Progressing Technology Through Cultural Icons.

Back in my teenage years I was a retail employee at an electronics chain called Dick Smith Electronics. It was a pretty good job for someone like me, since I had a keen interest in all things technical and the customers that frequented my store were known for their technical expertise. I put this down to the shop being right in the middle of industrial estate, since most of the customers would be other businesses. I worked there for a grand total of 6 years and I saw many technological trends come and go, but there’s one that really surprised me at the time and it still sticks with me to this day.

Most of the stuff I would sell was low end consumer goods and electronic components. Back in 2000 when flash memory was still expensive (and 512mb of ram was considered a decent gaming rig) MP3 players were few and far between. I remember on a trip to Japan in 2001 there were 512mb MP3 players for a tad less then AUD$700, and I couldn’t believe that we’d come that far technologically. It was probably around 2003 that I started to see the first of these devices start to trickle down into my retail chain, and some customers starting to look at them seriously.

Then enter the iPod. A classy little number that, whilst not the greatest spec wise (when compared to a Nomad), had a something that a lot of the other models I stocked lacked. Initially the take up was pretty minimal, since Apple had decided that everyone had to use a Firewire connection to transfer files to it. Although after a few generations they started to include USB 2.0, which was a good move but it would be naive to think that a mere connection change was responsible for the iPod’s success.

Apple did what they always do with their products, they marketed an image:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yF9s3TpncAo

It is interesting to note the differences and similarities between this, the first ad for the iPod, and their current incarnations (which just happens to showcase my favourite band, Daft Punk):

The first thing to note is the strong focus both ads have on either the iPod itself or Apple’s technology. The first ad shows a regular person using a Macbook and an iPod and although it’s not shown all the time, you’re constantly aware that it’s there. The second generation of the iPod ads does this more blatantly, pretty much elminating everything except the iPod from your view. The second major element is the enjoyment of the use of the technology, which is what a lot of marketing campaigns for products like this build off of.

So, you may be wondering how something like the iPod has helped progress technology in any way. Well I can tell you from my experience in retail once the iPod hit critical mass, it wasn’t just the sale of iPods that increased. Most people would come in asking for an iPod but balk at the cost (the cheapest where circa $400, a bit much for a birthday present for your teenager) but we had several others which were kinder on the pocket. Apple noticed this fact and started churning out models like the Shuffle and Nano, which quickly took over this market segment. It was very much a build it and they will come scenario, since there was little demand for these devices beforehand and it is now a booming industry.

This has me experiencing quite a bit of cognitive dissonance, as I’m not the biggest Apple fan (although an iPod shuffle made its way into my life by way of a corporate gift) but I love the way they pushed and industry into the spolight. The first drove the hard drive manufacturer’s to make larger capacity small form factor drives so that their iPods could be smaller, lighter and better than their predecessors. More recently their demand for flash memory has driven the market to a point where solid state drives are now a consumer item. It truly is amazing what Apple has done for these markets.

This is the kind of trend that needs to be set by companies in order to further the progression of technology if they want to move faster than they ever have before. Whilst creating a cultural icon isn’t easy we know it can be done with careful marketing and nuturing of current installed base of consumers, and there are a few candidates, apart from Apple, who can do this (and already have):

  • Sony: I’m a confessed Sony fanboy as I’ve been at the front of the lines for the release of the last 2 Playstation consoles. The development of the Cell architecture showed a dedication to bringing new technological ideas forward and push them onto consumers. Whilst it floundered initially new gaming titles such as Resident Evil 5 really showcase what a powerhouse this really is.
  • Tivo: An interesting idea of taking the pain out of setting up a PVR. It has become so unbiqutos in the USA that even the Simpsons got one, which no doubt lead to a massive increase in sales. Whilst it hasn’t had a great take up in Australia just yet (probably due to our comparitively mediocre free to air TV) it has already achieved a worldwide foot hold, and is very much a loungeroom icon.
  • Google: A giant techonlogical innovator who has just recently stepped into the mobile world with their Android product. Their business model works great for technological innovation, make it available to the world for free as long as they don’t mind a couple ads. Their search engine is so mainstream that googling something has become a recognised verb, and many of their other products have become integrated into our everyday lives.

So in essence the secret to technological innovation is to build a dedicated consumer base and then start releasing new technological ideas to them. As you build momentum you’ll see that people start craving the latest from you no matter what it is. Whilst this can lead to technological stagnation it will still generate a large following, spurring on technological development.

I can only hope that Virgin Galactic’s foray into space becomes as popular as the iPod.

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