Monday, October 17, 2005

iPod -A Case Study in Apple Way of Innovation

Last week  Apple launched its much awaited  Video iPod . Now in   $299 you can buy this marvel of electronic miniaturization and enjoy your Fav. Music video or Television show on the go. Apple C.E.O  Steve Jobs unveiled it at a jam packed auditorium in San Jose ,California . It will hit the stores soon and people will fall for it . Hats off to Jobs and his team .


All over the net I see observations like " This company surely know how to innovate " ."Apple never run out of big idea " . " T hey have innovation in there DNA " . " This will bring back the glory days of  Apple " . "After sick GUI of  Microsoft .. it's a  refreshing change "   &  " I wish I could be slim like iPod "  J


I am  amused . I am not saying that jobs and his team has done a bad job or Video iPod is not a milestone . I agree totally with this basic premise .what I didn't subscribe to is the theories people weave around it .   I can understand most of the comments as the euphoria of  launch .it will die its own death . sale of the gizmo's will shoot and will reach a plateau. We will power on our PC's and will start working on windows and   some of us will be hearing the latest song on iPod   . For me I will look forward to the day when I will be rich enough to buy it or when iPod will be cheap enough that some of my friends will gift me one on my birthday ( It's on 24 th of March) .


But over the course of last few years I have seen that one school of thought is gaining ground that Apple is the only company which knows   how to innovate .it's the only company which can launch ground breaking products. Well ..I disagree ! I don't think that Apple is the most innovative company around or there way of innovation is the best one .



Ways OF Innovation : Worst Among the Equals


Some time back the whole IT industry was divided in to two school of thought over the issue of Product development ideology . These two school of thought were poles apart from each other. Eric Raymond explained them in his seminal work   "Cathedral And Bazaar ".


In cathedral way of product development  company develop every thing   in-house under a veil of secrecy and the commercial right  of  product rests with the organization .Microsoft is said to be a champion of this ideology . critics   argues 

That in this system the idea which sees the light of the day is the one which insure most revenue generating potential .   some time best technical break through is buried because it is not aligned with the business model of the organization . people also describe it as a equivalent  of Capitalism in Hi Tech market place . This school of thought   leads to monopolies and ultimately user  suffer.




Other way of developing a product in Hi Tech is called Bazaar where product development is responsibility of the community . the blue print and some time source code belongs to community . they argue , they code , they refine and they use the product . Advocate of this methodology claims that because of peer reviews and diversity of perspective available in this system the resultant software is more robust and more flexible . Linux is a champions of this philosophy and after reading   Cathedral And Bazaar , than  CEO of Netscape Marc Anderson got inspired with this framework and threw the complete source code of Netscape   browser in public domain . this system leads to a more collaborative development of software and user have more control over his destiny .



So which way is suitable for you ? there is no correct answer . it depends on who are you ? and what you want to accomplish ?   but what disturb me is how thoroughly we confuse and often misuse the word" USER ".


In both of the definitions END  USER is described as someone who is playing an active role . but the truth is that in real life User of the software is the most passive player in the game . He simply accepts what is offered to him . he is oblivious to the philosophies which goes in building the application. All he cares is that it should work . Linux may be a free OS but still it is Programmers OS not users' OS . The responsibility of Linux community is toward the programmer not the end user .


Half of the folks I know are curious about Linux but they can't try it because it is not easy to install or there neighborhood AMC guy doesn't support Linux and The device driver of a particular printer is not shipped with it . this kind of chaotic and self organizing model has a basic flaw that everybody wants to do what they enjoy most and nobody wants to do the dirty work of support . so in spite of being free the maintenance and operating cost of Linux goes up.


similarly Microsoft way of product development is nothing but the way to develop better mousetrap . Only time Microsoft listen to market is   when user find a better alternative. During  the war of browser with  Netscape    It took them approx  one year to come up with there version of improved IE shipped "Free"  with windows operating system . but since then the innovation is stopped. they didn't even cared to add a simple feature like tab browsing .



Crux of the problem is not how to innovate ? but Why we innovate and what to do after you innovate ? Xerox PARC lab invented the Mouse based human computer interface paradigm which started GUI era of computing . but Xerox never benefited from its research . corporate sponsored research in various labs. Fails to morph in to any commercially viable product . Problem is how to aggregate the outcome of   innovation  in your product offering .



One possible solution is to foster the communities  of user or product enthusiast and hear there remark properly . it is a hybrid of both world.   community can be on volunteer basis where targeted user of the product comes at a platform and discuss the problem and road map for product . some company call it focus group testing .   In his  best selling book "The Tipping Point " Malcom Gladwell gives a dazzling description of such focus groups and there effect on the product acceptance . Important point here is that this focus group should have enough diversity of thought in them   and it's proceeding  should be moderated by the organization. Leading companies like StarBucks, Casio, Harley Davidson   said to have tried this format .



These communities can also be on incentive basis like  leading French drug company    Elli Lilly  often put a tough problem in drug research  before its focus group of enthusiast and announce a bounty for who so ever   solve it .this hybrid model is called Communities of Creation .


Coming back to the question of Apple  now under which section you will put Apple Cathedral or Bazaar or "Communities of Creation". Apple's charismatic CEO jobs tries his best to   distant himself from Microsoft and pretend to world that he is a champion of Community way of product development . but none of Apple's product were discussed in public forums ever. there   product development happen behind the  four walls of there office and Steve unveil the product one fine day . Even they don't have  a framework for capturing the user expectation .May be for the kind of work they do it is   right also. After all who among us can articulate a need of iPod before actually seeing it . When it comes to choosing the philosophy for product development Apple is no different from Microsoft   . Still we have raving fan club for the company. Why ??


One reason is that most of the end user doesn't understand   the technology so when you have to sell something to them you can't sell it on the technical merit   only. You need a story, a myth and a need to show them a way to  participate in something which can change the world . Then in most   CEO of the company  comes in to the picture. For most of the folks   Microsoft is Bill Gates , Sun is Scott McNelay ,Hotmail is Sabeer Bhatia and Apple is Steve Jobs . they superimpose the persona of CEO on the complete product range .


iPod is basically a extension of Mr. Jobs's  larger than life personality . Now when you look at Steve what do you see ? a Silicon valley Kid fighting the Corporate America , a die hard romantic trying to create a new world , a man in denim and sweat shirt   up against Pinstripe  suit . a visionary ,a non conformist  Galileo of our age with a entirely new and refreshing way of doing thing . the Un Sung innovator     waiting to get his due and his glory .


As I never had a chance to meet Steve so I will not comment on how true these things are ? they might be true and 100 years from now mankind may realize its foolishness . but as I am something of a Tech Salesman myself I can tell you that this is a dangerous practice to tightly associate the CEO and brand with each other. you can have only a mortal brand this way.


This precisely is the thing which went wrong  with   Apple again and again . there brand inspire and excite to only a particular class of user which connect with the Steve's  personality but in doing so it alienate rest of the world .so there product became elitist and never mange to cross proverbial Chasm of Software market .


For me the simple rule of thumb is Do guys in Taiwan or Guys in Nehru Place find your product worth copying ? if yes . than you have a truly groundbreaking product, rest is fad . fads of varying lifespan. No wonder Dell's  CEO dismissed iPod before even its full launch.   does he know something which we don't ? Yes . He know the core of Apple ethic which is both its strength and weakness .


I am a very big fan of Steve , his is the greatest comeback act in the recent Corporate History . His folk hero like image is something to die for . his recent speech at Stanford is most inspiring thing I have ever read in print . but all this is spilling over   to Apple which I think is not the best way to go about it .


" Never link your brand with yourself. you may die one day but your brand will live long after you are gone."





Prashant Singh
Ladies & Gentelman ! Take My Advice
PullDown Your Pants & Slide on ICE


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Phil said...

Whilst I like to correct English kids on their grammar. I like to think that an Indian man who's 1st language probabally isn't English can be excused the odd gramatical error.

I liked your blog. It was well written and thoughtful. I'll add you to my Blogroll.

Come visit my blog - @
Daily Bread a Tideswell mans weblog.

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