Steve Jobs liked to live at the intersection of the humanities and technology, and that’s exactly the place where communications technologies need to be.
Who better to show us how it should be done than the masters of usability and design? Tweet This Quote
Two questions scream out at me when I read this. Firstly, what would happen if Apple turned a fraction of its attention to the disparity between technological “have” and “have not” geographic locations or demographic groups? And secondly, why doesn’t Apple work in aiding economic development by ensuring equitable access to up-to-date communications technologies? In a sector where so many tools and solutions seem to fail because they’re too complex, poorly designed, unusable or inappropriate, who better to show us how it should be done than the masters of usability and design?
Steve Jobs seemed to have little time for philanthropy, at least publicly. Tweet This Quote
The answer to the second question is a little easier to answer than the first. As Walter Isaacson pointed out in his recent biography, Steve Jobs felt he could contribute more to the world by ‘simply’ making brilliant products. He seemed to have little time for philanthropy, at least publicly, and his laser focus meant he saw almost everything other than Apple’s mission as a distraction. Ironically, had he decided to give away some of his ballooning wealth, he’d most likely have funded programs working in nutrition and vegetarianism, not technology, according to Mark Vermilion (who Steve Jobs hired back in 1986 to run the Steven P. Jobs Foundation, which he was destined to shut down a year later).
Had Steve Jobs decided to pursue his Foundation, and had he decided to fund technology-based initiatives in the developing world, how well might he have done, and what might Apple have been able to contribute to our discipline?
Here are five initial thoughts on where an Apple approach to Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) might be different—or problematic.
1. Consult the user: One of the central tenets of ICT4D is to consult the user before designing or building anything. In business, at least, Apple doesn’t do this. They certainly didn’t speak to Colombian farm children, yet they managed to intuitively build something that worked for the six year old Michael Noer met. As Steve Jobs famously said:
An Apple ICT4D project would unlikely spend much time, if any, speaking with the target audience, an approach entirely at odds with the one we champion right now.
2. Customer vs. beneficiary: Apple would see people as customers, and they’d be carrying out what they’d see as a commercial transaction with them. This approach would mean they’d have to build something the customer wanted, and that worked (and worked well). Since it would have to sell, if successful it would, by default, be financially sustainable. Part of the problem with the largely subsidised ICT4D “give away technology” model is that no-one is ultimately accountable if things don’t work out, and regular business rules do not apply.
3. Open vs. closed: The ICT4D community is entrenched in an open source mindset, almost to the extent that closed solutions are scorned upon. Steve Jobs was a strong believer in controlling all aspects of the user experience, all the way from hardware through to software. To him, closed systems were better integrated and open systems fragmented:
There is no evidence in ICT4D, I don’t believe, which points towards more success for open solutions vs. closed (however you define success), yet open remains dominant. An early Apple success might give us pause for thought.
4. Time for the field: Although Paul Polak doesn’t work in ICT4D, he is one the biggest proponents of “getting out into the field to understand the needs of your customer”. In his long career he’s interviewed over 3,000 people earning a dollar or less a day to better understand their needs – and the market opportunity. In this short video he talks about the process of spending time in rural villages, talking in depth with villagers, and identifying opportunities for transformative impact.
Apple wouldn’t see the need to do this because they wouldn’t consider the needs of dollar-a-day customers as being any different to anyone else. They’d consider their intuitive design and user interface to be non-culturally specific. People, everywhere, want simple-to-use technologies that just work, regardless of who they are.
5. Appropriate technology: Apple’s product line hardly fits into the appropriate technology model – they’re expensive, power-hungry and the devices are reliant on a computer (via iTunes) as their central controlling “hub”. The systems are also closed, blocking any chance of local innovation around the platform. How Apple tackle this – yet maintain their standards of excellence in design and usability – would probably turn out to be their biggest challenge.Although it hasn’t happened yet, a post-Steve Jobs Apple might yet develop a philanthropic streak. If they did they could easily turn to their friends at frog design (now branded Frog) for help. Frog, who worked closely with them in the early days of the Macintosh range, have recently worked with a number of ICT4D initiatives and organisations, including Project Masiluleke and UNICEF.
Apple has already reinvented the music and publishing industries. With the talent, capital and resources available I’d bet my bottom dollar on them reinventing ICT4D if they chose to. Steve Jobs liked to “live at the intersection of the humanities and technology”, and that’s exactly the place where ICT4D needs to be.
Although it hasn’t happened yet, a post-Steve Jobs Apple might yet develop a philanthropic streak. Tweet This Quote