Why Google’s latest launch is more about the brand than the tech

Simone Natale, Loughborough University; Gabriele Balbi, Università della Svizzera italiana, and Paolo Bory, Università della Svizzera italiana

Google has launched its latest flagship phones, Pixel 4 and 4XL. Although the new models feature relatively marginal improvements to their predecessors, the launch was staged with much fanfare by Google, as if it represented a major breakthrough for the company and the smartphone market – despite most of the product specs being leaked before the event. The launch was just the latest in a series of product launches by leading digital tech companies that sharply overstated recent innovations.

On September 10, for instance, Apple introduced three new iPhones, revamped Apple Watches and two new subscriptions services, TV+ and Apple Arcade. Two weeks later, Amazon presented a long list of new gadgets at its Alexa event. All these launches have something in common: the “novelties” they introduce are merely iterations of their existing product offering, yet they are presented as revolutionary.

Exaggeration does not come as a surprise in marketing and advertisement. Yet digital corporations pursue a precise strategy with their product launches. The main goal of these events is not so much introducing specific gadgets. It is to position these companies at the centre of the aura that the so-called digital revolution has acquired for billions of users – and customers – around the world.

Long history

Launching new technology devices through public events predates Silicon Valley. Alexander Graham Bell and Guglielmo Marconi, two of the most popular inventors and entrepreneurs in the late 19th and early 20th century, organised events to present the telephone and wireless telegraphy.

Alexander Graham Bell launching the long-distance telephone line from New York to Chicago in 1892. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The audience at these events were mainly scientists or technical experts, but they were also attended by politicians, entrepreneurs, and even kings and queens. The celebrated American inventor Thomas Edison went one step further, presenting his new products in public events such as international exhibitions and tech fairs.

Like today, launches of new products helped shape public opinion and to make a name for companies such as AT&T, Marconi and Edison. They were even used to fight commercial wars. At the end of the 19th century Edison launched a campaign of public events to promote his direct current standard against the rival alternating current. He even electrocuted animals (like the elephant Topsy) in front of journalists to demonstrate that the other standard was dangerous.

More recently, Steve Jobs followed the footsteps of these inventor-entrepreneurs and codified a “genre” – the so-called keynote. Alone on stage and wearing roll neck and jeans (an informal “uniform” for geeks), Jobs launched several Apple products in front of audiences of tech-enthusiasts. These events helped build the myth of Steve Jobs and Apple.

What product launches are really about

Jobs’ talent was more in the marketing and promoting of new devices than in developing technology. Since the 1980s, Apple’s founder recognised the power of a new vision surrounding digital technologies. This vision saw the personal computer and later the internet as harbingers of a new era.

It was a powerful cultural myth centred around the idea that we are experiencing a digital “revolution”, a concept traditionally associated with political change that now came to describe the impact of new technology. In this context, Jobs carefully staged his launches in order to present Apple as the embodiment of this myth.

Take, for instance, Apple’s famous 2007 iPhone launch. Jobs started his talk arguing that “every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything”. His examples included key moments from Apple’s corporate history: the Macintosh reinvented “the entire computer industry” in 1984, the iPod changed the “entire music industry” in 2001, and the iPhone was about to “reinvent the phone”.

This is a narrow account of technological change, to say the least. Believing that one single device brought about a digital revolution is like seeing a crowd of people in Times Square and assuming they turned up because you broadcast on WhatsApp that everyone should go there. It is, however, a convenient point of view for huge corporations such as Apple or Google. To keep their position in the digital market, these companies not only need to design sophisticated hardware and software, they also need to nurture the myth that we live in a state of incessant revolution of which they are the key engine.

In our research, we call this myth “corporational determinism” because like other forms of determinism, it poses the idea that one single agent is responsible for all changes. The way that digital media companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google communicate to the public is largely an attempt to propagandise this myth.

So you should not be worried if Google’s latest launch did blow you away. The key function of product launches is not actually to launch products. It is for companies to present themselves as the smartest agents in contemporary society, the protagonists of technological change and, ultimately, the heroes of the digital revolution.

Simone Natale, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University; Gabriele Balbi, Associate Professor in Media Studies, Università della Svizzera italiana, and Paolo Bory, Lecturer in Media Studies, Università della Svizzera italiana

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Digital platforms: making the world a more complicated place

Robert Demir, Lancaster University; Christian Sandström, Chalmers University of Technology, and Christofer Laurell, Stockholm School of Economics

Digital platforms, the websites and apps which compete for our precious screen time, have successfully invaded the traditional territory of many sectors of the “old economy”. They have become the preferred – expected, even – domains for many kinds of human behaviour, from banking and property buying, to dating and entertainment.

In doing so, Airbnb, Amazon, Uber and (many) others have swiftly managed to shift economic behaviour from the world of physical bricks and mortar to a digital world powered by algorithms.

These companies are often praised for apparently providing consumers with ever more choice. But in fact, the fundamental idea behind the algorithms which power these platforms is to reduce the variation of options available.

This is because digital platforms are meticulously designed to appeal to individual users at both ends – sellers or providers, and consumers or users. In theory, this reduces the complexity of decision-making, and increases the speed of digital interaction.

Yet in many regards, digital technology has simply made things more complicated. And there are three main ways in which they have managed to do this.

First, while the boundaries between physical and digital space have become blurred, so too has the distinction between producer and consumer.

This is because social media platforms have given consumers a new and stronger voice. Likes, shares, dislikes, comments and reviews all provide information that was not available in a pre-digital age.

This voice informs both well-known brands and start-up entrepreneurs about how their products are being perceived. Consumers become part of the marketing operation in a way that was not possible before, complicating the way we value products and services.

Second, the ways in which business initiatives attract funding has also altered considerably. Specifically, crowdfunding has become a popular way of raising finance for new ideas or projects, attracting donations through collaborative contributions. And recent analysis suggests that crowdfunding is fuelling a wide array of ideas that go well beyond what would be possible in the context of traditional funding (from banks or wealthy investors).

As new business ventures gain funding and momentum more easily through the digital landscape, they increase the overall complexity of the marketplace. The speed (and scope and scale) at which markets are redefined is accelerated by entrepreneurs who create new offerings.

Third, the digital media landscape has given rise to a plethora of platforms enabled by information and communications technology for the exchange of goods and services. Specifically, the “sharing”, “access” and “community-based” economies represent new ways in which exchanges of goods and services take place on platforms such as Airbnb, Uber and Couchsurfing.

The sharing economy, however, has recently been shown to be expanding into various new sectors including fashion and sports, adding complexity by going beyond the previously dominant sectors of transportation and accommodation.

Simple? Shutterstock/BEST-BACKGROUNDS

In light of all these rapid developments, which change the conventional view of what a market-based economy is, there are several serious challenges facing society.

A simply complex situation

These concern how we all – consumers, producers, investors – manage communication, privacy and cyber security. Given the nature of the algorithmic world, voices are increasingly raised about the risks of artificial intelligence (AI) for humankind.

But before we even reach this level, the risks are great for the idea of human liberal thought, when the ways in which we are being persuaded are unclear to so many of us.

Consumers, firms and policymakers are already feeding AI-enabled online robots with ever more information aimed at improving automated digital solutions for everyday decisions, issues and concerns.

Can we balance the value generated from such digital platforms with the potential risks? Probably. But concerted action from governments and businesses is needed to enhance transparency about the risks of algorithmic solutions and decisions. That’s the only way we can all be expected to understand this brave new digital world.

Robert Demir, Lecturer in Strategic Management, Lancaster University; Christian Sandström, Associate Professor of Technology Management and Economics, Chalmers University of Technology, and Christofer Laurell, Docent, Stockholm School of Economics

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.