apple’s ipad: one of these things …

Many of my economist friends wonder why org theorists make such big deal out of conformity and, to a lesser extent, categories.

Maybe it’s because they never watched Sesame Street, and we did. After all, with a simple song (One of these things is not like the other, one of these is not the same…), this seemingly wholesome bastion of public television edutainment taught a generation of kids to spot categories and reject misfits, and quickly! (Watch it on YouTube.)

Lately, the Apple iPad has made me think about these issues and, of course (!), about org theory. It leads to some questions for org theory readers, which are stated at the end of this post.

Jumping into the org theory part takes me to Ezra Zuckerman’s (1999) “categorical imperative.” Roughly speaking, this is the idea that non-conformists pay a price for their deviance, which includes, but is not limited to, being overlooked, dismissed or discounted, especially by third-party evaluators that try to make a living as critics, analysts or experts. Similar findings have been shown in, to name just a few studies I like, actors (Zuckerman; Hsu), wine (Negro, Hannan and Rao), and markets for professional services (Leung). So, for everyone 10 tries at creating a new market category, we can all probably find 9 or so failures. Furthermore, for each success, I bet I can find a situation where a few deviants started to find each other and somehow find themselves part of what they had tried to leave behind–a crowd that gives them legitimacy, even as it also makes them compete. (I say something along these lines in articles in Poetics, ASR, and in a working paper probably getting brutalized by reviewers somewhere right now.)

Still, this isn’t the whole story, is it?

In the technology world, engineers and entrepreneurs have this crazy idea that it’s somehow a good thing to come up with new things that don’t fit existing categories. They’re so drunk with enthusiasm for this that they seem to want to do it all the time. Probably to make it sound like it isn’t just ill-advised gambling, they call it “innovation”, like giving it a name makes it more real, or something. (See Rosa et al., 1999.) Of course, they still mostly fail at it. I’m not sure, but I think this obsessive rush to deviate could be related to the history and lore of computers. It is replete with stories of misfits–computers that didn’t fit established categories of their day–that somehow caught on and siphoned demand away from dominant markets. Everybody seems to want to make that list as inventors of the “next big thing.” There is even a wacky museum dedicated to all this. I can’t say if the whole innovation thing will catch on, but it certainly makes for interesting studies.

Kidding aside, you can also see this in several things Ezra has written about how actors escape the pressures of conformity. There is the idea that what economists call “abnormal returns” tend to go to innovators, a la Schumpeter (see Zuckerman 1999: 1402-1403). Also, in his paper with Damon Philips, there is the point that high and low status actors feel greater pressures for conformity than middle-status actors. Even so, I’m definitely with Ezra on the conformity pressures that categories produce, but I’m also puzzled by the question of how new categories arise. As my wife and kids would testify, this puts me on the lookout for misfits or category-blenders or misfits that seem like they might make get recognized as belonging to new categories, even if they initially strike many as ungainly hybrids. You can hear nastily critical comments to that effect about the iPad, netbook computers, or before that, the smartphone. Even before that, the same goes for the minicomputer, the PC, the workstation, and so on. (Gordon Bell has a nice little paper on this that boils a lot of this history down into a single diagram–see Figure 1. For engineers: there really is a Figure 1 in Bell’s paper.)

In the technology context, it is clear that being the prototype for today’s established category may not translate into being the prototype for the next big thing. Since being a perfect fit for the slide rule category just isn’t worth what it used to be, it’s useful to think about the currency of a category, the topic of a paper I”m revising for RSO with student Jade Lo and Mike Lounsbury.) Because a picture’s worth a thousand words, here’s an admittedly non-artistic collage that combines some well-accepted categories with misfits aiming for currency of their own.

Fun with categories ... in high-tech gadgets

So here are some questions for you:

  1. In addition to the categorical imperative, what else affects the dynamics of market categories?
  2. Any predictions about whether the iPad will take off or fizzle out?
  3. Or, should org theorists leave all this super-macro “organizations and markets” stuff to other fields?

To start the discussion, here are few ideas about #1 that are already out there:

  • luck (path dependence),
  • product features (rational choice in marketing),
  • producers’ perceptions of threat and opportunity (I have a piece with Peer Fiss about this in AMJ),
  • audience judgments and critics’ opinions (as in the growing ecological literature on categories),
  • the social psychology of comparison processes and similarity judgments (in the spirit of Brayden’s recent post).

At least to me, what makes all this an interesting topic–and fair game for org theorists–is that it requires looking beyond the effects of institutionalized categories to the processes and institutions that contribute to institutionalizing them. Yuck, that’s a mouthful, I know. The point is that categories have histories in which organizations, entrepreneurs and innovators interact with critics, distributors, key customers and other arbiters of taste to try to influence their intended audience to see their misfit products as deserving categories of their own–and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto, as the saying goes.

Written by mtkennedy

February 24, 2010 at 5:32 am

17 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. very interesting post and it especially resonates with me as the paper i’m writing now is also on legitimacy of new categories.

    kinda off topic, but another org theory lesson from the iPad is the NY Times internal debate over how to price iPad subscriptions. (digital wants $10 to maximize e-revenue whereas print wants $30 to avoid undercutting print subscriptions). change a few of the words and it’s almost directly out of Christensen’s explanation of why incumbents find it hard to embrace disruptive innovation.



    February 24, 2010 at 6:01 am

  2. There has been a lot of work on technology acceptance – closely mirroring some of your thoughts – in the IS field.

    Most prominent is the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) ( and its “successor” UTAUT (

    Personally, I tend to agree with critics of TAM such as Silva (2007) that TAM is too general to be of much use. I simply am no fan of boxes-and-arrow-models of causality.

    Another interesting discussion is the usage of Giddens’ Structuration Theory in the IS field, trying to deal with adoption and usage of IT artifacts with the duality between actors and structure (e.g., Poole et al (2004).


    Silva, Leiser (2007) “Post-positivist Review of Technology Acceptance Model.,” Journal of the Association for Information Systems: Vol. 8: Iss. 4, Article 11. Available at:

    Jones, M.; Orlikowski, W.; Munir, K. (2004): Structuration Theory and Information Systems: A Critical Reappraisal. In: J. Mingers, L. Willcocks (Eds.): Social Theory and Philosophy for Information Systems. Chichester, UK et al.



    February 24, 2010 at 6:06 am

  3. Apple is hardly being non-conformist. Microsoft, HP, etc. are all coming out with multi-touch tablets this year. If anything, Apple is a highly conformist institution where Jobs’ word is law.

    Maybe I’m a grumpy economist, but I don’t see your point. Innovation is important and sometimes people don’t like change. Didn’t we know this already?

    But yes, this should be big. We’re moving to an era of ubiquitous computing, in which the average person has constant access to whatever computing device fits their need.



    February 24, 2010 at 7:03 am

  4. I have always liked the stream of research on this topic from José Rosa and Joe Porac. They are social psychologists and not sociologists, but perhaps you’ll find their work interesting. Some entry points:

    Rosa, J.A. & Porac, J. F. (2002). Categorization bases and their influence on consumer/producer knowledge structures. Psychology and Marketing, 19, 503-531.

    Porac, J.F., Rosa, J. A., & Saxon, M. S. (2001) America’s family vehicle: The minivan market as an enacted conceptual system. In R. Garud & P. Karnoe (Eds.), Path Dependence and Path creation. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Rosa, J. A., Porac, J. F., Spanjol, J., & Saxon, M. S., (1999). Sociocognitive dynamics in a product market. Special millennium issue of the Journal of Marketing.



    February 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm

  5. There are industries — inasmuch as industries exist as categories — whose structure makes risky behaviour possible. Even large high-technology companies encourage entrepreneurialism and VC firms balance risk across a portfolio of otherwise unacceptably risky potential innovations. This, together with and because of the high technological opportunity (“exogenous variations in the cost and difficulty of innovation in different technological areas”) in new high-tech product markets; the path dependence of networked technologies (and the complimentary, modular nature of hierarchy of technologies in the devices we use to communicate); the learning curve; and economies of scale outweighs the potential down side of technology-push experimentation. The answer to question 1 would be that the opportunity for profit from successful innovation structures firms and industries to encourage experimentation.

    Another answer to question 1 would be that relevant social groups determine the emergence and evolution of categories. For new products, these social groups and categories emerge simultaneously.


    David Chen

    February 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm

  6. I see new category formation as somewhat different than mere innovation. Organizations innovate all the time, sometimes accidentally, but most innovations end up getting swept into the bucket of existing “things.” So for example, the iPad, despite its differences from existing products, will probably end up falling into one of the existing categories that currently differentiate the market. It’s easier to categorize an innovation as something that already exists than it is to create a new category.

    What interests me is what happens to a new category once participants or audiences agree that it actually exists. Most new categories start off with a label but without much pre-defined content. Or in the words that ecologists use, the default feature values for the label of a new category are fairly ambiguous. How does a new label get transformed into a taken-for-granted category? How does the content of a new label get decided? That’s a question that, despite lots of new research on this topic right now (I’ve reviewed a number of papers on this topic lately), hasn’t been significantly addressed yet.

    Some thoughts on this – actors enter new markets/categories with some preconceived notion of who they are and what they hope to do better or different than others. Call it an identity. In new categories, actors may be somewhat freer to differentiate their identities and try new things, but as the category becomes more real or taken-for-granted, the standards by which actors are judged within that category become more constraining. My guess is that those standards emerge from the actual identities that actors espouse early on in this process. Perhaps the more dominant actors become the prototypes by which others become evaluated. In order to assess this, I think you’d need to go back to the early days of a new category and look at which organizations/product characteristics analysts and other audiences fixate on and then see how attention to those organizations/characteristics evolve over time.



    February 24, 2010 at 4:26 pm

  7. 1’s pretty well covered, I’d put 2 at a definite “take off”, and for 3, I have a definite bias toward including markets / environment in theory.

    I’ve managed a large IS enterprise, and I can say with great certainty that we would not buy this thing anytime soon, and for the same reason so many critics are going against the iPad: there is a bias toward tech rather than experience. What will ultimately win the day for iPad is user experience, not the creation of a new category (classic geek marketing there) or new tech. You can buy a tablet or tablet-like thing today, and they sell in the millions. What Apple will almost certainly do hearkens back to the original Mac: a tablet for the rest of us.



    February 24, 2010 at 5:10 pm

  8. Although I cite Joe’s work in pretty much all of my research, I somehow managed to miss that in my first version of this post, probably because I was hung up on the conformity theme (and rushing). To correct that, I’ve added the Rosa et al. 1999 paper to the original post. Another miss: Harrison White’s work on social comparisons in markets, which Joe’s work on categories builds on and extends directly. Thanks for pointing out this oversight.



    February 24, 2010 at 5:25 pm

  9. Joseph – I’m not sure how #1 could be “well covered.” That’s like saying we know all we need to know about a topic.



    February 24, 2010 at 5:33 pm

  10. As for the post’s last paragraph calling for the “processes and institutions that contribute to [categorization],” I would look at corollaries in the sociology of culture research, particularly in the art world. For example, see Shyon Baumann’s work on film becoming re-categorized as high art, Paul Lopes (and others) on the acceptance of jazz as art, Gary Alan Fine’s research on outsider art, etc.

    As a side note, industrial designers have designed new products of the times, such as copiers and tvs, to “fit” with existing conventions as a way of promoting acceptance. See Raymond Loewy’s designs as an example.



    February 24, 2010 at 5:39 pm

  11. Brayden – I agree that, technically, innovation includes all kinds of incremental advances of the familiar “new and improved” variety. Whether it’s making something faster, smaller, cheaper, or more reliable, etc., these innovations can be extremely important to restructuring competition within categories. While would-be category pioneers routinely refer to their offerings as innovation, I think most would acknowledge that theirs isn’t the only kind of innovation. About how a nascent category label goes from ambiguity to meaning so coherent that it is naturalized, philosophers of meaning suggest this has to do with similar usage of the term, which lines up nicely with White’s work on social comparison and Porac’s work on the importance of the media as mediators of sensemaking about what category labels refer to. I try to add to that in my own way by assembling data that follows the shift from sparse, diffuse relations among users of a label-or potential bearers of an identity, if you will-to a structure that is stabler, clearer, and more crowded. As categories form, you’re right that initially loose ideas about meaning firm up in ways that constrain what actors / firms can do. Lounsbury and Glynn make that point in their 2001 SMJ paper, and Chad Navis and Mary Ann Glynn have a working paper that further extends the point by analyzing what gets talked about from the early days of a market to see how it changes over time, as you suggest.

    If the iPad succeeds, it will validate the failures of earlier attempts to establish what others have called a “tablet” category in computing devices. Whether it gets seen as a tablet or joined by substitutes that position themselves as tablets, I can’t say. When a high profile player attempts to launch a category and fails, it taints the label a bit, making it less attractive for subsequent innovators trying to do something similar. We’ll see what happens with this one in time …



    February 24, 2010 at 5:59 pm

  12. Brayden – Not the intent at all. I simply meant that there’s good discussion on the topic already. I have never in any facet of life felt that we know all we need to know about something.



    February 24, 2010 at 6:05 pm

  13. Not so grumpy, I think. You’re just rounding out the free-for-all that makes these questions interesting by representing the view that this is already a category. As you can see from Joseph Logan’s later post, however, this is hardly taken-for-granted. Also, in my reply to Brayden, I note that earlier attempts to establish this category have failed, which has led some pundits to take a wait-and-see approach to the category and to the iPad. Of course, there are the “fanboys”, as the NYT’s David Carr sometimes admits he is.

    About the role that Steve Jobs plays in what you refer to as Apple’s non-conformist innovation, there is no question that he is famous for wanting it his way. Whether you’re improving on a new thing something others have unsuccessfully tried to do, or doing something others haven’t tried yet (there were clunky MP3 players before the iPod, too), however, there may be something to the idea that great design is hard to do by committee. We’ve all heard that aphorism, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” Is that fair? Not sure how to study that one yet …



    February 24, 2010 at 6:07 pm

  14. “Committee Camel” seems to be a persistent meme in the tech / innovation area. A close analogy is the “Dancing Bearware” in Alan Cooper’s book The Inmates are Running the Asylum. As a counterpoint, though, Tim Brown’s Change by Design makes a strong case for broad, diverse involvement in the search for innovation as a helpful if not necessary antecedent to great design.

    As for the failure of the category, it seems already to be succeeding. I wouldn’t say it’s crossed the chasm to pragmatists just yet, but one can buy tablets today that are perfectly usable. One problem I see in this discussion is that we don’t have clear definitions of “success” or “tablet”. As an example, I bought 65,000 Lenovo tablets for a global corporation, and the use cases show increased productivity and sales. Is that success? Is it a tablet? Kindle doesn’t do much, but I’d be hard-pressed to say it isn’t a tablet, and it sells in the millions. As long as we don’t know what we’re discussing, it’s easy to argue either side with no definitive result.



    February 24, 2010 at 6:21 pm

  15. Don’t think it applies to the Apple/iPad case, but to the bigger question of why new product categories emerge, one of the things that springs to mind is Sheena Iyengar’s work in consumer psychology on how more choice leads us less satisfied.

    One of the ways around this problem (I think this is also one of Iyengar’s papers) is the creation of arbitrary groups to help ‘chunk’ and narrow down the options. We could almost think of product categories fulfilling this function.

    So, this is a super-micro, perceptual account of why categories (even ones with seemingly weak distinctions from neighbouring categories) seem to be created. I don’t think this topic is the exclusive domain of the “super macro” :)



    February 24, 2010 at 6:31 pm

  16. Mark – I think there are at least two sorts of theoretical and empirical problems to sort out, one of which seems to have received more scholarly attention than the other. The first is where I’d locate Porac, Ruef (2000), Weber et al. on mobilizing codes and most ecological research. These studies look at the emergence of category labels, i.e., the dynamics shaping why some labels get picked up and others do not. Inherently this research cares about the emergence of market categories, but as I read it, labels tend to stand in for categories.

    The other, less developed problem is the question of how particular practices/innovations/meanings become associated with new categories. The central problem here isn’t developing a new label, it’s figuring out what goes in that label. In this bin of research, I’d put your ASR paper, the Navis and Glynn paper, and, to a certain extent, Huggy’s research on movements. McKendrick et al.’s research on disk array producers fits somewhere in between.

    The point is that most research assumes the most important question is how new labels become legitimated, but the question of how the content of that label becomes associated with the label is less well understood. Even the social movement research that should be relevant usually starts with the assumption that there is content and the question is how the content moves from idea to practice (that’s how I’d characterize Lounsbury and Glynn). yet, somewhere in that process, actors are struggling to figure out what it all means. It’s an obviously much messier/contentious process and yet one I find fascinating.

    Joseph – I just wanted to make the point that although a lot of attention is given to #1, there is still a great deal we don’t know. Sounds like we’re on the same page.



    February 24, 2010 at 6:51 pm

  17. Someone who say that The iPad in general is dumb. There are better, cheaper things available if you need somethign in between a smart phone and a laptop. But,it depends on whom the judge.



    June 16, 2010 at 3:30 am

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: