Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Religious Dimension of Apple Innovation & Design

So, the Apple iPad is out -- launched, anyway, although not available for purchase for a couple of months. As I had expected, a few things become clear about Apple's DNA

  • The iPad conforms to Apple's signature styling -- superb and classy, but not "innovative": it's about what was expected by those who know Apple
  • The iPad conforms to what Apple cognoscenti expected in terms of usability: very usable but no head-turning innovations there
  • The iPad is based on existing technology -- while the A4 processor is new, it is based on the well-established ARM architecture
So where is Apple's much vaunted "innovation" in all this? Isn't Apple among the Most Innovative Companies out there, at least as per BusinessWeek and other such hyperventilating media outlets?

I suppose it is; provokes one inquire into the meaning of "innovation" doesn't it?

Apple is a classic case of not innovating for it's own sake. Apple does not push the envelope much in terms of underlying technology. It ensures that its products are easy -- and even a joy -- to use. And it employs dazzling but tasteful styling to wrap all this up. Importantly, Apple addresses the needs of influential persons who may not be representative of its prime market but who are vocal in their opinions and which are widely disseminated. The aesthetics of its products as well as their usability plus the buzz generated by opinion leaders persuade users to rationalize (in Apple's favor) about any technological or other shortcomings.

The halo effect of the aesthetics and usability of Apple products influences users to persuade themselves that the underlying technology is innovative.

There are likely other technology developer/vendors that are as good or better than Apple along key product dimensions. But Apple has that extra religious aura that resists replication (and which it assiduously nurtures). Religions demand irrational behavior and are often associated with charismatic individuals and ideologies. Those who try to draw lessons from Apple's success must also pay attention to its religious aspects; rational analyses of the kind spewed out by business schools cannot accommodate this extremely significant dimension and therefore may lack the power to comprehensively explain the company's success . Reason may convert a few but dogma, ideology, a messianic zeal and a requirement of absolute faith is needed to reach the masses.

This last matter Apple understands like no other technology vendor in the world. Think of it: Steve Jobs is an often foul-mouthed, cantankerous and abusive leader, but has attracted a mass following. In some religious orders, God is an angry, jealous, omnipotent and vengeful entity, despite which he has no dearth of supplicants.

But they are unlikely, ever, to teach you this at Harvard -- or pretty much any other business -- School.