Over the decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the concept of corporate personhood–the notion that the law treats companies in largely the same way that it does human beings. I’m a mere tech pundit, so I’m not taking a stance on that legal concept one way or the other.
Still, this I know: Technology companies sure act like people. They’re capable of being idealistic, admirable and, on rare occasion, unselfish. But just as often, they exhibit frailties that are astoundingly human. They brag, and then can’t back it up. They make short-sighted decisions. They get all skin-thinned and say things without thinking them through first.
Like people, companies are also capable of improving themselves, as long as they’re self-aware enough to understand their own weaknesses. With that in mind–and with New Year’s Day almost upon us–I’d like to politely suggest a few resolutions that would make great tech companies even better. (Judging from the behavior of some pretty big outfits in 2011, they could use the advice.)
1. “I’ll be more patient.”
In April, RIM released the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. Anyone who bought one quickly learned that that the product wasn’t really finished and would have benefited immeasurably from a few more months of work. Then in July, HP shipped its TouchPad tablet. Same deal–and when the tablet didn’t immediately sell like gangbusters, HP killed it after only six weeks.
I don’t see any evidence that RIM, HP or the people who bought their tablets gained anything from the fact that the two companies got their products out early rather than when they were done. I’ll remember that in 2012–and if the deadlines slip on any upcoming items I’m looking forward to seeing, I’ll try to take it calmly. It might be a good sign.
2. “I won’t squabble in public.”
Early in 2011, Google got suspicious that Microsoft’s Bing was cribbing its search-engine results. Google secretly injected some nonsense results into its engine, and when the same gibberish showed up in Bing, it accused Microsoft of “cheating” in the search wars. Bing fired back by saying Google had performed a “spy novel-esque stunt.” Watching the sniping from the sidelines, I felt slightly embarrassed for both sides.
I felt even more uncomfortable in September, when Oracle and enterprise software company Autonomy started bickering over a really mundane question: Whether Autonomy had shopped itself to Oracle before selling itself to HP. (Title of one of Oracle’s statements on the matter: “Another Whopper from Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch.”)
I don’t expect Vulcan-like rationality from tech companies, but I think that businesses look best when they’re cool and collected–not touchy and snarky.
3. “I’ll stay humble.”
I swear I’m not setting out to pick on RIM. But it didn’t just release a buggy PlayBook–it accompanied the tablet’s arrival with a metric ton of TV commercials that oozed hubris. I understand that “advertisement” and “modesty” are mutually-exclusive terms. I still think, however, that the marketing campaign reflected RIM’s own attitude towards its brainchild, which was utterly out of whack with reality. If the company had maintained some sense of perspective while the PlayBook was in the works, the odds would have been higher that it would have been a decent product.
4. “I’ll treat other people like grownups.”
Netflix is a swell company. I’ve been a happy customer for years, and remain one. When it instituted humongous price hikes for many customers in July, however, it didn’t really explain its rationale for doing so. In fact, it still hasn’t–even though the changes were hugely controversial and caused many people to cancel their accounts.
There’s no scenario under which stiff price increases make consumers happy. But part of Netflix’s problem was its refusal to tell us all why it did what it did. A clear, honest explanation wouldn’t have hurt the company’s reputation, and might have helped.
5. “I’ll have my midlife crises in private.”
Sorry, Netflix, this one’s for you, too. Everybody, and every company, occasionally flirts with doing things that are profoundly ill-advised. Most of the time, we take a deep breath and snap back to our senses.
If only Netflix had done that rather than using a weirdly amateurish and self-indulgent video to tell the world that it was splitting off its DVD-by-mail service into a company called Qwikster. So many things were so terrible about the idea that it wasn’t the least bit surprising when Netflix changed its mind less than a month later.
I’m not sure if we’ll ever learn the inside story of the Qwikster misadventure, or how thoroughly Netflix vetted the concept before springing it on customers. This much is clear, though: It didn’t think the idea over enough, and it was completely unrealistic about how the world would react to it. I classify it as a brief moment of madness–and, I hope, a lesson learned for Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. If only he’d asked me, you, or almost anyone else before making the announcement.
6. “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Yup, that is indeed a quote from Yoda, and I thought of it in recent weeks as I’ve been reading about a flurry of predictions that Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been making. He told an Italian newspaper that Google will release a tablet of “the highest quality” within the next six months. In the same timeframe, he says, the “majority” of TVs will have Google TV built in. Oh, and Android will ne Apple’s iOS as the first mobile platform that developers build apps for–also within the next six months.
I’m not going to criticize Schmidt, because–well, it’s just barely possible that all three of his predictions will come to pass. If they don’t, however, Google will look far sillier than it would have if its chairman hadn’t raised everybody’s expectations months in advance. And if Google were to pull off all three of Schmidt’s prognostications without discussing them publicly beforehand, wouldn’t that be particularly impressive?
OK, I’ll lay off now. Companies, after all, are no more capable of attaining perfection than people are. But if the tech industry’s Corporate Persons simply come a litle closer to perfect than they did in 2011, they’ll be outperforming most of us Non-Corporate Persons. A happy new year to all of them–and to all of you.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every week on TIME.com