The Origin Story of a Transformative Idea
The late Steve Jobs is one of the prominent inventors and pioneers in the field of information technology. Some of his creations such as the iPhone speak highly of his vision in recognizing technologies of the future. By introducing products such as the iPhone, he took Apple Computers to new heights through its exceptional performance and features. It is interesting to study the origin and development of a mass phenomenon like the iPhone in the backdrop of Malcolm Gladwell’s and Steven Johnson’s ideas on the subject. The rest of the essay attempts to tie in the ideas of these two scholars into how Apple products came into being and how their appeal spreads among consumers.
The late Steve Jobs is one of the prominent inventors and pioneers in the field of information technology. Some of his creations such as the iPhone speak highly of his vision in recognizing technologies of the future. By introducing products such as the iPhone, he took Apple Computers to new heights through its exceptional performance and features. It is interesting to study the origin and development of a mass phenomenon like the iPhone in the backdrop of Malcolm Gladwell’s and Steven Johnson’s ideas
One of Malcolm Gladwell’s famous assertions in the book The Tipping Point is that “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do”. (p.25) Gladwell equates the birth and progress of social movements to that of epidemics. Considering that the popularity of Apple products are mostly based on word-of-mouth publicity, its dynamics are similar to that of epidemics. One of the features of this process is the ‘law of the few’, whereby 80% of the work is done by 20% of the participants. In the case of Apple the creative energies spent on the initial stages of the product’s development take up bulk of focus and resources. Moreover, it is the small team of designers and product architects who have the greatest impact on the success of the product. To this extent Gladwell’s observation is true vis-a-vis Apple. Further, he deems it necessary to have charismatic leadership for the sustenance of mass phenomenon. He posits that these leaders with “a particular and rare set of social gifts” will take up responsibility for 80% of the work. (Bush, 2013, p.38) This is very true of Apple, for much of the key innovations is the brainchild of a few individuals working for the company – Jobs being the foremost among them.
In order to promote any product, innovation is a key element. Without innovation the business would stagnate and will soon be consumed by more competitive firms. At the beginning of Apple Computers’ corporate life, the Mac computers were a great product innovation. In more recent years, it is products like the iPod, iPhone, etc. The quality and popularity of iPhone is such that it has even overtaken companies like Blackberry. At the beginning of the IT revolution in the 1990s companies like Microsoft were taking huge strides in Graphic User Interface (GUI) operating systems. These systems were so user-friendly and intuitive to operate. Instead of competing with Microsoft in making the interface more attractive, Steve Jobs focused on improving functionality and features, as is evident in iPhone. This bold step has paid off since. Those who like the iPhone, come back to it for its superior technology, rich features and robust functioning. And Steve Jobs deserves a great deal of credit for this achievement. He created a unique space for Apple products through his imaginative inventions.
Malcolm Galdwell proposes a theory on leadership, which is relevant to the study of the origins of the iPhone phenomenon. According to Gladwell leaders could be of three types – connectors, mavens or salesmen. But when we study the birth and spread of Apple products, it is difficult to identify leadership of all these types. In many ways, the consumer base for iPhone does not fit the description of epidemics that Gladwell posits. In fact, there may not even be a ‘tipping point’, whereby a gathering stream broke into a forceful torrent. It is a movement of consumer awareness characterized by steady sharing of information, word-of-mouth publicity and gradual increase in sales. To critique, the statistical and analytical tools employed by Gladwell to arrive at his inferences were based on linear models. Real life events, on the contrary, are shaped by several factors whose exact influence is unknown. To this extent social phenomena can be said to progress non-linearly. This is true of Apple products and similar consumer movements witnessed in recent years. Gladwell, as well as much of the popular press, got it wrong for this reason. Hence Steven Johnson’s idea of the ‘slow hunch’ is more relevant to analyzing Apple consumer behavior than that of Gladwell’s theories.
While Gladwell’s theory credits a select group for major innovations, Steven Johnson widens this group across timescales and includes all prior inventors who had brought the technology to its current state of sophistication. In other words, according to Johnson, great innovations are due to accumulative processes rather than spontaneous ‘eureka’ moments. Almost in any major technological or scientific innovation of modern times, the break-through was made possible by the robust groundwork laid by accrued prior knowledge. In this regard, a key idea put forward by Steven Johnson is that of ‘convergence’. This is the process of the gradual accumulation of information, concepts and their interrelationships that are precursors to the occurrence of ‘insight’. Although the decision to synthesize and analyze them is that of an individual (like Steve Jobs), the fundamental facts and concepts can be fetched from a disparate range of sources. To this extent, though great innovations are not one-off events of brilliance, they are the result of ‘collective intelligence’. Collective Intelligence, in this sense, is the phenomena of deducing insights based on running basic analytic tools over the gathered data pool. As a result, innovation can actually be a mundane statistical operation as opposed to some extraordinary out-of-the-box thinking. To validate his theory of the ‘slow hunch’, Steven Johnson presents several case studies based on substantial data and empirical observation. The study of cholera outbreak in London is particularly instructive. The more recent example of Google’s attempts to map Flu Trends is also very interesting. In these two examples, despite the value of mapping key trends, one cannot point to a single ‘break-through’ moment that was instrumental in the ultimate design and execution of these projects. Instead what we witness is the ‘slow hunch’ as persuasively expressed by the author. This is exactly how sales of Apple products grow, in gradual geometric progression rather than sudden bursts or spikes.