On the other hand, the continued success of companies like Apple, which are old guard yet somehow don’t seem out of date, implies that there is still another force at work. It is possible, albeit difficult, for a large, established company to stay relevant — but it requires recognition that to a software engineer in his 20s, with endless opportunities, what matters most is not salary, or stability, or job security, but cool. Cool exists at the ineffable confluence of smart people, big money and compelling product. You can buy it, but only up to a point. For example, Microsoft, while perpetually cast as an industry dinosaur, is in fact in very good financial shape. Starting salaries are competitive with those at Google and Facebook; top talent is promoted rapidly. Last year, every Microsoft intern was given a Surface tablet; in July, they were flown to Seattle for an all-expenses-paid week whose activities included a concert headlined by Macklemore and deadmau5.
Despite these efforts, Microsoft’s cool feels coerced. One reason might be its sheer size — with a market cap of $315 billion, Microsoft will never enjoy the headlong rush of a company with nothing to lose, the bite of the underdog. But I think a more important reason is that so many of its products came up short for so long that its offerings now, however well packaged, are greeted with skepticism. About two years ago, I started noticing an advertisement for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 on YouTube. Internet Explorer was the dominant web browser for nearly a decade and is still used by about a fifth of all Internet goers, according to StatCounter, but it has fallen out of favor with the tech savvy. Many websites are not compatible with Internet Explorer; its development tools are thin compared with those of Chrome and Firefox. The commercial, however, was excellent — sleek and sophisticated and featuring a dubstep remix of “Too Close” by Alex Clare; I distinctly remember watching it through to the end, watching it again and then thinking, That commercial almost made me want to use Internet Explorer. Of course, I never did switch to Internet Explorer.
Great advertising mixed with a great product, works. Great advertising mixed with a shitty product is a waste of money.