Friday , September 18 2020
Charles Author explains what he learned while writing about three tech giants as the Internet became huge.

Interview: Charles Arthur, Author of Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Battle for the Internet

Charles Arthur has written a fascinating book, Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Battle for the Internet, and I think this interview below will help you understand why I found the book quite interesting.

But I have to make a confession: I thought I would dislike the book, which is not what you want to think or feel as you start a new non-fiction book. Not to mention doing an interview with its author.

Let me clarify. I was asked to read this book and interview its author. The author is the technology editor for The Guardian,so I had no doubt he would know what he’s talking about.

However, I have read, and done interviews on, dozens of books that explore the history of the Internet and what various companies like Google did right and wrong. So I was expecting this book to be a rehash of what I already knew and, thus, be boring.

But, thankfully, boring this book is not. Arthur covered these companies’ rise and their various missteps as a reporter and editor and shares that and additional reporting with this book.

Yes, these is crossover, material that I previously read in such books as Googled, but Arthur keeps a tight focus and explores various issues in different ways than other authors I have read.

His book contains enough gems and details I didn’t know (and probably many others also did not know) to keep the book not only interesting but engaging. For example, I dog-eared a page where he reports that Google’s co-founders searched for a company chief executive, at the urging of its venture capital backers. They told the backers they had found someone, who was born in 1955 and was “a very experienced chief executive at a comparatively small company whose glory days were behind it and that was struggling to compete with Microsoft,” Arthur writes.

“Yes, they explained to their backers: Their choice was Steve Jobs. He, however, indicated non-availability. The search continued. Eventually it ended in March 2001 when they hired Eric Schmidt,” Arthur writes.

Can you imagine how different this book, not to mention technology, would be had Steve Jobs became the head of Google instead of returning to Apple?

Some of these gems were the result of exclusive interviews he did with current and former employees of Apple, Microsoft and Google.

The book begins in 1998 as Microsoft loses a antitrust case, Google is just getting started and Apple is rebuilding itself.

And let me start the interview there, asking him why he chose to focus on those three companies…

How did you decide which companies to focus on, particularly Google, Microsoft and Apple?

They’re really the three which have changed everything in the past 14 years. Pull the thread of anything that’s happened in computing or the internet and you’ll find them behind it in some way.

The publicity for the book refers to these as the three best known high tech companies today, but can I play devil’s advocate and ask why Facebook isn’t one of the three best known especially lately what with its IPO?

Because it was only started in 2004, and while it’s had a big impact, it’s hard to know quite what the long-term impact really is. Google changed search and keeps changing all sorts of things around the internet — look at its impact on smartphones. Microsoft — you know how big that is. Apple — changed music, changed smartphones. Facebook has changed some of how we use the internet — but not in the same way, yet.

Were those the companies you always planned to focus on or did you decide along the way to change the focus?

Those were always the trio. I did wonder at some points whether Amazon, Facebook or Twitter should be in there; but they haven’t changed how we experience the world. They’re important, but perhaps deserve another book some other time.

How did this book come about?

As I say at the end in the acknowledgments, I was contacted out of the blue one day by Susannah Lear who had had the idea. I thought it was intriguing, and after a while it just wouldn’t go away, so I started sketching out how it would work — getting the structure right (doing it by subject rather than by time) was key.

How would you summarize what this book is about to my readers?

How dominance in a business sector can lead to your playing catchup when the market, or the new place of business, changes. Search, digital music, consumerisation — Microsoft wasn’t ready for them. And businesses that can act small and be agile will always have an edge — even if they’re not small.

Were you able to use your work as technology editor of the Guardian to get the information needed for this book or was it more a matter of using your reporting as a starting point? Either way that helped you get the access you needed to talk to current and former members of each company, right?

I’ve been talking to people in the tehnology sector literally for decades. I didn’t say “I’m the technology editor and I’m writing a book so talk.” Sometimes it was completely random: I met one of the key people from MusicMatch while on a completely different assignment when we got to talking. On another occasion, one of the people who gave me the phrase I most love in the book — about the “drawer of broken dreams” — I came across after I left a comment on his blog about something totally different.

So my job didn’t make a huge difference. Maybe it helped, but everything else did too.

Of the three companies which do you find most interesting? For me it’s Google. I’m curious if you read Ken Aulletta’s book, Googled, and what you thought of it. I interviewed him about it here.

I read a stack of books on all the companies — so of course I read Googled. I contacted Ken ahead of writing too because I had a few clarifications I wanted to get. I thought his book treats Google very much as a media company (which makes sense, because (a) he’s a media writer, and (b) that was the time when people were really waking up to the fact that Google was sucking up huge amounts of advertising budgets that otherwise would be spent on traditional media.

I think they’re all interesting, Microsoft is fighting its structure, Apple fights to simplify, Google fights to put everything it can all over the place. 

I’m curious what you thought about how the world reacted to the death of Steve Jobs, someone you write about a lot in this book.

People react strangely to the death of people who they think they know. Jobs was a Buddhist — so to him death was just another part of life. It was a sensible time to take stock of what he had done, but in other ways it’s far too soon — even now — to know whether he really achieved what he wanted, which was to make Apple something that would last.

The irony is that the determination and singlemindedeness he showed over so many other things was a key contributor to his death: he ignored the advice to get medical treatment for too long. That contributed directly to his early death.

There was a lot of controversy, some of it around the time of Jobs’ death, about the conditions of the factories in China that were making Apple products. Did you intentionally not reference that… or maybe I missed it?

The China factories thing is interesting, but more for what it tells us about how PR and image works than other stuff. I did have quite a lot of stuff about supply chains and the first iPhone in an early draft (how Apple was far behind in the supply chain system for phones, because it was a newcomer). But that had to be cut for length.

What I really wanted to focus on was the narrative of the struggle between the three companies. When Apple was tiny, and making Macs and iPods, nobody ever thought about their factories, or the conditions in them. (Then-)bigger companies such as HP and Dell were getting their PCs made by the million in factories in China — still are. But you don’t read about conditions there, or what they’re getting paid; Nick Bilton of the New York Times did try asking them after the Apple/China stuff blew up a few months ago, and they simply didn’t reply.

Now: I was focusing on the narrative of the struggle between the companies. How the phones get manufactured isn’t actually central to that picture. You could probably look at RIM’s or Nokia’s or LG’s or Motorola’s or — who knows? — even Samsung’s factories and contractors and make similar cases and ask similar questions.

But those don’t tell you anything at all about why consumers choose, or chose, one brand over another. To an extent, we in the west have a certain wilful blindness to how our goods and food is made; we don’t want to know about the path from cow to beefburgers, and we’d like our new objects to have sprung into existence replete with that new gadget smell, rather than have involved what we’d view as cruel and unusual punishment with a bit of pay sprinkled on top.

We do that for *all* gadgets in all ways. There are “conflict minerals” in every mobile phone — the product of (African) countries where wars over resources bring misery.

You could say that Microsoft harms the least of the planet, because it just writes software that can be downloaded or pressed on a DVD; whereas Google runs always-on servers all over the world, and Apple employs people in conditions that we wouldn’t tolerate in the west.

But that’s a totally different argument, about how we like to think of the world. It doesn’t really hold together as part of a narrative about those three companies; it would rapidly splay out of control.

So I intentionally didn’t reference it, because it would add a layer of complexity — is it good if people in China earn money? Or should they stay on the farms in relative poverty? Is it bad if the assembly work could be done in the US, but the price would be 50% higher? *Could* it be done in the US, given that the manufacturing facilities and expertise aren’t readily available? Are Google’s servers green? — to a narrative that, in smartphones, was already very complex, what with apps, patents, and other companies such as Nokia and RIM.

Also can you talk about how you got into this technology beat in the first place and what work  you did before that?

I did electronic engineering at university; have always been fascinated by how things work ever since at the age of three (I’m told) I stuck a fork into the piano just above middle C. The piano never played quite the same after that.

After university, I realised I really liked journalism — I did some sports reporting early on (so I can still watch a tennis match with an interested eye, and still despair at the boring questions that generate boring answers from the players; one thing I always tried to do was ask an unusual question), but couldn’t get a full-time job in it, so I switched to focus on reporting about computing for a weekly newsmagazine called, amazingly enough, Computer Weekly. Then I wrote for a business magazine (called Business), a science magazine (New Scientist) and then daily nationals in the UK — first The Independent, and for the past five years The Guardian.

Lastly, what were the biggest surprises for you as you researched and wrote this?

I knew a lot of the Apple stuff because I’d followed it closely, and ditto with Google. Really what did surprise me was the number of times that Microsoft had winning solutions but through a combination of inertia and internal fighting managed to dissipate its chances. Things like owning a company which could do essentially what Google’s AdWords did; turning down the Overture purchase; trying to mimic the iPod with the Zune; and a lot of the mess around Windows Mobile, which in effect had to be taken out the back and shot, because it had become so unwieldy. In retrospect, the other surprising thing is how quickly a lead can vanish — look at RIM, which used to dominate smartphones (in the US) and is now on a dangerous slide. Technology moves fast; if you’re not thinking a couple of years ahead, you’re already behind.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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