Will.i.am and Simon Cowell seek Apple-like tech talents

What would Steve do?” may not be the approach the Apple [AAPL] co-founder urged on his troops following his passing, but the search for talent like his seems set to receive the attention of X-Factor svengali, Simon Cowell in tandem with rapper, Will.i.am; though I hope Cowell’s more capable of spotting edgy and interesting tech talent than he displays when selecting what I consider his mundane middle-of-the-road pop picks. 

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What’s all this about?” you ask. Well, dear reader, Will.i.am and Cowell are apparently working together to identify someone who might become the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

Speaking to The Sun newspaper (a publication somewhat South of Digitimes when it comes to edgy reportage) the rapper put it like this:  “We’re working on a project called X Factor for Tech - and it’s going to be out of this world. Singing and performance create a couple of jobs. But this will create lots. It’s about getting in touch with youth and giving them a platform to express themselves -- whether that’s in science or mathematics.”

Will.i.am is no stranger to technology. He was made director of creative innovation by Intel in 2011 and his statements on social media and broadcasting made at recent European trade show, IBC, impressed his audience of seasoned industry pros.

There is of course no guarantee the plan will ever make it to reality, but the idea of the show underlines the challenge faced by an increasingly mature tech industry.

As businesses mature they tend to become more risk averse. One hallmark of Steve Jobs was his tendency to embrace risk: the iPod, iPhone and iPad were all devices which somehow broke the mold. He was prepared to cannibalize aspects of Apple’s existing business in order to introduce solutions which extended company presence into other sectors.

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You could argue that this spirit continues at Apple today: though with a readiness to take risks comes the opportunity to be seen to make mistakes. The recent introduction of Apple’s Maps app is an example of the company taking a risk but making a few mistakes along the way. 

The brouhaha over the release and the company’s subsequent apology reflect the nature of a risk-averse culture: if every firm taking risks faced such manic media criticism, people would stop taking those risks. The technology industry is the most risk-embracing enterprise sector around, and Apple takes risks to stay ahead within the game.

It is also interesting how the discussion has moved up a notch in recent days, with the Maps matter being blown out of all proportion as the debate intensifies. The problem’s simple, really: Apple’s Maps app needs to improve and the company is improving it. This now sees some reports calling for the resignation of CEO, Tim Cook while other reports are slamming iOS chief, Scott Forstall

All this over a Maps app. Certainly the company can and should be criticized for the way it hyped the product up too much for its launch, even this reporter pointed this out, but it seems silly to send the Apple top brass off to an appointment with Madame Guillotine over something that’s so relatively simple to fix. 

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The only people smiling at the moment must be Apple’s competitors, who are having a field day at the company’s discomfort. It seems strange that no one is calling for executive level blood from Motorola Mobility, who allegedly used a fake address to make Apple Maps look worse than it actually is.

Criticism is to be expected of course. Apple is the world’s last great consumer electronics company and the most valuable firm on the planet. That makes it a target on lots of levels -- the Will.i.am/Cowell attempt to find a tech talent capable of launching a similar enterprise reflects the focus on the firm.

There’s little chance that another great consumer electronics company will emerge long-term, partially because the economic and environmental challenges we face in this new Century mean that conspicuous consumption of finite resources is no longer a viable long-term growth strategy. It’s possible the next great tech revolution will reflect the inevitable philosophical shift required in order to manage a planet locked in finite, rather than infinite, growth. 

One thing’s for sure: by the time that shift takes place, Apple will have sorted its Maps app out. And the critics will have found some other topic to fetishize.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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