Why Germany has a problem with software

It’s all about the culture – stupid.

American culture is an uneasy melding of the Bible and the computer, of traditional values and radical innovation. But along with demography, it is the computer that is reshaping American culture and is the real foundation of American cultural hegemony. This will become extraordinary important in the next hundred years.
George Friedman, »The Next 100 Years«

Just imagine, Photoshop, Word or any important SmartPhone OS would have been invented in … Germany. Okay. Just kidding. The land of poets and thinkers has a long and bright past. It invented the automobile. The diesel engine (yes!). The fax machine. ABS for cars. The airbag. Lots of things, that nowadays are common in cars and offices worldwide. But Germany has failed miserably when it comes to … computers and IT. And this has to do with culture AND software.

You can’t have a modern economy without computers and corporations, and if you are going to program computers, you need to know English, the language of computing.
George Friedman, »The Next 100 Years«

German inventors of the past were often brilliant technicians. Think of Carl Benz, Werner von Siemens, Robert Bosch. They were magnificent at producing precise (electrical) machines, that last to eternity. Think of German engineering. Think of German turbine technology. Motors and complicated mechanical manufacturing processes. And now? With the dawn of „industry 4.0“ (though a German „invention“) Germany has been in retreat. The problem is not only to develop intelligent procedures and reproduce them through software processes. The biggest problem is usability. Germans (unlike any other people in the world) like it … „cryptic“. And then there is German Angst. Germans are always in doubt. Every new industry, every new technology is to be examined ad nauseam. In the meantime, the competitors have landed the deal.

Man vs machineLet’s go back to the early 80’s. It was the dawn of personal computing. I was working at a huge publishing house in Munich – The publishing house for special interest IT publications like PC Magazin, Computer persönlich, C64. When I got a desk on my first day, there was a wrapped Tandon Computer from my predecessor. You have probably never heard of this brand. They went out of business, when the computer mouse got into the minds of PC workers and Windows reached some sort of golden status. As a graphics designer I wasn’t into PCs. In fact I never wanted to work with one. Those monitors with amber letters, no wysiwyg, matrix printers. Word Perfect was the word processor of the hour. Really? But the Germans loved it. They could show their everyday ability to fight with this kind of crap. At the end of the day they won their struggle against the printer. And they were so proud. Man vs machine. Man won. Evening saved. Machine won. Pity for the partner.

But I was lucky. My boss had a Macintosh computer, a Mac 512 with two floppies. When I started working at this office, he received the first HD20 harddisk with SCSI connection and a Mac Plus. It was out of this world. On my desk the Tandon, on his the new Mac. It was like stoneage vs StarTrek (remember Scotty talking to a Mac?). The mouse was marvelous, and the software he used on his Mac was PageMaker, Illustrator, MacPaint and a bunch of others. The best was the printer, which was a LaserwriterPlus. Postscript. Real fonts. Typography (he passed the old Mac on to me and I felt like a king). Needless to say, that our Macs were both connected to the laser with AppleTalk.

From this day on, I was hooked. I’ve used Macs ever since and every time I had to use a PC I was yelling at the world what kind of crap it was. While my housemate was „working“ every evening on his PC, showing who was the master (I definitely never saw him working on something real, he was always checking something out), I established my independence with the office Mac I used on weekends. We discussed the meaning of wysiwyg and computer mice. He thought it was crap. Why using a mouse when he could type in the DOS (DrDOS!) command.

Why Germany has a problem with softwareSome months later he showed me his first mouse (I’ve got THREE buttons, you’ve got only one, hah!) and his first (gui based) operating system, I think it was called Norton Commander. Windows followed years later.

In short: the Mac showed me the future. But I never was interested in graphics cards, MHz or stuff like that. The Mac worked. And when I started my own business in the late 80s, I used a 19“ Supermac Monitor with a Mac II and 2 MByte RAM (black SCSI cables, anyone?). This system was awfully expensive, but it was magic.

Yes, it was the height of the OS wars. First it was DOS vs Mac, then it was Windows vs Mac. But what was common to all these wars was this German attitude, that only a brave fight against the machine was the real thing. A German would have never „invented“ the graphical interface (toy), because he wouldn’t have understood the concept behind it.

A bit unbelievable today. But you get the idea. A German will never choose the easiest way if he can help it. At the end of the day he wants the job to be REAL hard work – honorable and satisfying.

Nothing exemplifies American Culture more than the computer, and nothing has transformed the world faster and more thoroughly than its advent. The computer, far more than the car or Coca-Cola, represents the unique manifestation of the American concept of reason and reality.
George Friedman, »The Next 100 Years«

Let’s jump to the year 2007

When the first iPhone was introduced I was hooked again (in fact it was this one thing that made me yell enthusiastically at the screen: the simplicity of taking a second call while holding the first. I never managed this on my NOKIA, with the iPhone this seemed effortless …). I said to myself, if 60% of this presentation were true, it would alter the world of telecommunications completely. Guess what? The Germans had their own way again. Touchscreen? Ugh. Finger? Why not use a stylus as in the Palm Pilot? And all these smears and smudges on the sceen. No way. But the first and foremost problem was the price of the device. Seriously? 399 Euros simlocked? For 4 Gbyte? Battery not changeable? Never. Only for „fanbois“ (sic!).

We all know how it worked out. Nobody is using a dumbphone any more. The Android devices solved the „money“ problem. Back to software.

An engineer thinks differently. Seldom in pictures more in processes. This is the positive side. But often the engineer thinks that „design“ is nice to have but doesn’t help in complex situations.

Well.

The opposite is true. Complex processes have to be „defused“ by simple and precise (gui-)designs. And this is something a German finds awful. Remember his struggle with DOS. He wants to be the rocket scientist. The member of an exclusive club. No way you can be exclusive when everbody can utilize a … PC. Apple had the other approach. It was the computer for the rest of us.

Germany is classed as an „also ran“ in software business. The US have cemented their status as software giants. Without Apple AND Microsoft it would have been more difficult for those guys, yes. Nowadays it is only a question of flavor or preference.

Corporations are an American adaption of a European concept. In its American form it turns into a way of life. Corporations are as fragmented as the rest of American culture. But in their diversity, they express the same self-certainty as any American ideology.
George Friedman, »The Next 100 Years«

First example: there is a telephone hardware company in Germany (a former SIEMENS division, but now independent) that is some sort of market leader for fixed network phones and their handsets. They sold a handset (DECT) in 2014/2015 with touch screen. This is the year 2016 AD or year 9 after iPhone 1. Guess what? This touchscreen set is more than awful. Illogical, buggy and the gui is a mess (supersmall typography) usability is crap. Nobody at that company seems to see that. They haven’t even reached the logic and finesse of iOS 1 (the OS that shipped with the original iPhone). The „new“ 2016 series is Android based. Android 4.0.4. Enough said. I won’t buy a handset from those guys again, because the first iteration was so awful to use that I wondered if anyone in this company has a plan.

The German developer is (mostly) uninspired when it comes to pleasing the average consumer. He lacks the verve, elegance and brilliance of say, developers working for the Apple ecosystem. Just take a look at the AppStore. Mobile apps made in Germany are rare and mostly a mess. Pity.

Second example: We designed an iPhone app with a compass rose for navigation on the landing page. It was a software for finding the locations of 4 special shops. The developer showed us the first approach and everything went smooth. Then I tried it. I didn’t hit one of the 4 symbols (N/S/E/W) precisely. The app crashed. I was looking at the developer:

„Why is it crashing?“

„You used it the wrong way! Nobody taps on the normal screen. Everyone taps on the button!“

Enough said. We changed the developer. Perhaps an American developer could have said the same, but there IS a difference. The German developer didn’t conform with the compass rose (what for …?), the American would have come up with another idea.

So, why is the German developer so … different? I think it has to do with his preferences. Remember the story how I got hooked on the Mac? At that time, the German developer was into a completely different world. The „real“ developer world. A world were Macs were looked upon as toys. Those guys were influenced by a big bunch of preceding developers. The magazines were full of „code listings“. For the real engineers.

Germans are thinking like engineers. That’s what they’ve been liked and adored for in the rest of the world. But unfortunately, the world has changed in the last 15-20 years. The iPhone has made it completely clear once for all: it’s all about the software. And it’s all about the average user to use this software. Exit the Germans (were they ever in?). And: Germans are more likely into Android. They adore it, because it is „open“ and … mostly free. This has something to do with appreciation. Germans appreciate hardware. Software …? Well.

I was at a family feast last year. Our „Android“ relative (let’s call him so …) wanted me to help him with a „baby monitor“ so he wanted to use my iPhone as one of the two baby monitors and his Android phone as the other. Well, there should be at least one app that existed in both worlds. He was right. Unfortunately, it cost 1,99 Euros. I was about to download it but he stopped me. „Nah, 1,99 Euros is too expensive …“ That is to say – it had nothing to do with the price or his income or anything like this. It had something to do with principle. Apps have to be for free. Needless to say, his preferred OS is Linux.

Android and iOS – too similar to be compatible

Wait. Waiiiit. Give me time to explain, before you call me names. I want to explain the difference between Android and iOS. iOS was/is like the Mac. Android is like Windows 95 and improving. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s inferior. It’s just different. The app logic, the OS, lots of small things are very different and for the normal iOS user unbelievable (vice versa for the normal Android user). It’s like two cultures. Android, the open System for everyone. iOS the walled garden for the rich. (Were it so easy to differentiate…) In fact, Android is closer to Windows than to MacOS. And the majority of developers (98%) in Germany was and is into DOS and Windows.

(I always look into the Windows culture like this: You adjust the volume of your amp. In the Windows world the amp asks you if you’re sure that you want to increase the volume by 10 dB. You say yes and the amp gets louder instantly, sometimes it will tell you that 10 dB plus is bad for your health and by the way, you should update your volume drivers. In the Mac world it’s how you do it on your amp in the real world. You just do it.)

Now, times have changed. iOS won’t go away anytime soon. And the iPhone won’t either. Making money with Android apps is, well, difficult – to say the least. Far more difficult than in the realm of the walled garden of the iOS Appstore. You see the dilemma? Windows-minded developers try to get into a business they are not made for. The cultural difference is too big. It’s the same the other way round. An iOS developer will have lots of problems diving into the Android realm. Both are too similar to be fully compatible. And yet, the Android way of apps is closer to the German developer than the iOS way (toys!).

When I was designing the interface for a health app for iOS (as far as I remember it was iOS6) I had to work together with a German developer realizing the app, when she approached me for something very odd. She wanted a „mouse-over status“ for the buttons. I explained to her that there is no „mouse-over“ on a touchscreen. She didn’t believe me and went mad at my unprofessional approach. We became very close friends as you can imagine. In fact, she came from Windows development. She had never used an iPad before. Or an iPhone. Or an Android phone. But she knew to tell right from wrong perfectly.

Conclusion- why Germany has a problem with software?

I’ll refine my thesis. The average user has no „problem“ with clever software, because he can benefit from the brightest results of the American dream. But the average developer has a cultural problem with „software“. A problem that is a legacy of the great times of engineering. It won’t change any time soon, so it seems. Will it change soon enough? Well, looking at the next big things „Made in USA“ – industry 4.0, the internet of things, the EV, especially the TESLA, I’m not so sure German developers will adapt fast enough. In the past they could build on German machine engineering (cars, industry and so on). Now the focus is on them as developers. They have to be the future champions to get Germany running with the big dog(s). Otherwise Germany will fall back even more than now.

Disclaimer:

There are brilliant German developers. And there are awful American developers. Even the Apple ecosystem has some approaches that are more than odd. It’s all about the big picture.