Ostriches, in fact, do not stick their heads in the sand at the sight of danger. But humans frequently do. It’s one of the Freeze-Flight-Fight-Forfeit reactions.
Something similar occurs when individuals and companies are challenged by new innovations. I’ve seen it often throughout my PR career, and we’re seeing it now in the way the smartphone wars are being played out across the globe. The response to new isn’t quite the same as the response to threat. Essentially, what I’ve observed is:
Compete — race to get a similar or better product to market
Deny — maintain the new product is not all it’s cracked up to be
Minimalise — claim that you invented the product long ago, and your competitor is just catching up
Participate — ride the coat tails of the new product either by licensing it or by offering supporting products
Google’s response to Apple’s iOS was definitely to compete. It bought the Android operating system, developed it, and released it to anyone who wanted it. Although this put Steve Jobs in a rage, quite literally to his dying day, the creation of Android showed very significant foresight on the part of Google. Apple’s iPhone had been extraordinarily disruptive in the mobile phone industry, but was (at the time) showing no signs of disrupting Google’s core business of advertising-assisted internet search.
In terms of the current disruptive threat to the mobile phone space, Apple’s Siri, which accepts instructions in normal human language and attempts to work out what they mean and execute them, the Android app IRIS is a first attempt to do what Siri does, but on the Android platform.
Samsung’s current web video, attacking the iPhone, has Android fans chortling with glee, though commentators have pointed out that mocking the people who want iPhones is not necessarily the best way to build their affinity with your own brand. What they are doing of course, though, is to deny the threat posed by the latest incarnation of the iPhone. However, denial is tricky. The Samsung ad resolutely avoids going head-to-head with Siri, choosing to focus instead on the Galaxy S II’s other features. They may have been misled into doing this by a recent UK online poll which suggested that 23% of iPhone users regretted purchasing the iPhone, 43% saying they ‘envied other brands’.
However, since the poll was an online, website based on, and there was no control to ensure that respondents actually did own an iPhone, it’s more likely that the results reflect the enthusiasm of some Android users to dismiss the iPhone. As we say in the PR trade, ‘never believe your own spin’. A proper poll, published yesterday, concluded more or less the opposite: Apple has the highest customer loyalty at 84 %, trailed by 24 percentage points by Android on 60 %.
Microsoft, by contrast, has come out claiming that it invented natural language voice recognition a year ago and have made it available through the Windows TellMe function. It’s arguable to what extent TellMe was an advance over the earlier Android and iOS voice command recognition, and third party apps such as Vlingo. But whatever side of that argument you come down on, MS’s Craig Mundie is engaging in the old tactic of claiming that what is new is, in fact, old. 1
Naturally, the problem with this approach is that, though it salves personal pride, it doesn’t actually do anything for marketing your product. Marketers speak often in short-hand of the ‘first mover advantage’, which is the advantage you gain in brand recognition by being the first to bring a particular feature to the market. But this is a short-hand. There are first mover disadvantages as well. You take a risk bringing a product to market that the market may not want, you have to build up consumer interest, you have to get wide spread distribution. The benefits of the ‘early bird’ effect can be entirely offset by what I call the ‘second mouse’ effect (The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese — think about it). Apple was clearly the ‘second mouse’ when it came to MP3 players. The iPod was not the first to market: that honour is held by Creative. But it was the first to be widely marketed. If, as Microsoft claims, TellMe really is as revolutionary as Siri, then MS has allowed Apple to be the ‘second mouse’. This is slightly ironic in that Microsoft benefited hugely in the 90s from being the ‘second mouse’ with its Windows GUI following in the steps of the original Apple Macintosh.
The flip side of this is that, if you really believe that you invented the technology first, and think you can prove it, the onus is on you to put your money where you mouth is and enforce your patents. Patent suits have been part of the business landscape for years, but they bubbled over into the popular mainstream this year when Apple (successfully) tried to get the Samsung Galaxy Tab banned in several jurisdictions because of alleged infringement of its intellectual property, and Samsung responded by attempting to get the iPhone banned because of an alleged failure to license parts of the 3G standard. Other Android manufacturers are queuing up to do the same, though the recent blow dealt to HTC by the US trade panel may have a salutary effect.
The final response — participation — is something which has profited both Apple and the Android community greatly since the launch of Apps with the first upgrade to the iPhone’s operating system which heralded the iPhone 3G. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of developers have chosen to participate. Likewise, hundreds and most probably thousands of manufacturers have profited from selling iPhone accessories.
The down side of this, at least when considering Apple and the iOS, is that you can only participate on Apple’s own terms. While Google will allow anyone to build an Android powered device — even if it moves significantly away from the Android core, as with Amazon’s Kindle Fire — Apple don’t allow anyone to build Macintoshes, iPhones or iPads. There was a brief period in the 1990s when Apple licensed the Mac operating system to other manufacturers, but Steve Jobs swiftly put a stop to that when he returned to the company as interim CEO. Therefore, if you want to take part in the iPhone revolution, you have to do so by creating supporting software and devices, to be vetted by Apple, not by building a better iPhone.
Part of the frenzy of hate — aside from the usual tech-tribalism — vented on Apple by its opponents (generally Android users — Blackberry users seem to be rather more accepting and pacific) is because of a long held belief among the technorati that ‘information wants to be free’ 2. Open source advocates, such as the archetypal Linus Torvalds, argue that all proprietary software (and, we should imagine, hardware) is doomed because the crowdsourced nature of open source is a superior model which will drive it out. Apple is currently perceived by this community as the antithesis of everything it believes, and Apple’s law suits against Samsung underline this.
There is one final alternative to these four responses, and that is, to not respond at all, but to go off and do your own thing. In a very real sense, it is this which has given Apple its competitive advantage and stellar growth over the past ten years. The iPod was not a response to a threat to the Macintosh which was then Apple’s only principle product. Rather, it was an extension of Apple’s media business which began with the release of iTunes nine months earlier. Not that Apple ‘invented’ iTunes. They purchased it, as ‘SoundJam MP’, previously released by Casady & Greene. Likewise, the iPhone was not a response to a threat to the iPod market, where Apple reigned more or less supreme. Finally, the iPad was an excursion into such novel territory that many commentators argued it would never sell because there was no market for it.
This is not to put Apple on a pedestal as the only innovator in the tech business. Critics argue that Apple is not an innovator at all, but a ‘borrower’ or a ‘buyer’ of the ideas of others. Perhaps. But what it has done is to consistently release new products which create disruptive change in their markets precisely because they are not responses to what has gone before. Other examples are Facebook, Flickr, Wikipedia and YouTube. Outside the virtual world, we could think of Dyson (also dismissed by its early critics as ‘a gimmick’).
None of these non-responses were based on radical or revolutionary science — even the Dyson vacuum cleaner. What they were, were radical imaginings of what the public would buy, own or use if only they existed.
It is this imagination which lifts some companies out of the response space. But not all.
Just for the record, Siri itself had been available for quite some time on the iPhone as a separate app. Apple’s innovation was to buy it and integrate it. ↩
If you check Stewart Brand’s original quote, what he actually said was: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other”, which isn’t quite the same thing ↩