Features & Columns
Fred Vogelstein Interview
Dogfight author Fred Vogelstein sizes up the players
Wired magazine contributing editor Fred Vogelstein delves into the start of the smartphone war with Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution, published earlier this month. Metro's Gary Singh sat down with Vogelstein recently, who weighed in on Silicon Valley's perfectionist streak and whether the iPhone and Android can co-exist.
Metro: One reason why Dogfight reads like a novel is that there are so many different layers and subplots involved. On the surface you've got the war between Android and Apple, and all the C-level folks whom you didn't even have access to. But you went beneath the surface to speak with all the unsung heroes—engineers and designers—who never get credit for anything. How did that process unfold when writing the book?
Vogelstein: I have discovered that it is tempting for a journalist to think the best information for a story will come from the people at the top. And that's rarely true. ... Sometimes, to get a good story, you have to go talk to the guys who actually did all the work. In many cases, when you only talk to people at the top, they don't even know. ... One thing I also came to understand, especially as it pertains to Apple, but even at Google as well, is that there are a lot of people who feel like they were involved in these projects, and were involved in changing the world, that haven't yet gotten any credit for it. And they wanted to get some credit for it. I felt that telling it from their perspective was a slightly novel way of doing that. ... People who aren't necessarily in the executive suite but are close enough to what's going on that they actually have a first-hand view of what's going on and they can add texture in ways that people at the top cannot add.
Of all the things you unearthed in the process, what surprised you the most?
I developed a much deeper appreciation for what it took to actually build this stuff, and for what people do in Silicon Valley, that I intellectually had, but I didn't viscerally have. One of the things that happens in Silicon Valley—and this is true in business and in life—is that everyone's trying to put their best foot forward. ... In Silicon Valley and in Hollywood, everyone's got a perfect product they're trying to pitch. There's a huge premium here on making whatever you're doing and thinking seem effortless, and to make the process of innovation seem like it happened in a straight line. What I was surprised by, and what I was hoping to do with the book, and therefore interested by, is to give people a sense that this is really messy. Innovation, changing the world, you don't just start at point A and get to point B. It's very much like a flight of the bumblebee. And hopefully you can keep the bee within some sort of parameters. The difference between what people thought as the iPhone was first unveiled and what was actually going on is so delightfully stark.
The patent lawsuits are starting to look like perpetual war for perpetual peace. Will it ever end? Can Apple and Android coexist, or must one of them ultimately obliterate the other and take the overwhelming majority of the market share? You know, sort of like Android is already starting to do?
I would like to believe they can coexist and I can make an argument that they will find a way, because ultimately it will be better for consumers and for innovation in general. But the history of technology makes a very powerful counterargument. The history of technology over the last 20 years suggests it probably won't work like that. In Silicon Valley, it's essentially a history of platform wars, and with platform wars you have network effects, and when you have network effects it's a winner-take-all kind of game. To be specific, ultimately, the reason Windows and Office wound up with ninety percent of PCs was, at some point, everyone started using Windows because everyone else started using Windows. And developers started only making software for Windows. ... When eBay started, there were half a dozen auction companies, but nobody remembers them now because eBay took the business. É It happened with Google in the online advertising business. The most recent example was Facebook. It's hard to look at those four examples and not see the same thing here.
The 64-thousand-bit question: Will Apple still be able to regularly change the world without Steve Jobs?
One of the things I learned from writing the book, and I hope I'm proven wrong on this, is that in order to do products like the iPod, like the iPhone, like the iPad, is that there really has to be someone running the company who has the authority, explicit and implicit, to essentially bet the company. Steve Jobs, because he cofounded Apple, essentially had the authority to bet the company on building the iPhone. And if you dig into what it took to build the iPhone, it's pretty obvious that he did. He bet the company. If the iPhone had failed, Apple would have been in a world of hurt. I don't know if Tim Cook or anybody at Apple has that authority right now. But I hope I'm wrong.
When writing the book, how did you juxtapose writing for a tech audience of insiders as opposed to a non-Silicon Valley readership? Some of this story, especially the lawsuits, has evolved just since the book came out a few weeks ago.
I thought this was a really important vehicle to tell a bunch of really important stories, but, also, one of the things you really have to do when you're writing a book like this is to make sure you tell it at an altitude that gives it some shelf life. Because you know that shit's going to change. Themes have to be relevant on a day-to-day basis. What I was hoping, was that people who are not in Silicon Valley would be interested even if they weren't paying attention to this stuff on a daily basis—people who just heard about this out of their left ears would still find it to be accessible. And I hoped that there was enough new information about who was doing what to whom behind the scenes that insiders in Silicon Valley would not be offended at my very simple way of trying to explain it.
Read an excerpt from Dogfight: The iPhone didn't start out as Apple's "next big thing." Steve Jobs had to be talked into building a phone. It had been a topic of conversation among his inner circle almost from the moment Apple launched the iPod in 2001... read more