In Defence of Two Seattle Firms

August 11th, 2006 by Hugh

seattle 013Seattle has more than a smattering of world famous businesses: Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft. Are the citizens of Seattle justly proud of their global titans? Not if the employees of Exbiblio are anything to go by. In particular, Microsoft and Starbucks don’t have a great name around the office. In contrarian spirit, here’s a defence from a visiting Londoner of these two Seattle home-growns.

No self respecting Exbiblio staffer would be seen dead with a PC type laptop in his/her hands. Apple is the constantly worshipped at the Exbiblio shrine. By implication, and sometimes more explicitly, Microsoft is given the thumbs down. But I would argue that the raw, competitive capitalist drive of Microsoft has done more good for the world than almost any other company over the last 20 years. The combination of Windows and a PC box has has brought cheap computing to the world. Factories in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia turn out millions and millions of low cost PCs that are affordable for ordinary people, ordinary schools, ordinary hospitals. Those Asian PC assembly businesses would never have taken off without an operating system that they could use as just another component. Microsoft has brought us close to the vision of a PC on every desk and has truly changed the world for the better.

By contrast, what has Apple done for the world? It’s produced admittedly sleek and stylish computers with nice interfaces that look really cool – but at a price. In truth, Macs are fashion statements for rich bohemians. Apple is greedy. It wants the margin from the box and the software. It charges a premium for looks. Apple never has had and never will have the democratizing effect of Microsoft.

I admit that this Seattle business does not make the best coffee ever tasted, but it has spread the coffee culture around the globe. Before the arrival of Starbucks in London, the “greasy spoon” culture reigned supreme. You were offered of a strong cup of tea (the color of coffee) and egg and chips. Starbucks has spawned many imitators and those who have sought to improve on its formula. But the original Starbucks still has one of the best reputations as an employer and it shows. Here in Seattle you do at least get served in Starbucks. At a more trendy coffee shop I waited almost 20 minutes for just a cup of coffee. I couldn’t understand how they get any repeat custom, but passing by the next day I saw they that drew a crowd of customers patiently waiting to be served. I happily walked past to my friendly service, comfy-armchair, and mediocre cup of coffee at Starbucks.

All in all, I think Seattle should be proud of its contribution to the world via these companies. You don’t have to agree with me – that’s what the comment box is for…

3 Responses to “In Defence of Two Seattle Firms”

  1. Noah Iliinsky (Exbiblio) Says:

    Just for fun, I’ll take the contrary view on the Apple vs Microsoft debate.

    Apple has consistently been the only large company innovating in the user experience and hardware design domain. Aside from the truly democratizing effect of the Apple ][ series of computers, Apple was the first to bring the modern computing metaphor to the world as a viable product.

    While Apple has not been the original source all of their interface innovations, they have consistently been the ones pushing the envelope in terms of bringing those technologies to market in a viable and successful way.

    These days Apple hardware costs no more than PC machines of comperable performance and quality, and in some relevant cases, the Apple offering costs less.

    Microsoft, in contrast, blatantly steals from other successful products (or merely buys them), and then brings to market an inferior experience, a cheap, lowest-common-denominator imitation foisted like an imitation Rolex upon those without the sophisticaton to know the difference. These products eventually succeed only because they starve their competition by underselling them.

    In that regard, Microsoft’s democratization smells more like junk food and cultural imperialism to me.

  2. Ariel van Spronsen (Exbiblio) Says:

    I’m going to pipe up on this one too. I don’t know enough about the business stance of either Apple or Microsoft to speak to the relative value of those companies’ position in the world, but I cheer the sentiment in Hugh’s post.

    I am a huge fan of Seattle. When I moved back to Seattle from San Francisco I was so thrilled to be here I wanted t-shirts and bumper stickers and a tattoo on my forehead that proclaimed it (thankfully I forewent the tattoo, only to get another word tattooed elsewhere – a story for another post). With apologies to the many folks who are sweet on San Francisico, the only things that foggy city truly has on Seattle are a better house music scene, better public transportation, and folks living in it that are damn proud of their city. In all other respects, everything that people generally think is fabulous about SF is equal or ten times better here.

    Seattlites have a lot to be proud of, and yet, in our typical self-effacing Eeyorian style, we constantly poo-poo our own city, and I think that negative attitude has a lot to do witih why SF is considered the “better” west coast city by most. San Francisco is madly in love with itself, and that makes all the difference in the world. Me, I’m madly in love with Seattle and will defend this gorgeous city to the last.

    Cheers Hugh.

  3. Claes-Fredrik Mannby Says:

    Hugh, I know you are exaggerating in order to get a discussion going, but I don’t know if readers of the blog will understand that.

    Exbiblio definitely intends to provide solutions for Mac, Windows and Unix variants, as well as Web-based and mobile solutions.

    Since we live in a Microsoft-dominated and Microsoft-worshipping city, however, I think it’s only natural that we sometimes rebel a bit, and demonstrate our admiration of quality of design and excellence of engineering.

    I for one don’t begrudge Microsoft their financial success. I think that’s between them and their consumers. But, although Microsoft has some significant engineering feats under their belt, such as Word and Excel, I personally love technology (and design), and I think Microsoft’s offerings are generally quite immature on that front, compared to Apple, Adobe and Sun, for example.

    I think Apple, in particular, has struck a great balance between the practicalities of bringing computing “to the rest of us,” and leveraging and extending technologies available in research communities. It is interesting to note that one goal of the original Macintosh was to create a computer that one’s grandma could use, while Microsoft’s goal was to put a computer on every desk. These may sound similar, but it took great courage back in the early 80’s to suffer the ridicule of the rest of the computing community to introduce such wimpy features as all-graphics displays, mice and a unified printing architecture, which resulted in the desktop publishing revolution, and a completely new focus on usability and productivity.

    I hope more people chime in on this topic.