The cloud, or software as a service, is old news. Salesforce.com has been pushing it for a decade and many of the companies I’ve covered here have been offering what we now call “cloud” computing solutions for years. (You can view my blogcast here)
But the race to cloud just got more interesting because Apple has officially jumped in with its iCloud. Apple’s entry is important to track because the company has a proven track record of being able to take esoteric concepts and translate them into the mass psyche. There was considerable confusion about what an MP3 player was or why a tablet computer was different. But Apple cleared things up, and cleaned up, with the iPod and iPad. No company I can think of is better able to introduce a new concept or new category more effectively than Apple. Now the company is turning this key competitive advantage on the cloud, a concept that no one, I believe, has been able to effectively explain to the masses.
Last night I flew to Boston from San Diego, got into my hotel room at midnight, and, instead of sleeping, spent two hours watching videos of Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer explaining the cloud. If you contrast the language these two technologists use, three interesting differences jump out. If we can understand why Jobs uses the language he does, we may gain insight into how we can become more effective and opening up new market space the way Apple does. Here are three lessons to draw.
1. Talk about today not the future. Jobs describes why we should use the cloud by illustrating how it can be used now. He paints a situation in which you are taking pictures in the park and get home to find those pictures are already loaded on your computer at home. This is a situation that the iCloud can make possible today. Ballmer, by contrast, focuses on a future yet to happen. He describes a situation in which two kids, one in the U.S. and one in Thailand, are speaking to each other virtually through some kind of Star Trek-era video-chat that allows them to understand each other even though they’re speaking different languages. I think one reason Apple is so effective at selling us cutting-edge solutions is that they focus on the now, on how we can get immediate value from the technology.
2. Elevate pain not opportunity. Jobs opens his keynote by presenting a problem. He says that Apple’s insight 10 years ago that the Mac would become the digital hub has “broken down” because “devices have changed.” All devices have music now and keeping them synced up has become complicated. He then says iCloud will alleviate this pain. In contrast, Ballmer talks about “creating the future” and says, “All of this will be inventible.” He talks almost exclusively about opportunity. I found no instance in which he talked about pain. A McKinsey partner once recommended a great book called SPIN Selling. Its central premise is that effective salespeople get prospects to talk about the pain they will experience if they do NOT solve the problem. Less effective sales people talk about the solution to that pain. Jobs’ language fits that model.
3. Create spatial coherence. Jobs’ word choices repeatedly return to the concept of the cloud being above and devices being below. He says that Apple is “demoting the PC and MAC” to just be a device (demote implies pushing down or lowering). He says you will “send pictures up to the cloud” and that cloud will “push pictures down to devices.” He repeats pulls up this up/down orientation, which creates a coherent picture in the listeners’ minds. Ballmer’s language offers less coherence. He uses words like “deploy,” “distribute,” “platforms,” and “tools.” He assigns agency to the cloud, saying Microsoft will create devices that the cloud “wants.” He creates a metaphor of the cloud as a living thing and yet, as mentioned before, he evokes the metaphor of the cloud being the future. His metaphors lack coherence.
Now all of this may sound soft, and surely success in the cloud will depend on harder factors like technology and pricing and sales-force deployment. But for all of that to matter, you must shape a receptive market, and few do that better than Apple. It’s worth trying to understand their playbook.