Apple Creates Communities Not Products

| Analysis

In ancient times, namely a few years ago, companies conceived of products, then marketed them. In 2011, that process is too slow. Communities create technologies, and in turn, companies that fuel the community surge ahead. This is why Dell, Microsoft and, perhaps, Hewlett Packard are doomed.

Internet communication is so good nowadays that no company can drop just any old product out there and hope for the best — before the consumers get wise. Instead, the community of users, via Facebook and Twitter, conceive of what they need and create a group consciousness about what serves their needs and what doesn’t. That’s why the Microsoft Kin phone failed. It was designed in a vacuum.

Companies, especially large companies, are accustomed to diagnosing the competitive market place, then designing a product to compete. The problem is that it isn’t the product that competes, its the social web around the product that drives evolution. Apple learned that lesson along the way as it benefitted from an almost religious frenzy over its Macintosh products.

Community

This is, of course, why Apple’s tablet competitors are having a problem. Microsoft sees the world through Windows 8 glasses. RIM sees the world through BlackBerry glasses. Motorola sees the world through consumer electronics geek glasses. And Hewlett Packard may fall into the same trap of seeing the world through WebOS glasses because the success of the product appears to depend on the acceptance of the tablet OS and specs. It does not.

Apple, instead, has created a watering hole that has leveraged from its fandom. iOS developers are making money. Customers are buying music, magazines and books for the iPad and iPhone. People congregate and share at Apple retail stores. There is a community of people who are saying, this device can help me in my hotel, my restaurant, my medical practice. Then, that community, interacting with developers in social media, delivers solutions, apps and social concepts, faster than the competition can design a product and force-fit an infrastructure. After the fact. Google is good at this as well, but often their concepts are flawed thanks to a healthy dose of naivete.

This social process also explains why Microsoft has had to work so hard to lure developers to Windows Phone 7. If developers don’t see a business opportunity, no amount of patience and long term thinking is going to emerge into a winning strategy. The question is not how to beat Apple by running a marathon. The question is how to get out ahead of Apple with enabling products and community so that in a time of rapid changes, one can get a head start by leveraging from the consciousness of the community.

Playing catchup may have worked for the PC business in the 1980s as it caught up with and surpassed the Apple II, then the early Macintosh. In the Internet age, marathon thinking is just a rationalization to the stock holders. Either you’re in tune with the community and helping them build their new way of life, daily, or you’re history.

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Photo credit:  iStockPhoto.com

Comments

Gareth Harris

Well said, John. Furthermore, once communities congeal around attractors as you described, the old notion of displacement marketing, where you replace your competitors’ products with your own as if they were interchangeable parts no longer applies. Customers are buying memberships instead and the products are their passports to various communities - some supplying the platform such as iPads and other supplying the activity such as multiplayer games or tweets and chats.

CudaBoy

Except for games. It seems serious gamers will always stay PC because the 16+ core processors and faster graphics and vast assortment of PC game choices keep that billion dollar community mostly in the Microsloth world. 

But I hear ya John. 
I wonder…was the Newton designed and marketed in a vacuum?
Lisa?

Nemo

What is fascinating is how Apple stays in tune with its communities of customers, as it creates technologies and products built on those technologies that almost always seem to anticipate just what the communities want.  It has been well reported that Apple doesn’t use focus groups, because focus groups can only tell Apple or any company about what communities want based on what exist.  So how do Apple’s designers, engineers, senior executives, and particularly its beta tester in chief, Steve Jobs, know not only what communities want but that which they don’t yet know they want but that they will urgently want once they experience it?

We have some clues from Jobs.  In developing the iPhone, he says that they, he and Apple’s the engineers, designers, and executives, designed the phone that they would want to use.  That sounds simple doesn’t it.  But it doesn’t explain how they designed a revolutionary phone that was like nothing that existed before.  Well, I suppose that you could say the folks at Apple wished for and designed a phone, the iPhone, that didn’t exist, overcoming along the way each problem, until they had the iPhone, which all other successful smartphones have copied but which none have made a significant improvement upon.  Wish for, want, and imagine an ideal phone for yourself that is nothing like what went before, that solves several major problems with existing phones, and then do it.  But I fear that only describes the mystery without explaining it.

Yet in that black box of Apple’s culture, its peoples, and its resources, it produces something that was well in tune with what communities urgently wanted, before they knew that they wanted it.  Yes, Apple has communities and responds to them in enhancing its products and services, but the creation of its most revolutionary products and services is a mystery of some genius for not only responding to communities but for leading them in directions that they didn’t know that they wanted to urgently go, until they went there.  Yet, the focus of that genius seems always ground in practical products that better the lives of real people, the communities.  And though that mystery of that genius can partly be explained by Apple’s culture, its tenants of design, its focus on the user’s experience, its marketing, its devotion to top quality, its innovations that solve problems to create devices and/or services that take the user’s experience to new heights, how it has done that so consistently for so many years comes done to some irreducible mystery of genius.

geoduck

Instead, the community of users, via Facebook and Twitter, conceive of what they need and create a group consciousness about what serves their needs and what doesn?t.

The other side of that is of course the feeding frenzy. Something happens it hits the web and is picked up and written about and hyped and responded too and on and on. Eventually the issue is blown up way out of proportion and it can hide the reality of the situation. Examples “Antennagate”, the problem was there but was in reality no worse than other smart phones. The Toyota Prius; for all the screaming and hype and political posturing, and lawsuits, and congressional hearings, the problem was not severe as the screaming masses said and was almost always driver caused. The recent histrionics over iPhone data privacy: not purging the file was an error, but Apple was not tracking people, and now with the latest patch the data isn’t kept.

But the reality of the situation is lost in a million bloggers striving for hits. It can severely damage a company, a reputation, even a career.

These on-line communities are not always good things.

wab95

I think you’re dead on about community, John. In fact, media, critics and the like even refer to this in connection with Apple, even if disparagingly. Which leads to another thought; namely that there appear to be two ways in which such communities, at least in the tech world, have been formed.

One is creation of technology that, by it’s very definition, is social. Here, however, I would argue that a cohesive community is seldom formed, but rather that you have a collection of communities engaged in what child psychologists might call parallel play (kids all in the same room playing with the same toys, but each doing their own thing).

The other is by creating a shared experience, usually a difficult one, in which a sense of community amongst the users is created. This requires, at least, that the experience is of such a nature as to bond users in a sense of common identity and create conditions in which they come to rely on one another for technical and moral support. This defines the Mac user community from the late ‘80s through the ‘90s, perhaps further. This community identity, while buttressing the Mac user base, preceded iOS. So one might ask, given that Apple is gaining in marketshare, how is this community identity sustained.

I propose two possibilities. One, the identity of Apple as a beleagured community due to low PC market share sustains a tendency of the users to interact as a community. Think of this as a reverse halo effect onto the iOS devices, but in a healthy way. Two, the creation of devices that truly inspires people to move beyond the staid passive user to the proactive engaged user experience. To my thinking, it’s been a combination of the two.

If any of this true, then it does not bode well for a company like MS for creating a community, whose user base owes so much of it’s existence to the workplace, enjoys inordinate market share, and primarily develops software. Finally, it means that Apple owes some of its current success to having been thoroughly thrashed by MS and its satellites in the PC war; unintended aid to be sure.

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