Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Revolution Won't Be Marketed Properly

According to news reports I've seen this week, the iPhone is the new Star Wars (the movie series, not the missile defense system, though maybe it wouldn't be shocking for a future generation of the device to equipped with a built-in app for anti-aircraft fire). People are now lining up to buy technology the way they used to line up only for movies (or more recently, for video game systems).

While tech connoisseurs debate the quality of Apple's latest gadgets, one thing I think everyone can agree on is that Steve Jobs knows how to roll out a product. I've convinced that the smartphone and the iPad are still niche items, and for a lot of consumers, perhaps more fashion accessory than anything else. Yes, these devices have legitimate business applications, but I think for most people, including myself, a regular cell phone and computer are still enough to fulfill all their technological needs. (I'd contrast these devices with an mp3 player, which I would regard as a legitimately mainstream product, as it fulfills needs that CD players can't).

What makes Jobs's ability to get attention for the introduction of niche products impressive is that truly paradigm-shifting innovations have come out to much less fanfare. In fact, I'd assert that since (and including) the dawn of the World Wide Web, technologies have caught on with a slow burn, often virally, rather than with a sudden splash. Of course,I would presume that this is nothing new. I'm pretty sure that the day after Thomas Edison patented the light bulb there wasn't a rush to the Apple Store to put in preorders. But I find it interesting that now that technology has made communication instantaneous and information more accessible than ever before, that there is a still a gulf between what is available and what people know is available.

For example, society has been conditioned for decades to accept the concept of the video telephone. Anyone who watched The Jetsons in the 1960s accepted that along with robot housekeepers (which have actually been around for years now), video phones would be a staple of the future. Well, we now have it, and it's relatively cheap and easy to use, but a significant amount of people have no idea that the technology exists. (It doesn't help that it comes with names like "Skype"). I'm convinced that there is a huge underserved market out there--older people who otherwise would have little interest in technology who would love to see their grandchildren more regularly.

Another example: GPS units. Now that you can get one for under $100, it surprises me that anyone would own a car and not have access to satellite navigation, yet I'd estimate from anecdotal experience that the majority of drivers don't. Maybe I'm biased because I struggled for years to be able to find places, but the lure of never getting lost again seems too strong of a siren call to resist. Granted, I don't usually watch television commercials, but I don't remember any great fanfare introducing these products to the mainstream (though I do remember a confusing Super Bowl ad for Garmin a few years ago). I would think a product rollout with a "Never get lost again" tagline would have been gold in the bank for a sat-navigation company. But by not hyping GPS units back then as the "next big thing" (which I truly think they were/are, especially compared to iPads), there still exists a relatively soft market for them today.

Going forward, it will be interesting to take notice of whether inventions and innovations continue to follow the old models for public acceptance, or if Steve Jobs's legacy encompasses marketing along with technology. One possible barometer: a real life "universal translator." Now that it has apparently been invented, how long will it take people to notice?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"See the grandchildren" and "Never get lost again" only have meaning if I (as an older person) can make the gadget work. The marketing that would get me to consider a new device would have the tagline " and it promises not to make you feel stupid."

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

What people need and what people buy are usually two very different things. But typing this on my iPod while outside grilling out is still pretty cool.

Also, there are GPS and light bulb apps for the iPhone/iPod touch/ipad.

7:21 PM  

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