Thursday, February 17, 2011

an internet insight?

did the internet free engineers to be better marketers?

When I was a kid, the Commodore computer company released the Amiga line:

© Bill Bertram 2006, CC-BY-2.5 — Attribution

My recollection (I was young and relatively unsophisticated about these things then) was that the Amiga was well conceived and well built, with a user interface that anticipated a lot of the positives from the Windows version that would soon become widespread.  The graphics processing and gaming on the Amiga was best-in-class at the time, and the system handled productivity software well too...but in the end, the Amiga failed commercially in the US market.  The theory back then as to why Amiga didn't fare so well was that it was a company run by engineers: they knew how to make a product, but their skills did not extend to marketing.

In stark contrast, consider the new heroes of innovation and "product" design: Google, Facebook, Twitter...these are all massively successful companies selling "products" created and effectively marketed by engineers.  I keep "quoting" the word "product" because the distinction between a plastic and glass box filled with electronics that must be manufactured and shipped in the real world to consumers and a web based bit of interactive software is important to this discussion, but is not the most important consideration.

One thing that sets Google and Twitter (to a lesser degree applied to Facebook) is the spareness of the design aesthetic.  Google's original search page was fairly minimalist, and became more so; this spareness may have been the result of a carefully considered aesthetic, but I suspect it proceeded from some archetypical engineer's idea of how things should look.  At any rate, the engineering behind the scenes was what really marketed Google's search engine: fast and accurate and helpful results that were just better than those found with Alta-Vista, MSN, Yahoo!, etc...

Twitter, too, (even though I don't really care for the negative community effects I see in the service (all the while giving big props to the service for Twitter's contribution to the democracy movements in the middle east)) strikes me as another success story for the engineers.  Well crafted code that does this one, targeted thing very well...

It does make me wonder if Amiga would suffer a different fate today, especially when you consider the huge (free to the manufacturer) marketing channels available now; if Gizmodo existed in the 1980s to run constantly updated profiles of the newest and bestest gadgets and electronics, the superior engineering of the Amiga might have won a larger following.  Maybe.


  1. It's a fun game to play, this 30-years-later maybe game, but gosh it's hard to say. It's an arms race, right? The barrier to getting a promo of your new gadget on the web is low, but the fulltime marketing specialists have also been helped.

    As you love to point out, Apple's phone and pad are succeeding because of the masterfully created and distributed hype, not solely their tech merits. Steve Jobs, may he get well soon poor guy, is no engineer. He is now, and has always been, just a fantastic marketer.

    Also, the quality of the product is often a small component amidst other, sometimes more dominant components, that determine corporate float/sink. I myself was, ahem, recently involved with a company that made some AWESOME products, dare I say so myself. But we didn't make them fast enough, in great enough quantity, or in the correct socioeconomic climate. The internet can only go so far toward fixing such problems.

  2. Nope, just figured it out. We're making it too complicated:

    The Amiga failed because people were confused by the name.

    Right? It's just a little confusing.

  3. I am in way over my head in commenting on this, but here goes...I definitely agree with Dave that the popularity of Apple's products is not necessarily due to the superiority of their products. I might be in the minority, but after buying an iPod, I think I've actually come to see the Zune as a better personal music device, just to think of an example. I do think that the rise of Apple has either caused or is the symptom of the increased importance of design over engineering in determining a product's success. Maybe that dynamic has always been there, but I think the modern designer of digital products has to think a lot more about form over function--much more so than the Fords and Edisons and other inventors in the past. One can point to the success of Apple versus the success of Nokia to see such a dynamic.

  4. I have a decidedly anti-Apple bias, and I sometimes allow that to manifest in emotional diatribes. My Apple antipathy is well grounded, but sharing it is not always constructive.

    With that bias confessed, I would argue that Apple's design OR engineering is not necessarily the best available (they do make very pretty artifacts); I would also make a somewhat populist appeal concerning the price point of the Apple product vs the mass market alternatives. I've found that people who would choose a Honda over a Lexus might choose an iPhone over a mid-level Android device, and see no conflict therein (such conflict is not necessarily an unqualified negative, but is interesting.)

    But, and this is an important "but", other readers of this blog are very likely to see good "design" and good "engineering" as the same art, perhaps expressed in slightly different modes, and would take issue with someone making a distinction.