The Huffington problem: saving innovations from their early adopters

Iphone_2 Saturday, I bought an iPhone. What does that make me?  A really late adopter.  The last to know.  Very late to the party.  Malcolm Gladwell has a term for people like me but he’s too polite to use it. 

I am stunned at how intelligent the iPhone is, and I retired my Sony Ericcson W810 with no regrets.  In fact, the SE was so bad at the things the iPhone does well, I am thinking of giving it a ritual burial in the back yard, a technological exorcism, as it were.  I want to make absolutely sure it has no residual hold on me.  (Digital residue being the worst possible thing.)

The SE did one thing well.  It took miraculously good photos.  There were times when I wanted to crawl into the world so pictured and just stay there.  Apparently, this isn’t possible.  (Product feature idea?)  But the SE was bad at capturing numbers, delivering email, managing calendars, delivering music, and otherwise making itself useful. 

The SE was an exercise in claustrophobia and bean counting.  The iPhone makes it really easy to capture data. Now I get the point of a touch screen alphabet.  It allows for a bigger screen, a better speaker and an astoundingly better interface.  There is something visible, accessible, conceptual about this phone that 10 years of cell phone use had not prepared me for. It’s miraculously good.   

The question is "what took me so long?"  My wife has owned an iPhone for months and she loves it. Friends rave about it.  But I would not budge.  The problem, I think, is that for me Apple products have an air of specialness about them.  I don’t resent this air.  I just feel that it doesn’t belong to me.  I prefer to think of myself as a "plain style" kind of guy. (This may be a way of saying "I’m special" because, "behold, I am not special."  It wouldn’t be the first time a social vocabulary has coded "x" as "not x."  Protestants, they’re just plain sneaky.)

This suggests a massive marketing problem for Apple.  What makes the iPhone thrilling for its present constituency proves off putting for the rest of a muchlarger market.  This is not a technological chasm, to use Moore’s language.  It is a cultural chasm. 

So Apple is working on repositioning itself, right?  No.  The present campaign, the one that shows Microsoft and Apple as two men on a sound stage, this actually exacerbates the problem.  The execution is fine.  The ads plays perfectly.  The Apple guy is unassuming, unprovocative, likeable, more or less Canadian,in point of fact.  His opposite, the Microsoft guy, is an obnoxious, self centered blowhard.  And a lot like me.  Well, no, it’s not that I identify with the Microsoft guy.  It’s that I can’t imagine being mistaken for the Apple guy.  That’s just not me. 

I had a go at this issue some time ago, while contemplating the problem that Prius has in this regard.  There is a slightly holier than thou quality to the Huffington crowd and this has the effect of discouraging the very adoption they wish to inspire.  So we might argue here, as I did there, that Apple has been taken hostage by its adopters.  We are, in other words, wrong to think that there is a natural momentum to adoption as things pass down the diffusion stream.  In point of face, there is a chasm here that must be finessed. 

The question is whether there might be a Diderot effect to this purchase.  Will the symbolic meanings of the iPhone creep into my sense of self, and gradually set in train a sense of transformation.  Watch this space.


McCracken, Grant.  2007.  The Prius Problem.  This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.   here 

16 thoughts on “The Huffington problem: saving innovations from their early adopters

  1. Steve Portigal

    Grant, be sure to post about your feelings as the newness wears off and you find the things that a typical phone would do with much greater ease.
    – trying to select among >300 contacts
    – trying to start dialing a call without a zillion presses

    There’s some really nifty looking stuff in the latest interface/firmware upgrade (1.1.3) that you probably already have as your point of entry, but after a few months I feel mostly okay about owning it but am definitely conscious of the many times it really frustrates me.

  2. srp

    I’m one of those losers who bought and loved my Mac Cube. Now I’m thinking of getting an iTouch, which I suspect is another halfway-house/dead end. If you get the weird, unpopular stuff like that you can be uncool and special while still enjoying Apple design at the same time.

  3. WDM

    Do you think that the Rogers groupings have transformed from a clean top-down hierarchy to five un-related sub-cultures of their own? In a more elitist past, the early majority would be happy to get a piece of what the early adopters are doing. But now, they resent the style of their “superiors,” because they have gained a self-confidence in their own taste-cultural values. We would never expect ravers or punks to adopt the artifacts of Harlem youth, so why does the “majority” in middle American have to imitate the adoption of “early adopter” in SF or NY? How do innovations pass through when there is less of a clear hierarchy in taste cultures?

  4. Vincent LaConte

    Have you read Danah Boyd’s Berkeley research on the social divide between teenage Facebook and MySpace users? This reminds me of that.

    I feel a lot like Grant does when I buy the iPhone, or switch from MySpace to Facebook, or make some other rational decision that all my designer friends are making too. Sure, I’m doing it for practical usability reasons, but I’m aware most people around me are doing it for cultural-identity sorts of reasons. I’m already kind of embarrassed to be seen with my iPhone out in public.

    Great design should include maximum user control over the outward design, while keeping a core of usability and platform benefits. There has to be some happier medium between the nauseating anything-goes chaos of MySpace, and the dehumanizing sameness of Facebook. There must also be a happier medium between every iPhone looking and acting the same, and Apple offering a wider range of styles, both in appearance and interaction, like every other manufacturer of mobile devices.

    There is an aspect of Apple’s approach to design which is, when I think about it, almost shockingly old-school: “We know what’s cool, we know what’s best for you, just trust us.” The Catholic Church approach to technology, as I think Neal Stephenson once described it. The problem is, it keeps working for them. But it’s not sustainable. Jobs could get hit by a bus tomorrow and everyone knows Apple would tank.

    Apple needs to turn itself inside out: open source its design process, involve its customers, empower them, but also teach and facilitate them. The alternative is to constantly try to create or react to changing fashion tastes. Global companies are too big, and development cycles too long. Even a three month market research study will have missed the boat. We need to stop treating customers as objects of study, and start teaching them how to use our tools and methods to design their own world.

  5. Jon Howard

    Grant, I’m very much with you…just that I have yet to succumb to Apple’s siren call. I remain a PC using, Creative Zen listening, Sony Ericcson talking kind of guy.

    I appreciate Apple as a brand, and think the products do look beautiful. But as Vincent says above, part of me rails against Apple’s snobbish, patriarchal ‘we know best’ tone (even when, on the face of it, it seems to be saying the exact opposite), the Emperor’s New Clothes-like way everyone trots behind saying how cool it all is, the fact that their technology is always a closed system (which seems very anti-zeitgeist), and the fact that, at the end of the day, the products don’t always perform any better.

    But then maybe I’m just being wilfully bloody minded about it.

  6. peter

    To add support to Jon Howard’s comment: Each new Apple laptop comes with a new set of interfaces, so that (eg) the adapter needed to plug into a dataprojector is not transferable from one model to the next. Try working with colleagues in a brainstorm session and finding that nobody’s adaptors works with anyone else’s machine, even though half the room are using macs. This is a technology for the person who works alone!

  7. Jen, writer

    There’s nothing wrong with being a late adopter or a laggard as Everett Rogers of the whole Diffusion of Innovation theory put it… I don’t know what Malcolm Gladwell calls it though… Sometimes, you get to see whether a product is really worth your money and I don’t think the iPhone, being one of the ultimate gadgets around, isn’t going to be out of date anytime soon.

  8. Richard Band

    What a great post. I am a late adopter of blogging itself and found your site through Russell Davies. I think your point applies to some Apple products, but not all and therefore can’t necessarily apply to the whole brand. The ipod started off as a niche product, but its sheer superiority (bundled with itunes), soon gathered critical mass. One could argue that the ipod has even transcended Apple’s brand entirely. So maybe that’s part of it’s success – i.e. it has shed the preciousness that you describe.

  9. Charles Kouns

    I was calculating the other day that I have probably owned about 75% of all the things Apple has manufactured and sold since it was born. I have been an Apple addict most of my life, even through the rough times. But I too have resisted the iPhone despite the fact that it was named the invention of the year and that it IS so fantastic. Hmmmmmm.

    I cannot wait to dump my Palm Treo (my 7th one since August of ’06 because they kept breaking) when my contract expires in 12 days. I have long had a fantasy of taking a sledgehammer to it and then taking a photo of me holding the destroyed Treo and my new iPhone and sending it to the CEO of Sprint and Palm who routinely refused to help me out of my mess over the past year and a half.

    But in 12 days, I have to make a decision and while I have been excited about buying my iPhone, I have found myself secretly wanting another alternative so my life isn’t all Appleish! It’s like I am sick of the taste of Apple pie. Everybody is eating Apple pie. pie. pie. pie. Only its white and plastic and beautifully cooked.

    There. I said it. I have admitted my heresy that I want another brand. Problem is that unless the Helio checks out amazingly, the iPhone is it because it is so perfect for my needs.

    So, I wonder if we aren’t seeing Apple at a crossroads and that Grant’s reluctance comes from buying one more product that is so fantastic he wishes someone else could be so inventive and therefore buy theirs so they don’t look like an Apple pie person? My sense is that they have become obnoxiously successful and that they ARE the model of the ultimate skunk works who is driven by a singular purpose, a singularly focused CEO and a few Goliath sized competitors that make it necessary to be very, very good.

    I love the revolutionary nature of Apple. I love their ability to design products for people. But have they become so good at revolution that the Revolution is over? Have they become the Goliath of the Idea and I want someone else to come and slay them? Damn the iPod. It made Apple pie universally American.

  10. Brian Kenny

    I enjoyed where you write “… I prefer to think of myself as a “plain style” kind of guy. (This may be a way of saying “I’m special” because, “behold, I am not special” … I had a go at this issue some time ago, while contemplating the problem that Prius has in this regard. There is a slightly holier than thou quality… ”

    I was at the gas station today filling up the Prius. The fellow at the pump in front of me went into the convenience store and upon returning to his car, the stranger passed me and said “So, What kind of mileage do you get?” Without missing a beat, I looked him in the eye and said “I don’t know.” He was startled and visibly unsettled by the response (and my eyeballing him as directly as Dirty Harry would confront a perp) because he clearly expected something different — here’s a fellow driving a Prius who isn’t holier than thou, who isn’t proselytizing for Mr. Toyotan and who doesn’t know what his mileage is? WTF is this guy about? Then, a brief flash of horror, fear and revulsion crossed his brow.

    You could see expressed in his face quite clearly what he was thinking — this guy IS the bolt gun murderer depicted in the movie “No Country for Old Men.”

    This is the ‘I’m special because, behold, I am not special’ approach, but it includes a transgressive third actor – menace – which appears suddenly and unexpectedly from nowhere. So you gotta ask yourself “Do I feel lucky?” Well do ya, punk?

  11. Charles Kouns

    I am back to eat humble pie. I bought the iPhone and I don’t care what I wrote or what anyone thinks, it is an awesome piece of technology. Yes, it has blemishes just like the rest of us, but man is it light years ahead of my Treo. Plus now, I live in a Mac world where everything I use “gets” each other. No more using technology built for PC’s that sort of works with my MacBook. It’s all flowing seamlessly now. So I will look like the true Mac Addict that I am. It is totally worth it.

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  13. Susan Abbott

    I’m starting to really like the geeky PC guy. I’m starting to really identify with him, because I’ve had all those problems. I’ve been wondering if Apple might actually be building both brands at the same time, inadvertently. Just wondering.

  14. Sara

    I am a huge Apple fan after jumping on the Powerbook bandwagon four years ago.

    But I’ve resisted the iPhone for all the reasons Grant articulated. My boyfriend was about to buy me one for my birthday, and I actually turned it down. I just can’t be That Girl. It’s an amazing device, but it’s hard to hide and when I see that guy on the plane, I think, “how obnoxious.” It’s like, I want it for myself, just privately, but I don’t want it out in the world where everyone can see it.

    Plus, my doubts about early adoption are very real. Only one color and size. Really freaking expensive. Bugs and updates. I sat at a Genius Bar for an hour last week, and watched iPhone after iPhone get diagnosed.

    I know it’s great, and I have this sense of inevitability (I will have one someday, like if and when Verizon picks it up) but just – not – yet.

  15. Seren Griwi

    Flipping screens, moving screen… blah. When do they come up with a screen-only with a virtual keyboard. Just the screen…

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