Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Caren Explains Evangelism, Idolatry and the Unveiling of the iPad

This week's edition of The Economist features a cover story on "The Book of Jobs" and how the iPad stands to revolutionize three industries at once.

Perhaps it's because I read a lot of tech blogs, or because I hang out with the "Tech Tribe" at HBS, but the excitement leading up to the iPad's unveiling seemed a bit irrational, not to mention sacrilegious.

'At last,' TechCrunch wrote in a headline, with an implicit sigh of relief, while NPR observed this is the 'Most excitement about a tablet since Moses came back down with the 10 Commandments." The Economist noticed this fervor, too, describing it as "verging at times on religious hysteria."

The fact that so much attention has been given to one product is strange in and of itself, yet not surprising, given the cult-like collection of brand evangelists that Jobs and Co. have attracted over the years. It's a tough marketing and operational challenge to go mainstream without isolating hard-core users, but Apple has done well at it -- something surely considered when Apple was named "Brand of the Decade" by AdWeek.

That's what makes the negative reception of the iPad so interesting. To many of its biggest fans, Apple's iPad is a let down. TechCrunch's new iPad vs. A Rock post illustrates the disappointment quite effectively, while The New York Times notes, "To its instant critics, [the iPad] was little more than an oversize iPod Touch." And then there are the Twitter feeds flooded with maxi-iPad jokes....

The Economist does not touch on this criticism, and mentions only Apple's successes, furthering the idea that Jobs can do no wrong. But what the disappointment around the iPad indicates to me is that some of the cult members have snapped out of their daze and are starting to think for themselves. That's a good thing.

Jobs as Jesus?

At Cyberposium 15 a mobile panelist made a comment that stuck with me. "I'd rather design for [devices that aren't the iPhone]: there's 30% less cost and one-tenth the aggravation of developing an iPhone app, because you don't need the holy water of Steve Jobs sprinkled on it."

Fortune has rounded up a number of images of Jobs portrayed as a Christ-like figure. It's not hard to understand why these exist. As The Economist notes, "Mr Jobs’s record suggests that when he blesses a market, it takes off." But as the music industry knows all too well, what Apple does today can have longterm implications for the many industries it touches -- implications we might not like or immediately understand.

Steve Jobs is not God, and likening him to such is dangerous. Mortals make mistakes (like the Lisa?) and we can learn a lot from those mistakes. Without critique or questions of Jobs' and Apple's limitations, though, we risk being blindly led in whatever direction Apple chooses.

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