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Apple Still Lags in Defining a Social Purpose

Recently, it was announced that Apple‘s stock market value had neared $625 billion, making it the most valuable company ever. The headlines made me re-consider an article I wrote for Forbes last August called Where is Apple’s Social Purpose?

Declaring that Apple didn’t have a social purpose wasn’t very popular and the post generated some harsh comments. “Write an irritating piece you know nothing about and stick an ‘Apple’ in it for clicks,” commented one Forbes reader. “Try Google or Samsung or Ford and see what happens.”

In light of the recent news, I wondered if my point of view was still valid. So I decided to take this reader’s advice and explore what social purpose looks like at Google, Samsung and Ford. What I found illustrates that, while Apple’s financial success is extraordinary, its social purpose continues to be underwhelming.

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This social mission statement is backed up by the company’s philanthropic arm, google.org, that develops technologies to help address global challenges and supports innovative partners through grants, investments and in-kind resources.

“A digital leader…a responsible global citizen…a multi-faceted family of companies… an ethical business…Samsung is all of these and more.”  This company has made responsibility a very high strategic priority. According to Samsung, “A company’s success is measured not only by its business achievements, but also by how well it serves its community, protects our planet’s resources, and makes a difference in people’s lives.”

“A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business,” said Henry Ford. Today, Ford is focused on “creating a strong business that builds great products that contribute to a better world.”

Here’s what Apple says about itself: Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.

According to Bob Mansfield, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, “Apple makes the most environmentally responsible products in our industry.” Designing products that use less material, ship with smaller packaging, and are free of toxic substances is the right thing to do.  I support the shared value of a better approach to product design that minimizes environmental impact while contributing significantly to the company’s bottom line. However, reducing its environmental footprint is table stakes for every large corporation.

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2 thoughts on “Apple Still Lags in Defining a Social Purpose

  1. This is one of the biggest internal struggles I have as a conscious consumer, social justice advocate, and Apple lover. I actually wish I could boycott their products until they step up and take a leading role in social purpose. It’s honestly embarrassing for them to be so far behind, and they just seem so arrogant in not caring about anyone else but themselves and their bottom line. While I haven’t switched over to a droid, I did resist the urge to buy the new phone telling myself I’ll wait another year and hope they get find their purpose. Thanks for writing such a spot-on article!

  2. It probably seems less obvious than it once did, but the core of Apple’s social purpose can be seen in one of it’s early slogans: “The Computer for the rest of us”. For much of the history of computing, the potential of computers and electronic communications was restricted to a technically focused elite. By focusing on the potential of regular people to benefit from technology, Apple transformed to way we think about digital technology and its impact on our lives.

    Early on, Apple focused on education, with K-12 being both a major market and an inspiration for development. Focusing on Enterprise customers would have been considered a more fiscally prudent approach, but it was never a fit for Apple culture.

    The impact on our lives should not be underestimated. Apple developed Hypercard, which teachers used to develop small hyperlinked study aids for their classes. Becuase Hypercard had a concept of a home ‘card’, when the web was being developed (on a NeXT machine), we ended up with the concept of the ‘home page’. In short, Apple’s commitment to the user experience was an inspiration for today’s web.

    Today’s democratization of access to electronic communications and technologies owes a lot to this history. This attitude was also reflected in Apple culture, which kept it from being as aggressive in using any means necessary to control the market, and it lost market share to the competition. In order to be taken ‘seriously’, Apple had to deemphasize the many socially attractive aspects of its business model, and undertake tactics that leveled the playing field. It hasn’t been that long since Apple’s survival was in serious question.

    The heart and soul of Apple is in the people who work in Cupertino, most of whom could easily have made more money going somewhere else, but were attracted to stay because they wanted to make a difference in the world. That their dedication built what is now the most valuable company on the planet is proof that doing well by doing good can work in a big way.

    What Apple has not done is spout a lot of “feel good” slogans making claims about their core values. It’s also true that not everything Apple’s done has been perfect. But I believe that most people who buy their products have been able to tell that their heart’s in the right place, and that their efforts have made an enormous difference.

    Now that Apple’s no longer the underdog, it indeed make sense to demand that they be more explicit and transparent about corporate social responsibility, but their failure to toot their own horn in this area in recent years should not lead one to discount their overall positive impact.

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