Global Health, Farming, Education, or Climate Change: What Would Apple Do?

Observing Apple’s success in recent years due to innovative and intuitive technological advances, Ken Banks explores how the “Steve Jobs approach” might be applied to conservation and development. A series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS called Mobile Message discusses how mobile phones and other technologies are being used to improve, enrich, and empower billions of people’s lives across the world. Olivia O’Sullivan, the Media and Research Assistant of National Geographic’s news watch, comments on Banks’ approach in the (title mentioned above) article.

The article starts with a quote from Michael Noer’s Forbes article titled “The Stable Boy and the iPad,”

“Two weeks ago, I was staying at a working dairy farm sixty kilometers north of Bogotá, Colombia. I was fiddling around with my iPad when one of the kids that worked in the stables came up to me and started staring at it. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he had never used a computer or even a cellular telephone before (Colombia has many attractions. The vast pool of illiterate poor is not one of them)

Curious, I handed him the device and a very small miracle happened. He started using it. I mean, really using it. Almost instantly, he was sliding around, opening and closing applications, playing a pinball game I had downloaded. All without a single word of instruction from me”

This observation is reminiscent of Sugata Mitra’s minimally invasive education idea as promoted by the Hole in the Wall experiment. If (only) there were funding to provide impoverished children with new technology such as the iPad, the curiosity inspired in the children would provoke incredible learning.

O’Sullivan asks two questions: What would happen if Apple turned a fraction of its attention to solving  conservation or development problems? And secondly, why doesn’t Apple work in conservation or development?

The answer, as presented later in the reading, is that Steve Jobs felt that he was contributing best to the world by focusing his energy on creating brilliant products. He “saw almost everything other than Apple’s mission as a distraction” Further, it is speculated that if Steve Jobs were to take up a philanthropic approach, he would have funded programs that worked in nutrition and vegetarianism rather than technology (according to Mark Vermillion.)

O’Sullivan presents five thoughts on where an Apple approach to ICT4D might be problematic:

1. Consult the User- Apple notoriously doesn’t consult its customers before designing products. Steve Jobs once said,

“Our job is to figure out what users are going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” 

This approach would most likely not fly with the various stakeholders involved in the ICT4D world.

2. Customer vs. beneficiary- Apple sees people as customers and carries out commercial transactions. However, in the ICT4D world, regular business rules don’t apply. Therefore, this mindset would lead to further complications.

3. Open vs Closed- Steve Jobs was against the open-source approach that most ICT4D project employ. Rather, he advocated for controlling all aspects of the user experience, including hardware and software. He believes that open source systems were fragmented while closed source ones were better integrated.

4. Time for the field- As a corporate megastar, Apple doesn’t have the time to get to know the individuals that they are trying to help. Understanding the worldview as well as needs of people in developing countries is extremely important in reaching a sustainable resolution.

5. Appropriate Technology- Apple’s products are generally expensive, power hungry, and reliant on computers. The closed source systems would make innovation around the platform difficult. Opening up the system, which Steve Jobs would (as mentioned above) never want, would most likely lower the standards of excellence in design and usability.

Thus, a Steve Jobs/Apple approach to the ICT4D world would definitely need some fixes. Perhaps a post-Steve Jobs Apple will develop a new philanthropic personality. They have capital, talent, and resources available that could reinvent ICT4D. However, this reinvention would likely have interesting unexpected results.

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2 responses to “Global Health, Farming, Education, or Climate Change: What Would Apple Do?

  • kmurphy318

    I think it would be incredible if Apple would focus some of its efforts on philanthropic work. The child playing with and figuring out the iPad seems reminiscent of the OLPC mission. Though it is completely unrealistic to imagine iPads being freely distributed to impoverished children, I can only imagine what Apple could create with pretty minimal effort. I feel that it would be quite a bit better than OLPC’s efforts.

  • ahauser1205

    I find O’Sullivan’s third point to be the most interesting and surprising. Steve Jobs’ preference for closed-source as opposed to open-source approach stands in stark contrast to the opinions of the ICT4D community. The benefits of sharing and development of ideas through the open source approach far outweighs the “better integration” of a closed source approach.

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