When launching the new version of Amazon's book device the Kindle, Jeff Bezos offered up the vision that the company has for the device: "Our vision is every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds." It's a message that Amazon has been consistently advocating since the device's initial rollout, and meshes nicely with the early Amazon vision of being the world's biggest bookstore.
Others have noted the audacity of the Kindle's vision. That kind of vision obviously evokes Google's early mission statement of striving to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". In truth, Google doesn't talk much about that mission these days, which might explain why a lot of their recent efforts do pretty well with the organizing the world's information part, but can be downright abysmal at making it useful. Virginia Heffernan articulated this quite well in the New York Times recently in regard to Google's image archive of old Life photos:
Google has failed to recognize that it can’t publish content under its imprint without also creating content of some kind: smart, reported captions; new and good-looking slide-show software; interstitial material that connects disparate photos; robust thematic and topical organization. All this stuff is content, and it requires writers, reporters, designers and curators. Instead, the company’s curatorial imperative, as usual, is merely “make it available.”
But at least Google's trying. That does count for something. And articulating that vision in cultural terms, phrased in language that explains the benefit to society, not just to stockholders, is important. Now, I think Google has a gap between their intention and their reality because the organization lacks theory of mind, but perhaps that's a problem that can be fixed.
And hell, I still even have a soft spot for Microsoft's old vision of "a computer on every desk and in every home", not just because in retrospect it seems so modest. It's also because it was a more ambitious vision that, if realized, would mean benefits even for people who never gave a single dollar to Microsoft. (As turned out to be the case.)
And these statements of vision are particularly resonant to me because we seldom hear any sort of similar vision from Apple. When the iTunes store was launched, the vision wasn't to "make every song in the world easily available". Instead, the clear goal was purely commercial, to make people buy music from Apple instead of Walmart.
And the truth is, Amazon, Google and Apple all make billions of dollars — that doesn't happen by accident. They should have clear goals about how to make money as part of their efforts. But since all of these companies also traffic in commerce derived from the artistic and expressive works that shape our culture, it makes sense for us to evaluate their efforts based on how well they articulate a desire to give back to our culture. They should make something meaningful for the world while making their money, at least as a happy byproduct if not as an intentional output. It's a lot easier for me to believe that employees at Amazon are doing something that's meaningful to the world at large than to feel that way about Apple's similar efforts.
I point this out not to be harshly critical of any of these companies; Indeed, I regularly give my time and money to all of them. But we often rush to describe Steve Jobs as a "visionary" for being the best showman in an industry where most people have the stage presence of a bowl of oatmeal.
The truth is, Apple has a chance to redefine what it considers vision while Steve Jobs is on leave. He could return and say that every copy of Garage Band will have the ability to instantly upload a user's songs to iTunes, unleashing an immense market of independent music to the world, and using their enormous market presence to let individuals help create culture, not just consume it. Or Apple could use its leverage with the record labels to impress upon them the importance of getting all of their back catalog of recordings online and available for people to consume — most of the music that's ever been released on any record label isn't available for purchase today, at any price, by anyone.
And just as importantly, we can use this criteria of vision, of responsibility for culture, as a way of analyzing announcements and releases in the technology world. So, last night, Amazon released their Kindle software for Apple's iPhone. Most of the reviews understandably focused on the readability of the text, or how well the synchronization features work. But I'm hoping that at least one or two lines of future reviews will spare a moment to think "is it a good thing for the world if this thing takes off?" My sense is that we're more likely to get positive answers to that question if the teams that are making these products are led by an appropriately ambitious vision.