Apple's Big Success--It's All About Sociology, Not Technology. Does Google Get That?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 24, 2008

Apple had a blowout first quarter in the face of a declining economy, proving, once again, that innovation drives revenue and profit growth. But what exactly does that mean in the case of Apple? A.G. Lafley, P&G’s CEO, told me over lunch recently that “innovation is a social system—it involves culture, organization and leadership.”

Apple has that now. In its early years, Apple succeeded because of

brilliant user-centric design and user-friendly technology. Xerox Parc was the origin of practically all of Apple's early high-tech innovations, and Apple applied these advances in ways that connected with consumers.

Apple is innovating on a wider and deeper scale these days. It is using sociology rather than technology to propel its sales. By that I mean the iPhone, iPod, Macs and stores are all at the heart of a consumer culture that defines itself in terms of connection and sharing. Apple is providing the tools, the methods and even the cool spaces (stores of all things!) to enable and empower this sharing culture. It is identifying with its customers who identify with it. Both Apple and its customers are creating a singular, distinctive identity together.

Apple is still learning this. The successful US model for the iPhone isn't working in Europe, where people want cheaper phones and carriers want to keep more of their revenues and not share as much with Apple. In India and elsewhere, people group text and the iPhone initially couldn't do that. In a global marketplace, being in customer cultures means being in many cultures. That's very hard, especially for such an "American" company as Apple.

Nike's slogan "Running Together" captures the new phenomenon of co-creating identity together. Every company now needs a "Together" concept and culture that unites it with its consumer base.

Companies that still rely on technology and not sociology to define their businesses and their identities will fail going forward. Does Google get that?

Reader Comments

Brian Brandes

April 24, 2008 5:50 PM

I have no idea why Google was mentioned in this. All the article does is talk about how "wonderful and hip" Apple is and then asks does Google get that? News Flash: Google doesn't sell tangible products, Apple does. They are extremely different companies, so if you are going to compare the two, clearly state what you're trying to accomplish. Do not just put a big name in an article title to attract attention and then have no substance whatsoever to back it up.

Robert

April 24, 2008 6:38 PM

I'm sure Google 'gets that' and knows what they're doing.

They are currently dominant in the web force, so why not stick with what works?

Let's say sociology does come into effect as some type of effect on their forward movements in domination.

I will bet my left nut (walnut of course for the authorities skimming through this, or maybe even an abnormally overgrown pistachio. Quite possibly without the wall and pistachio), they have projects currently pending and more than likely several to choose from in order to overcome those 2 inch hurdles for the front runner in "Cool Runnings" on dry land.

Thank you for attending. Please be sure to tip your waitress on the way out.

Robert

jkh

April 24, 2008 7:18 PM

i am sure apple gets that.

apple was the first to see that.

there is nobody who understood the impact of beauty as the absolute experience reigning over geekish performance crunching like apple.

apple rules.
involving the customers like you say, bruce, does not matter. - why, because sociology teaches us that people do not love the product of a democratic process - they love the product that comes from the hands of a - one - conscious creator.

that is what sociology really tells us. - it is not the science of the masses where everybody has his say. - it is the science of the masses that identifies what is missing in individualised society and marketing society: perspective and the presence of absolute and uncompromising beauty.

apple knows that. deep in their heart they know it. ... i would just count on s.j.

jkh

April 24, 2008 7:23 PM

oh.. the question was: does google get it?... :) ... well, i am not sure... this has been on of their weak points for long now.

The Philosopher

April 24, 2008 7:46 PM

It's Sociology AND Technology.

When you try to bring out an interesting point, in this case a cause of a matter, it does not mean you have to negate other truths to reinforce your argument. It is sensationalism, there to grab headlines, not the integral truth of a matter.

bruce nussbaum

April 24, 2008 7:48 PM

Brian,
I am arguing that Apple's success is not due to simply selling a product but much more--an experience, a connection, an identity. There were lots of MP3 players out there before the iPod and many of them were terrific. But they were merely products and didn't do what the iPod does--enable people to manage their music and now video libraries.
Bruce

DK

April 24, 2008 9:03 PM

Bruce, dude, enabling people to mnage their music and now video libraries is the product.

Jeff

April 24, 2008 9:17 PM

Technology and "sociology", as you call it, both play an important role.

The ipod was technologically far superior to any mp3 player that came before it. The click wheel, the size of the hard drive (both physical and capacity), and the interface are just a few examples of the technological leaps Apple used in designing their mp3 player.

As for Google, their services like Gmail and Google Maps have become common place because of their innovative and easy to use design, which garner a strong following of utility and efficiency loving technologists. I wouldn't expect a "Google Store" any time soon, but that's okay--the Google ideology is more ubiquitous than that.

There are just as many die-hard Google fans as Apple fans. Your article doesn't point out a single reason why you think Google might not "get that". Which isn't surprising when you realize the article hardly mentions Google at all. If you want to make an analogy, do a better job of elaborating on the comparison. Otherwise, I'm not really sure what your point was.

cps

April 24, 2008 9:58 PM

Sure Google gets is. Witness YouTube, Google Video, Page Creator, Picasa, their wikipedia replacement whatever you call it, Documents, yadda yadda yadda.

Their search engine was the first to use a pagerank algorithm, based on who cites whom. That's technology leveraging sociology.

And their advertising is successful because it takes advantage of auctions (*people* + technology, rather than user + technology) and contextual textual information on target pages (user-supplied text, not technology).

Bruce, here's a question for you, as you were "named one of the 40 most powerful people in design by I.D. Magazine." What top three design problems are currently standing in the way of using computer/software systems to solve the big social problems of today (e.g.: poverty, global warming, terrorism, etc)? [You can pick whatever social problems are of most interest to you in answering the question.]

Arn

April 25, 2008 1:27 AM

I love what Google has done with search, and what they "stand for" but to be honest what have they done lately?

I'm a technically savvy consumer, and I can't think of one Google product I use besides search (and Image Search).

I don't know many people who use gmail, and that's not exactly cutting-edge or world-changing. (Google Earth is both, but will take time to make a real difference to the average person). Online apps/sas could be their thing, but isn't it all in beta? I haven't used any of it, and couldn't name one of their apps to save my life.

Seems like they're just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. That's no way to blaze a trail into the future, or find a solid place in people lives.

Arn

April 25, 2008 1:29 AM

I love what Google has done with search, and what they "stand for" but to be honest what have they done lately?

I'm a technically savvy consumer, and I can't think of one Google product I use besides search (and Image Search).

I don't know many people who use gmail, and that's not exactly cutting-edge or world-changing. (Google Earth is both, but will take time to make a real difference to the average person). Online apps/sas could be their thing, but isn't it all in beta? I haven't used any of it, and couldn't name one of their apps to save my life.

Seems like they're just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. That's no way to blaze a trail into the future, or find a solid place in people lives.

OhC'mon

April 25, 2008 6:17 AM

Apple's products sell not only because of warm fuzzy feelings, but because they are good. Amazing operating system, anyone?

Crawford

April 25, 2008 12:27 PM

We now see Apple doing Social because we now see Social having value. But if you talk to anybody in the ad/graphics business, you'll find that the core values/experience proposition -- the joy factor-- hasn't changed much since the garage days.

"brilliant user-centric design and user-friendly technology"...products that work and bring joy. That's it. The times they are a changing and now embracing what Apple has been more quietly doing for a long, long time.

Joy is good.

Bruce Temkin

April 26, 2008 4:36 PM

I'm not sure it's "ALL" about sociology (Apple's got some nifty technology), but sociology is definitely a critical component in the success of many consumer products. Innovations need to be based on an understanding of consumer needs and social systems; with the expectation that the new idea/product/concept will need to change based on the patterns of adoption and usage. So a linear process of innovation, design, development, and then deployment won't work. You need to factor in cycles & budget for innovation even after products go to market.

Take a look at my blog: http://experiencematters.wordpress.com/

jay

April 27, 2008 12:58 AM

I think his hinting at the release of Android. But here's my 2 cents, tangible or in tangible, products or services, they all require an experience, a good experience requires that you understand your customers, a great experience requires you understand the finer details of your customers, an excellent experience requires you to understand the finer details of every single one of your customers.
If google is going to be successful with Android they should look towards some of the research work Nokia is doing all over world. It's a pity that this research in the past didn't translate to great experiences, but things change.

Moctod

April 27, 2008 5:14 AM

...Xerox Parc was the origin of practically all of Apple's early high-tech innovations...

Uh.

http://www.folklore.org/index.py

But, especially...

http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=On_Xerox,_Apple_and_Progress.txt&topic=Origins&sortOrder=Sort%20by%20Date&detail=medium

Learning is fun.

ravi

April 27, 2008 4:21 PM

If memory serves correctly, the User Interface that was available from Apple was so counterpoint to MS DOS, it connected it resonated with those of us who may not have had the aptitude or the desire the start typing in code to simply compose a letter.

Simply, the Xerox/Apple GUI (WYSIWYG) was a solution looking for an audience.

To now recast it as if it was some well conceived insightful plan may be difficult. I'm unclear as to the point here as well.

With that said, Google would be a better experience if infused with some of the Xerox insight into human behavior.

Xerox would have better served to understand the long term marketability of their brilliant innovations.

Is it all about sociology, sure Bruce, why wouldn't it be?

ravi

April 28, 2008 2:05 AM

Excellent Point !

I would add that what Apple does today is a result of their ability to recognize what Xerox had and wasn't in a position to take to market.

Google must get it but has great opportunity to embrace the User Interface philosophies of Xerox and now Apple.

There is much opportunity for creation of rich, compelling and rewarding GUI experiences which must be in the works, if I'm right.

moctod

April 28, 2008 7:39 AM

...Xerox Parc was the origin of practically all of Apple's early high-tech innovations...

Whatever.

http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=On_Xerox,_Apple_and_Progress.txt&topic=Origins&sortOrder=Sort%20by%20Date&detail=medium

What could possibly be so offensive to you to delete this post?

ravi

April 28, 2008 6:33 PM

This topic uncovers the need for true discussion and debate leading to recovering the essence of what was attempted in the 70s; inviting, friendly, intuitive and rewarding Graphical User Interface.

While I was at Xerox, we had the the challenge of motivating consumers to touch a TV Monitor to start interacting with our first generation Touch Screen (Xenia and eventually Star). Getting anyone to touch the screen was a challenge unto itself, computers definitely were not ubiquitous at that time in North America.

For a young designer at Xerox, working within the Industrial Design Department with two dozen Cognitive Psychologists it was an eye opener and a very profound experience.

This is the root of my methodology of Psycho-Aesthetics that I and others have been exploring and refining ever since that experience in the 70s.

Seems like yesterday as its all coming to life now. Even though it is in some way getting back to where it all started.

BTW, I am a huge fan of Apple and see that the Apple teams not only get it but mentor the world through their emotionally charged and fulfilling experiences.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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