staff of 40 or 50 people that will help you.
As long as Apple stays “up” enough, I think most people won’t switch off of Apple. But there are lots of people in the world who can’t afford Apple. The new Firefox phone is now $30 in Spain, with a subsidy. I understand why they’re selling.
I happen to be fortunate: I live in San Francisco, and I can afford a $600 phone. Or two of them!
VentureBeat: You’re using Android mostly, but you also have a Nokia. What do you think about Windows Phone?
Scoble: I hate Windows Phone.
I don’t like the utility of it, and there’s no way to change that. They force you to take their look, and you can’t skin it, can’t change it. Right now it’s reminding me about birthdays every day — there’s a lot of ugliness. [Scoble has 5,000 friends — the maximum — on Facebook.]
More importantly, it’s Windows, and the app ecosystem isn’t there. The cool kids aren’t using it, and until the cool kids start using it, I don’t believe in it. And the app developers don’t put the love into it. The best developers are going to dream about doing something cool and putting it on iPhone because that’s where the money is.
This is what Steve Jobs understood: Brands are defined not by the best thing on the product but by the worst thing. He always asked me to look at the back of the product, the back of the iMac, saying “look at how beautiful the back is.” Very few people understand that you’re defined by the thing that you can’t see.
Android’s not there, either — sometimes I try to make a call, and it just doesn’t work. I can’t get my wife off of iPhone: iPhone works … it’s clean, and it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t bite you.
For me it’s not as exciting or innovative on the top end, but the bottom end is higher.
Microsoft has 16 billion-dollar businesses. When you think about that, it’s mind-blowing, right? But they’re boring! Now the iPhone team alone is bigger than Microsoft, and Windows Phone has 4 percent market share.
How the world has changed!
VentureBeat: Cook has started to take some heat recently. Talk to me about that.
Scoble: I think he has two problems.
First, let’s be honest, Steve Jobs pushed that company hard. Really hard.
My next-door neighbor was on the first iPhone team, and he told me he almost killed himself working for Steve Jobs because he demands so much from you. He did not take substandard performance, and he would keep you up, and he would call you on a Sunday when you’re having family time … and essentially randomize your whole life.
And he was “god,” and when he did that, it was “god” calling!
So having the company relax a bit and sort of cruise after that’s gone is sort of understandable. Now you have to get the company back in hardcore mode, but some of the talent has left. They’re starting up a startup, or left for Flipboard, or working for Facebook. They’ve lost some of their intellectual capital and they have to replace that and go out and recruit the new hottest kids.
But the second issue is Tim.
Tim just doesn’t hit me as a guy who’s excited about the future. Ballmer is the same way, or even worse. For Tim Cook … I just don’t know that he’d be talking to me about Google Glass and excited by that, if he wasn’t at Apple.
He just doesn’t come across like he’s a product guy who’s trying to cut through the forest in a new way.
Steve had that innate sense of what would make an interesting product, and even when he bashed something … like he would say nobody is going to watch a video on an iPhone, he did it in a way that made you feel like he’s sort of right, the screen sort of does suck, and the battery life sort of does suck, but I do want to watch on my iPhone, and I could see how he could fix that.
He still kept your belief that he knew where the future was going. Tim hasn’t yet had that connection, that sense.
To be fair to Tim, he hasn’t built the Apple II and Pixar and Next. He’s a supply chain guy who built an organizational dynamic.
But he needs to change that belief in us, that he can be the guy who can discern where the future’s going.
VentureBeat: Can he be that guy?
Scoble: I don’t think so. I don’t think people can be taught in a year or two to be that guy.
The next question is, is there someone inside Apple who can be that guy or girl? Someone who can become the product person that we have that relationship with that we see as running Apple and bringing that innovation out.
There are a few people there who are candidates, but we haven’t seen that engine kick over.
I’ve had lunch with Google cofounders Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin], and they talk about products, and they make me believe they really understand — and they care, and they understand where the future’s going.
For example, they can have a really long argument about what we just got put on our wrist [a sleep and energy monitoring health bracelet]. Is that going to be successful? They could have a real in-depth conversation about the future, but Tim just doesn’t come across like he’s all that futuristic. So it makes the company boring.
VentureBeat: What does that mean for Apple?
Scoble: The thing that we’re bitching about is: Is Apple Apple, or is Apple Microsoft?
It’s OK, I guess, to be a Microsoft and to be a highly profitable money-generating machine … but it’s not what Apple is. We grew up seeing Apple doing something new and different.
Let’s put it this way: Tim is going to run one of the most important companies ever. I don’t see how he’s going to lose profits or even market share that much.
But Woz and Jobs introduced a new product to the world — sort of like this Google Glass — and made it work, and made an ecosystem and a new business happen that no one else saw, and we miss that in Apple. We want Apple to see a new product that’s not obvious and keep surprising us, and keep coming out every three or four or five years and really doing something like ‘Whoa, I didn’t expect that … and I want it.’
VentureBeat: What about iWatch?
Scoble: Now even “normal” people are wearing more devices like Nike’s Fuelband, Fitbits, or Jawbone Up. It’s now acceptable in the normal world to wear something smart on your wrist.
Soon, Apple’s coming out with iWatch, apparently.
Even if it’s next year, it’s going to be geek jewelry, and normal people are going to want it because it’s probably going to be very beautiful looking, and it will be a new thing to show off, and I now have a new display for my mobile phone.
It probably will have a sensor to study how active you are, and play some health games with you — or a new kind of wrist-action Angry Birds or something [Laughing] … maybe a little Ping-Pong game. If you have a display that goes all the way around your wrist and you have a three-axis sensor, you can think about all sorts of new little video games you can put on there.
Pebble’s doing some of the R&D in this space, but let’s be honest, Apple has a brand and distribution and the best supply chain in the world.
VentureBeat: Apple is taking a long time to come out with new iPhone models, cheaper models. Why?
Scoble: Steve put some DNA into that company.
He liked to keep the number of products down. It’s easy to explain, and it’s clean, and it’s beautiful. When you go to the Apple store and they announce a new model, there’s one phone, and one poster on the wall, and one line, and you don’t have to think about do I get this phone or that phone. [Laughing]
Meanwhile, on Android you have to think about it. Do I want one with this screen, or that screen, a superbig screen, a huge camera, do I want this brand, do I want LTE? There are so many choices.
VentureBeat: You’re wearing Google Glass, you curate news for Glassholes. What do you think is the future of Glass?
Scoble: Google Glass has 600,000 times more computing power than the Apollo missions. Now it’s 39 grams and on my face! In other words, you have a Cray supercomputer on your face, and it will cost $300.
This is the first consumer device that knows where I’m looking and where I’m aiming, and also the first that you’re forced to talk to because it has no real keyboard, no real touchscreen. It’s a very interesting product, and all the sensors are fully on, all the time. People at Google are starting to wear them with custom Warby Parker frames, the women are starting to wear them with cool-looking feminine frames, not these masculine ones.
I’m pretty excited about where Google’s going — I think it will be a product that will stand up for decades as the launch of a new genre.
It’s an Apple II — a product that takes us to a new place. And we thought Apple had a lock on that kind of innovation! It turns out that’s not true — they’re playing defense, and I’ve moved my world over to Google.
I was first in line for the iPhone, but I’m not a fanboy of any company — I’m in favor of anything that’s best of breed.
Right now, this is best of breed.
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