Monday, August 23, 2010

When Google and Apple Are as Passe as Ford

Virtually every list of the most innovative companies in the world list Google and Apple in the top two or three slots.  Both companies are there for a reason - their products and services are cutting edge and customers can't get enough of them.   Look at the lines out the door at the Apple Store when the iPad and the iPhone4 were introduced. Look at the ever-increasing reach of Google.  From search engines, it has branched out into operating systems for cellphones (Android), web browsers (Google Chrome), and online office suites (Google Docs), not to mention Gmail, Google Books, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google News, YouTube... you get the idea.

But that edge in the cutting edge moves.  What was the cutting edge one hundred years ago now brings a yawn.  While Google and Apple bask in the warm glow of innovation accolades today, in a hundred years they will most likely be history.  I was reminded of this as I was reading Douglass Brinkley's book, "Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress."  Brinkley writes of the heady days of early Model T production when Ford couldn't build their cars fast enough:

The astounding pace of change at Ford Motor Company in 1914 made it the most glamorous, most widely discussed company in America, if not the world. It was not merely that Ford was trying so many things in so many arenas, nor even that it was succeeding with most of them.  What attracted the admiration and envy of outsiders was the brimming confidence Ford Motor exuded. The public's fascination with Henry Ford's maverick role lay in part in his overt image as an iconoclastic, oddly nineteenth-century presence in the twentieth century's most up-to-date business. It seemed that through modern industry Ford had reopened the American frontier.  His company was more than a profit-making enterprise; it was a pioneer's domain, where old assumptions about business were cast off in favor of new notions.  As on any frontier, money did not make for heroes, and Ford Motor had started with very little money.  The company did not rely on established connections, either, remaining as stubbornly independent as it had on the day it was founded. Ford Motor proved that creating a fresh new world out of the industrial domain rested on only two crucial qualities: competence and confidence. (p. 180)

If you changed Ford Motor to Google or Apple in the above quote, you would have a pretty good description of what makes these companies great today. Henry Ford reminds me most of all of Steve Jobs.  Ford was a megalomaniac with his vision of the car for the masses.  He alienated almost everyone around him including those who helped him form the company.  He began to believe that he alone was the arbiter of automobile innovation.

Maybe it takes that kind of drive and vision to have the absolutely phenomenal results that innovative companies create.  Within ten years of Ford Motor Company's founding in 1903, Henry Ford was second in personal wealth to only John D. Rockefeller.  Ford sold more cars in 1914 than the next ten producers combined!  The Model T changed the face of America as surely as Apple and Google are changing it again today.

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