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Mailbag: Who's Cooler?, Saving the Economy

Here are more of your thoughts on the debate over which is cooler, Microsoft or Apple:

I am not a great Apple fan. I have always worked the Intel processor line. But I have to admit that Apple is way cool. The Mac was a super cool computer -- great operator interface and real user appeal. The entire product line calls out to the users. The biggest reason we aren't all driving Apples is the upfront cost and the big push IBM put on the PC as an enterprise machine. Most of our current GUI ideas first appeared on Apples. Apple reached out to the education market very early and still has a major presence there.

If I were a computer, which I am not, I think I would want to be an Apple. Even Forrest Gump thought Apples were cool.

Microsoft is "cooler" because you know upfront that it's a competitive company. Apple is less cool because it's a "secret" monopoly.

My workplace? Very uncool.

I feel Apple's coolness is trending downward and Microsoft's is trending up, although I'm not sure where each lies in relation to the other. When I interpret coolness, I view it as a personal thing. Some people have it, some don't. Apple has many great products that enable the individual to be cooler than their peers. Microsoft generally focuses on making great products that appeal to the business user. I feel in the last couple of years, Microsoft has taken great steps toward recognizing the individual. I also think that Apple will begin to experience many of the problems a larger, more mainstream company faces.

I personally think Microsoft is cooler.

There are really two questions embedded in this question: Who's cooler to work for, and who's got cooler products. Apple wins the second question hands-down. Only if you like messing with the internals of your technology (like Linux lunatics) would you think that MS products are cooler.

The first question is much harder. If you've seen the docudrama "The Pirates of Silicon Valley" (tag line: "Good artists create...Great artists steal"), you would probably make the conclusion: Not only is neither cool to work for, they're probably both pretty uncool to work for. I've never worked for either and I've only known a couple of people who have worked for MS, so I can't answer that queston.

Microsoft is very cool in many ways, and not so cool in others. It's cool in terms of its small pockets of teams who are enabled to dream big and applauded for their innovation. It's cool in its vision of what the world would be like if everyone just used their software for everything. It's cool in its philanthropic efforts, which are obviously led by Gates' work, but the culture is hyper-supportive of giving and will match not only money that is given, but time volunteered. It's cool in what its doing with SharePoint; most people, even in the industry, don't fully understand how far-reaching this platform is. And nearly every company has enough SharePoint in the form of WSS that is at no-cost, that they all need is MOSS. You don't have to be much of a business person to see why this is brilliant -- and thereby cool.

Apple is very cool in a much different way. Its coolness is much more felt by the general consumer public. I'll let somebody else comment on why that is, but hey, bottom line is it has some pretty cool products. And Steve Jobs is very cool. The guy just comes up with amazing stuff and inspires his people and the marketplace. That's very hard to do.

So, I guess I'd have to say both companies are cool. They have their warts, though. I've seen them first hand at Microsoft through the types of managers who get promoted. There are too many decisions made at levels that don't see it first hand in front of the customer and also aren't high enough to see the big picture. It leaves a middle-management crisis which results in constant turnover. This creates a culture where virtual teams become more important than formal chains of command -- which would be great if it were managed that way. However, it is not. It creates an odd culture that often leaves people feeling little trust in mid-level management. I'm sure Apple has its own problems, but not being an insider, I can't make any particular assertions.

It never ceases to amaze me that the people that blast Microsoft for its money-grubbing ways and the fact that it is not open source like Linux are, many times, the same people that have a love-fest with the proprietary Apple.

Frank challenges the notion that major companies like Apple live and die by their CEOs:

This industry and its media have an inappropriate (nearly cultish) habit of attributing the entirety of the successes and failures of multi-thousand-person organizations to single individuals (i.e., "Jobs' real talent is his unrelenting attention to detail"). The notion that the "best CEOs" are the ones who know every minute detail about technical implementations or even that they are somehow the Uber Human Factors Engineer for a 2,000-, 5,000- or 10,000-person company is a sign of a positively abysmal CEO or the most ridiculous of simplifications. Should any CEO attempt to be that Uber Engineer, then they would have failed before they have started -- in my opinion and that of pretty much every piece of MBA-related writing in the last 50 years. It is the fool's errand of all fool's errands to even attempt such a thing.

Organizational talent, I get. The ability to build, extend or direct great teams, I get. But the notion that these CEOs are somehow THE only significant creative nucleus or the only capable overseer of quality is totally ludicrous. What typically happens is one of two scenarios: Either the CEO as Godhead is mostly PR and they really have a great organization that can survive just fine without them (as long as the next guy doesn't basically screw it up), or you have someone who has managed to handicap a multi-thousand-person organization greatly by holding too much decision-making too close. Whenever an organization, which has already been hobbled, does topple shortly after the CEO leaves, is it a sign of the CEO's greatness, or one of their criminal negligences -- to the stockholders and the thousands who work there? If the U.S. collapses shortly after eight years of Obama-inspired Golden Years, is he a success?

And readers share some of their ideas for getting the economy back on track (more to come on Friday):

My solution for the economy is for the government to get the media to lie to us. What if the mainstream media announced that jobless claims went down and the stock market closed up 400 points three days in a row? People and companies would go out and start spending again.

Americans will not be able to contribute to the restoration of the economy without being gainfully employed. It seems that a company such as Microsoft, with large amounts of cash on hand, could invest in its current employees for additional training and eliminate all H1B visas. Microsoft would make a greater contribution to the U.S. by not laying people off. America needs to pursue a policy of greater self-sufficiency across the board for a while in order to recover. It is said that isolationism does not work, but I don't suggest it has to last forever; just setting up the manufacturing of, say, personal computers here at home would stimulate the economy, put people to work and encourage kids to pursue careers in computer science and related disciplines.

And nationalization of the health care system should provide all Americans coverage, relieving cost and decreasing the burden on employers. Hopefully, it would also allow greater retention of workers in these troubled times.

My thinking is that the problem we're in is one part fundamental and one part psychology. In order to fix this, we need to play to both ends. In my opinion, any kind of drastic, palpable action done by the government that appeals to most or all will do the trick, such as:

  1. A dramatic rise in projects ('New Deal'-style spending).
  2. A dramatic cut in taxes will have the same affect in No. 1.
  3. Bill Gates as treasury secretary.

It won't matter whether it's a right- or a left-wing action, just as long as it's seen as the government trying to do the right thing.

More of your thoughts on the economy -- and how to fix it -- are coming on Friday's installment. Want to share your own ideas? Leave a comment below or send an e-mail to [email protected].

Posted by Doug Barney on January 21, 2009