If you’re not familiar with cargo cults, you might want to read up on them. To summarise though, they sprang up around the Pacific Islands in particular, and mainly had their roots in villagers noticing behaviours associated with more advanced societies using islands for staging and delivery of goods, then imitating that behaviour. From the aforelinked Wikipedia article:
Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.
Wikipedia goes on to say that most cargo cults have died out, but I beg to differ. If anything, cargo cults have sprung up in a great number of places in the world over the last few years in particular, and are growing apace. If you’re wondering where, let’s consider a few scenarios:
- Microsoft observes that Apple builds well-designed retail stores which results in a significant boost to profit, so they mimic the design of the stores the hopes of reviving a failing brand;
- Various companies previously in the portable music market observe the success of Apple with the iPod and develop similarly shaped devices in the hopes of saving their failing brands;
- Google observes the success of Apple with the iPhone and significantly changes its proposed Android platform from a traditional smartphone design to a touchscreen design in the hope of achieving similar results;
- Various phone manufacturers, struggling to to transform the small but lucrative smart phone market attempt to mimic Apple’s iPhone design and OS with similarly shaped devices and similar icon layouts;
- Companies like Samsung, Acer, RIM, etc., observe Apple’s success with the iPad and slavishly imitate the overall design, in the hopes of inserting themselves into the market.
The sheer number of tech companies out there now that are falling into a cargo cult mentality around Apple’s product set is staggering. From all of them the implicit message is the same: innovation is dead, long live imitation.
It’s actually a pretty sad state of affairs that globally a significant percentage of the technology industry has descended to cargo cult mentalities towards product development and market expansion. The really sad thing is that journalists and companies world-wide are frantically looking for the next “i* Killer” … I pity them if they find one! Who will the cargo cults imitate then? The industry has developed such a parasitic dependency on the vision of a single organisation that one thing is abundantly clear: the cargo cult technology companies won’t survive without Apple.