Essays and Theories

Evolutionary Psychology and the Apple:

If natural selection states that only the best survive to become number one, why isn't Apple top dog in the computer world?
William A. Spriggs, June 1996

Is it possible to treat consumer products as a sort of Darwinian subgroup in which the best product is, by natural selection, the best-selling product as well? After all, if consumer products such as automobiles, toasters, and computers are nothing more than the end result of organized human activity, then Darwin’s law of natural selection should apply to them as well as to the humans that created them. The best product then, the result of these superior persons, should be numbero uno. The big cheese. King of the jungle. Top dog.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Apple computer line is the finest on the market today. Their keyboards, monitors, graphics, and software all broadcast messages of superior quality and usability. And I don’t even own one. I know this just from playing with one at a local computer store several times and from members of my family who have been rabid Apple fans since 1980. You can not believe the verbal buffalo droppings lobbed my way when I picked my Microsoft-based system.

So why is it that Apple computer systems, so clearly superior, take up only up 7% of the world market? Someone, or something, is poking a finger into the eye of Darwin’s law of natural selection when it comes to consumer products.

For an answer to our Apple product mystery, we must first consider a number of traits all humans share. We are all products of our basic genetic software, -- DNA, (our operating system) -- and the evolutionary influences of our environmental and cultural longitude and latitude (ELL and CLL -- software we add).

Here I should explain a theory that I call DAD. The Darwinian Area of Dominance. This basically states that evolution is the adaptation to local environments (area) and that the creation of the "fittest" organism follows

Darwinian principles if applied to the general area in which the organism was born, raised, and mated. Such a favored organism is top dog of its territory because it has superior knowledge about that area’s, and only that area’s, physical and cultural peculiarities. Now, in nature, we assume that the area in which an organism lives and evolves has a limited pattern of natural cycles, (day and night, winter, spring, summer, and fall), and that its other influences are also limited. Its borders extend only as far as the organism can range in in its area of survivability or desirability. (Such factors as climate, food availability, mating opportunities, and competitive influences only apply within this certain limited area). Hence, a biological organism may be top dog at a particular CLL and ELL, but that once it migrates beyond these borders, its influence diminishes as it adjusts to the new sensory inputs of its new area. It leaves the area where it is top dog primarily through the motivation of need, want or desire.

The reverse is true of influences that enter the DAD in which the organism is top dog. For example a new herd of migratory organisms suitable as a new food resource would force an organism to analyze these new influences and adapt accordingly. Now, unless an organism moves to a new area outside its DAD with the sole intent of aggressively conquering this new area and the inhabitants in that new territory, the organism’s actions will be defensive in nature and its adaptations will be inhibited until it adjusts to the new territory. Aggression assumes the immediate conquest and control of other organisms in the new area.

In this example an organism’s DNA remains the same, but either the location of the organism changes, or the environment and cultural influences come to the organism, changing the environment and culture around the organism. It is therefore logical to assume that environment and culture have the greatest immediate impact on an organism and the organism must devote its problem-solving abilities to those changes or perish.

As this applies to Apple Computer, the company acted as a single organism is its ability to create, produce, advertise, and distribute a computer that was the fittest in the land. It started in one location and spread. It had aggressively left its original area and expanded outward. Our top dog wisely distributed computers in the school system with the idea that students will grow up and become big computers users. All one had to do was wait. And it did

wait, resting on its laurels. In the four stages of market development -- pioneering, expansion, leadership, and self-renewal -- some how Apple waited and stumbled over the last stage.  Apple computer is one of those American success stories that we all love to tell. A couple of brilliant and creative people working in their garage or basement, build a better mouse trap, and everyone beats a path to their door. Their product and personas achieve celebrity status and all the world is impressed. I’m talking of course about Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak. They founded Apple computer in 1977 in Cupertino, Calif., and by 1980 were the leading PC manufacturer. But it was the introduction of the 1984 Macintosh that truly set the standard for software usage and usability that had computer users swooning with joy. It was a masterpiece of engineering. But engineering alone does not sell national products.

Now this is very important. This masterpiece of engineering was created with a small circle of humans working as one. There was a magical, binding, cultural force that, under the direction of Steven Jobs, took various human experiences and melded them into a single hive of creative problem-solving.. This was nothing less than the creation of a new organism, a combination of engineering "wizards" into one mind, with one purpose and the fortitude to accomplish it..

This was a cultural organism, however, dominant in just one area. The same creative organism that produced such a wonder was also creating a machine unresponsive to market realities because of its success. Like our biological organism, Apple became sensitive to concerns only its own area. The beginning of Apple’s demise can be found in this atmosphere. If you are top dog, and you are not hungry, there is no reason to leave the front porch and hunt for food. But Consumer markets -- in particular the personal computer markets -- are in a constant state of flux. They change with lightening speed, and consumer product researchers must constantly be attuned to any slightest directional change. That is not possible if the top dog’s leash keeps it on the porch.

One cannot build a major national corporation within the confines of a garage. Apple’s real problem began when it ventured outside its area of dominance and introduced itself to the national consumer market in the late

1970’s. To do this required money. The way to raise money was to get people with money to take a chance and invest in the company. However, people with money/resources generally want to increase money as rapidly and above all as safely as possible. For this reason, money people generally trust only individuals as conservative as themselves. Even if they call themselves venture capitalists, money people still tend to keep a short leash on the top dog even as they tout the top dog’s accomplishments.

Now, this is important. I believe that there are various forms of creativity. Creativity is nothing more than the evolution of the various basic survival problem-solving situations that we as an organism have faced for over 300 million years. Something as basic as finding any food to eat has evolved into the "creative" process of what, where, when and how much to eat. In a large corporation, there are various creative skills necessary to accomplish tasks managerial, engineering, and financial tasks that are akin to the more basic tasks. In most cases, but not all, the financial, creative organism controls the modern major American corporation. It is usually dominate. And even though these people must perform various tasks with high creative skill, we, in our modern society, do not think of them as creative. In fact we think of financial people as dull, unimaginative, in need of ‘getting a life’. Conversely, "creative" people who act with little discipline seem unsuited, at least to corporate types, to performing detailed financial work. Hence the venture capitalists who originally backed the Apple corporation installed financial "parents" to watch over the "creative children."

Success was sweet as the money came rolling in and in 1983, Jobs personally picked John Sculley who had twenty years of marketing experience with PepsiCo to run the daily operations of the company. Although the Mac was an engineering marvel, it could be expanded to meet new needs and was considered low on power. The marketplace did not buy the product as hoped, and a clash soon developed between the creative Steven Jobs and the experienced financial, and marketing manager John Sculley. The money won. In 1985, Steven Jobs, the creative genius who had created the "wizard" children was forced out of the company. The downward slide has not stopped since. What followed was a product called the Newton Personal Digital Assistant. It was a major marketing flop, and in June of 1993, the money board of directors replaced Sculley with a man named Michael Spindler who has run the company until February 1996. Spindler’s major accomplishments were downsizing the company to save money and avoiding any direction. The company was drifting, barely hanging on in a rapidly changing industry through reputation, cash reserves, and lingering product superiority. As of this writing, Spindler has been replaced by Gilbert Amelio, whose new advertising campaign has just been launched stating that "Apple will be here always." That’s the good news. The bad news came on March 27, 1996, when Mr. Amelio announced Apple’s second quarter fiscal report: $700 million in the red. At the press conference to announce the losses Mr. Amelio said that he know what the problem was and that it was "fixable." We wish him luck.

But if we back up just a bit in Apple’s history and read between the lines, the biggest marketing decision that Apple avoided was the licensing of the Macintosh operating system to clone manufacturers -- the route that IBM took in its alliance with Microsoft. Each time Apple seemed close to moving in that direction, someone at the top reversed the decision. Someone high up was afraid to move into this new uncharted territory because he was afraid of losing status and/or face. He was afraid that he would not be able to adapt. In evolutionary psychological terms, it was is a classic case of avoiding perceived negative reactions by indecision. Evolution teaches us that if you are fat and comfortable, there is little reason to move unless it is necessary. Whoever made the decision, was most likely highly placed and comfortable.

So, here is the major problem of Apple computer internally as I see it from the perspective of an evolutionary psychology: Apple has two cultural top dog groups in close proximity, struggling to maintain territorial control. The financial dog is dominate and controls the creative dog which produced the product, which the public bought, which thereby brought in so much money that it needed control by the financial dog. Both need the other to survive, but neither side will admit it. The money managers have control of the paychecks, marketing, and the stock options, but the creative engineers have control of current and new pipeline products which are the life-blood of the company’s future. OK. The obvious solution is to erase the conflict between the two cultures. But it is not easy to erase two entrenched corporate cultures. It is possible, however, if both groups know that the only way to survive is to recognize the problem then adapt. But that still does not answer the question of why Apple has only 7% of the market when their products are the top dogs among computers. Well, it is now time for a biological evolutionary lesson in cultural transmission of product acceptance by on a national scale. This sort cultural transmission has worked for the Model T; VHS, and the Hula-Hoop. And, if everything falls into place, it could work for Apple through the internet.

It is April 1996. The college basketball finals aired just the other night and the profession baseball season has begun. Unless you are brain dead, it is not hard to notice that on numerous TV commercials now include URL web internet addresses attached at the end of the ads. In every major magazine there also are many advertisements that contain "http" URL web addresses. My local paper is filled with movie ads containing web addresses for the particular movie or production studio. During the holidays, one of the major news networks had a story that was showing American families in Germany how to email their loved ones while stationed in Bosnia via the internet. In the daily and Sunday comic strips (Hey, I’m doing research here!) cartoon characters are now regularly seen in front of personal computers. All of these instances are clear signals of an approaching cultural assimilation shift. If this trend continues, I adamantly believe we will soon experience the second purchasing wave of the computer revolution, this time involving "connection packages" to the internet. The biggest stumbling block to prevent this from happening currently is computer prices, internet connection, and speed of product evolution.

Several months ago I began to muse on what interactions were involved in group acceptance of a product or idea on a national level. What creates the need for people to rush out and purchase a product or service? Very simply, it is the same needs that have influenced our remote ancestors for thousands of years.

Although I have only been using a computer for a little more than a year, and perhaps only three percent of my fellow workers have purchased, and are using the devises, I have noticed many incidents since that seem to indicate an explosion of usage is about to occur among my friends at work. Word at work has traveled that I own a computer system, and thus naturally I have become a focal point for questions about such an arcane subject. In these inquires one can discern the workings of Darwinian cultural assimilation. These questions, I surmise, are prompted by a fear exactly akin to the fear 30,000 years ago that perhaps someone else had discovered a new food source and that it would be

good idea to find out where this food source is located. Perhaps fear is too strong of a word to use here. Perhaps imbalance would be a bit more appropriate. Of course, throughout our evolutionary voyage we have substituted other resources for food as a matter of convenience or cultural acceptance. Money, and the various things that it can purchase, for example, have been popular for a very long time. But information on how to obtain that resource in the first place is just as basic as learning how to eat.

Since times are good (food is not scarce), my colleagues know that I most likely will share information about computers with him altruistically. They know through innate and cultural influences that I will give them this information in return for a nice smile, a good joke, or interesting bit of news. What worries my fellow workers, in evolutionary terms, is that they will be left behind in the evolutionary race if they do not keep current with survival information. What makes this case so pointed is that my co-workers and I are what economists and political pollsters call "Joe six-packs." We are just hard working slobs, struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing world. We are all aware of the downsizing that is going on and the consequent need for more and better job skills. In evolutionary terms, such change means one must adapt or perish. The necessity to adapt or perish causes negative biochemical changes -- stress.

All computer manufactures know that they have now hit a brick wall in terms of new computer purchases. Hip urban consumers have all purchased their home computers, but computer companies still can’t seem to catch the interest of the common man who truly would be a coveted consumer prize. Well, ordinary people have the interest, it is just that they are not interested in paying the price. Twenty-five hundred to $3,000 is a bit much to pay for the amount of time and frustration that one must go through to truly enjoy this computer revolution. What is bothering ordinary people is not only the perceived complexity of the device (remember, many still have trouble programming their VCRs), but the speed at which the equipment is changing. The potential consumer is made dizzy by the weekly changes in the equipment found in the ads in his Sunday paper.

What this coveted consumer sees is a marketplace changing so rapidly that he or she can not catch the wave. It is moving too fast. In order for word of mouth information to be effectively spread, there must be an incubation period. Of course, the incubation period depends on the urgency of the situation; the more urgent, the less incubation time needed and vice versa. Another factor in word of mouth communication is status comparison. How can you take pride in your new resource/computer and pass the word around work when the guy next to you gets an improved model at the same price just three months later? You must think like the ordinary consumer. A major purchase involves dipping into resource accumulation which could effect status in the herd, and that effects survivability. The lower down the socioeconomic scale you go, the more important the purchase becomes. The elite crowd that made up the first computer wave can buy a whole new outfit next week or upgrade in a flash, -- but the "Joe six-packs" can’t. It is time for an inexpensive computer. A Model-A. A for Apple?

What the ordinary consumer wants is to cruise the internet on his new computer. Why? Because he has heard the stories about wonderful and amazing information about any subject that one can access from faraway places. I sense the same sort of excitement being created as was started by Marco Polo seven hundred years ago with his tales of faraway, exotic locales: "Here look, see what I have brought back!" The purchaser who will create the second wave of computer purchases also knows from his children how important computers are becoming. He listens to tales of their friends owning and doing studies upon them and he hears stories of their college computer requirements. He sees TV news reports of college classrooms filled with row upon row of computers. A family’s provider will not let their children down -- or at least they do not want to. A word to internet providers -- our common man consumer will not want to cruise the back alleys of cyberspace while wife and children are looking on in the living room and all are watching the TV. It will succeed when it is up close and personal -- like in front of a computer screen.

Undoubtedly, what makes people buy one new product or service over another is perceiving the culture that is developing around them and the perceived action necessary to join it. A person who is outgoing and has many friends depends primarily on the continuous movement of culture that is created by the group. The binding trust of the group is a guarantee of survival. But to the evolutionary psychologist, the most pressing force making people buy en masse appears to be a perceived anxiety of being left behind by the herd. If you are left behind, you are finished as a organism. You could be a target for a predator or other dangers. There is safety in numbers.

But still the most important element in becoming a national best-seller is the most basic: it must be available. Besides that, the consumer product that has the best price, the most upward effect on the status ranking of the individual, and the basic ability to perform its stated purpose, will win the evolutionary race. The Model T, VHS, and the Hula-Hoop all fit into these categories. (Yes, one just had to have a hula-hoop!).

So, to finally answer our mystery Apple question: Apple fell short on two of the conditions. In the early stages of Apple’s life, it was a winner because it was available to those who were looking for the device and the right amount of money to afford it. But as the market changed, Apple did not, and was no longer available at the right price. Apple is clearly the superior product, but because of bureaucratic inaction in high places, the product was not readily available when the public needed it. PC clones, on the other hand, although not the best, were adequate to do the job and were available when needed. Once the usage becomes widespread, it takes on an inertia all its own.

As a final word, I would like to make a small prediction. If computer manufactures, software manufactures, internet browsing software creators, and internet providers are combined into one sellable unit and can offer that unit as low-cost package, the second computer purchasing wave will commence shortly thereafter. All the various pieces are there just floating around waiting to be put together.

Is there anyone out there who wakes up every morning thinking about the internet?

Origin: May, 1996
William A. Spriggs

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