Saturday, February 4, 2012

Apple's aspect dominance

When a successful, highly respected business dies unexpectedly, a bit of hyperbole is only natural. That said, the coverage has painted an awfully large picture of Steve Jobs' impact. The phrase "changed the world" has been difficult to avoid. (CNN Money doubled down on the theme following the headline "10 ways Steve Jobs changed the world" with the subtitle "There may never be another chief executive like him. Apple's former CEO and co-founder transformed the world's relationship with technology -- forever.")

We've also heard endless comparisons to Thomas Edison, which provide a useful bit of perspective. When Edison died, everyone with electricity or phone service (and many of those without) had his technology in their homes. Whether you went to the movies or the doctor, the legacy was unavoidable. By comparison, Apple, while a fantastically success company by most metrics, has a small footprint. Most of us don't have a Mac or an I-anything.

Apple's perceived footprint, however, is much larger. Based on news accounts and popular culture, you might get the impression that the typical American owns multiple Apple products. How did Apple manage this?

Some of the credit has to go the company's exceptionally effective branding (but that's a topic for another post). Then there's the kind products Apple makes, what we might call surface technology. Much, if not most, of the technology we use operates behind the scene. Personal electronics are easy to spot and are often used in public.

Then there's aspect dominance. I couldn't fins a good online definition of the concept (and I'm not qualified to write one) so I'll use the example that was given to me: when bitterweeds established themselves in a pasture, they would, from a distance, give the impression that fields were a solid yellow. When you got closer, you saw as much green as you did yellow. If you were a botanist observing those fields from a distance, it would be easy to overestimate the prevalence of that one species.

As you might imagine, shape and size contribute to aspect dominance. The bright flowers on top of relatively tall stalks allowed the weeds to have to effect they had. With social behavior, instead of height, we'd look for factors that make certain people more visible to the society (which generally means more visible in the media).

One obvious factor is a being in the entertainment industry. Apple has a huge presence (I'm writing this in a Hollywood coffee shop and I believe this is the only Dell in the house). Veteran sitcom writer Rob Long observed that it was actually a sign of security for someone in the industry not to use a Mac.

Then there are the demographics. Apple users tend to be upscale. Journalists these days tend to view the world through am upper-middle-class lens. Journalists also tend to be more urban (not many Apple stores in small town America) and, by the nature of their jobs, trendy. Nor, is this profile limited to journalists and entertainment professionals. Most prominent people tend to fall into one or more of these groups. In other words, there's a positive correlation between your visibility and your likelihood of owning an Apple product.

None of this takes away from Jobs accomplishments. It does, however, remind us that the press doesn't always do a good job keeping things in perspective.


  1. While Edison may have been a bigger deal than Steve Jobs, I don't think the metrics you chose above make the case very well.
    "When Edison died, everyone with electricity or phone service (and many of those without) had his technology in their homes."
    1) Comparing people at time of death is always very odd: Since Edison lived a quarter century longer than Jobs, of course he seemed to have more influence when he died...
    2) You're giving credit to Edison for 'everyone with electricity' even though he lost the current wars to Tesla and Alternating Current, but you are only giving credit to Jobs for iProducts and not the entire personal computer revolution? That doesn't seem fair! Either we are crediting people with the success of their companies' products, or we are crediting them with the success of the industries that they pioneered, we can't just switch!

    Honestly, Jobs probably deserves credit for the concept 'music player attached to large capacity hard disk drive', a device with major market penetration, and while giving credit to any one person for personal computers seems a bit over the top, he and Wozniak and Apple wouldn't be a terrible choice.

    Edison probably wins the 'inventor' match-up however you slice it, but more because in the era he lived in, one inventor with a lab could do a lot, while Jobs's innovations were often organizational in character. In other words, it's not so much that Edison 'wins' the comparison as that the comparison isn't really all that apt.

    1. A few points:

      I was careful with my wording when I said "technology in their homes" and I think it's a fairly safe statement. I didn't say Edison brought electricity to their homes specifically because of the current wars (which also led to the electric chair, but that's another story).

      There are worse ways of comparing people than lifetime accomplishment (see here but it can be unfair to those with shorter lives. The point, however, is moot in this case because the post was about the way society perceives Jobs' legacy (and, to a degree, technology in general).

      The man was at the height of his powers when he died and I have little doubt that, given another twenty-five years, he would have continued to do great things. Someone could write a wonder piece speculating on what might have come next.

      But my interest in this run of posts is the way we think about technology and it's difficult to discuss that topic without mentioning Apple.

  2. I agree with nerdbound that you can't count his influence just on the number of iDevices. You have to include the competitors that have emulated them. I'm not sure you can fully count windows in his legacy, although the Macintosh was pivotal. I think you can mostly include any slate form-factor Android phone or tablet.

    On the other hand, Jobs didn't really invent any concrete thing the way Edison did. There were hard-drive based music players before the iPod (Creative Nomad, I think). There were PCs before the Apple. There were windows before Macintosh. Nor did he invent the key upgrades that set the Apple devise apart. The click wheel and the concept of foreground windows both came from others within Apple. He understood engineering, aesthetics, usability, and marketing in a way that few can and he pulled together the work of others to create some iconic devices.