In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains how America’s Committee on Food Habits convinced American civilians to eat organ meats during World War II while the government was shipping conventional cuts to the troops. The trick was creating a sense of the familiar. Popular opinion said offal was awful, but the Committee found success in mass mailers that suggested how to make kidney pie and slip liver into meatloaf. Disguising the distasteful in meals the people knew and loved created new habits. By 1955, US offal consumption was up 50%. Applying this cloak of familiarity trick to product development provides an interesting point of view on the long-lasting success of smartphones vs the short-lived success of PDAs.
Given that people spend only 26% of their time on a smartphone actually using it as a phone, it’s safe to say that smartphones and PDAs are part of the same market–computers-in-your-pocket. With a Palm Pilot, you had apps for calendar, contacts, taking notes, browsing the internet, and even a few games. For the tech of the day, it was really powerful, but it didn’t last. Steve Jobs famously hated the stylus and attributed a large part of the Apple Newtown’s failure to it, creating a scapegoat for the Palm Pilot too. But, if the stylus is to blame, how do we explain the sale of 40mm Galaxy Notes? Surely, the presence of a stylus should have tanked that device. Duhigg’s idea of introducing the new within a familiar disguise offers an alternative cause for the runaway success of the iPhone and stunted growth of the Palm.
The long form of PDA is “Personal Digital Assistant.” For how many people is it familiar to have an assistant with them, wherever they go, especially in a pocket? Beyond really tall executives, very few of us know the pleasure. However, most of the world was used to having music with them, wherever they go, in the form of a Discman and a Walkman before that, when the iPod came out. Mobile phones were even more common than portable music players, when Apple introduced the iPhone. In fact, in Jobs’ keynote presentation launching the iPhone, he totally stayed away from words like PDA or digital assistant. Instead, he couched the new device in terms of products we already understood knew well:
Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device. So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough Internet communications device. An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone…are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone. Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.
Perhaps for us to fully realize the power of a PC in your pocket and an entirely new ecosystem of software to go with it, we had to recognize it as something as familiar and pedestrian as a phone. Jobs slipped liver into meatloaf, and we loved him for it.