By Patrick Scriven | Director of Communications & Young People’s Ministry
The future is mobile, whether we like it or not.
In 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously declared the following about the iPhone.
“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.”
In August, Steve Ballmer announced his retirement as the CEO of Microsoft. It goes without saying that Apple’s iPhone was a game changer and did allow the company to make a lot of money. Still, Ballmer was mostly right about the vulnerability of Apple’s pricing structure. Unfortunately for Microsoft, it was Google who would take advantage. In the last quarter of 2013, their Android OS captured 81% of the market, Apple’s iOS had 13% and Microsoft was stuck with 3.6% for their Windows Phone OS. An interesting reversal of fortunes to say the least.
The thing that should strike us in this situation is that Ballmer wasn’t wrong in identifying the opportunity, had all the tools and talent necessary to exploit it, and still wasn’t able to capitalize on it. Apple’s iPhone wasn’t marketed as a better phone, music player or a smaller computer, though it was each. It was sold as a revolution and its competition, invested as they were in the status quo, were caught flat footed.
The United Methodist Church did not end the year 2013 very well. Despite much good work across the connection, our cultural moment was another church trial and the defrocking of the Rev. Frank Schaeffer. In a year where a beleaguered Roman Catholicism received a breath of fresh air in the form of Pope Francis, we continued to fall on our connectional sword, repeatedly.
Leaders across the denomination are wrestling with a sense that change is coming and trying desperately to understand their appropriate role in things. Bishop Ken Carter waxed philosophically about the role of the episcopacy while other bishops released statements distancing themselves from positions on sexuality increasingly seen as bigoted by the larger culture. Lines are being drawn by a growing number of advocacy groups talking past each other. It’s likely that 2014 will bring more of the same.
It is easy to look at the division within The United Methodist Church, to see and obsess about the many challenges. I’ve done my fair share of this. But we should remind ourselves that what threatens existing structures often creates opportunity for those dreaming of something new.
The future may be mobile but the transition takes planning and work.
Apple began its work on the platform that would eventually give birth to the iPhone and iPad in 2004, a full three years before the original iPhone would launch. The iPhone wouldn’t be the first smartphone but it was the first designed with the mass market in mind. A key to the initial and enduring success of iOS was the App store. This innovation created an ecosystem for developers to bring their gifts and creativity to the table and a way for consumers to retool their devices to meet their individual needs and desires. When they first launched, the iPhone did a few things really well but only offered a promise of a future untethered from our computers; each required a computer for registration and maintenance.
When I got my last iPhone I didn’t plug it into my computer at all. I typed in my password, and my digital life began to download from the cloud. I’m not ready to abandon my laptop yet but I do find that I don’t need to open it nearly as often. A 14% decrease in PC sales as the mobile device market booms suggests I’m not alone in feeling this shift in the way we engage technology. It’s entirely possible that the youngest among us may never own a desktop computer or even a laptop.
I’m also not alone in sensing the shift in the way people, and churches, engage the connection. It’s not all about our different theological positions on human sexuality; it’s much deeper than that. We can dismiss it as creeping congregationalism but we can’t ignore the effects. While only a handful of leaders and congregations are leaving the connection now, a greater number beat the slow retreat of detachment and disengagement. Lacking a theology that truly unites us under one tent, is there a way to preserve a generous Wesleyan orthopraxy while making room for various interpretations of orthodoxy?
If the future is mobile, why do we fight so much about the past?
Buckminster Fuller, a systems theorist and innovator once said, ”You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The iPhone didn’t develop itself. Talented people wrestled for years to create something that Steve Jobs could present as a revolution. Is there a team of United Methodists somewhere developing the revolution we need? We have a proliferation of groups seeking to reform the institution, to fight the existing reality; but is anyone out there building a new model of what it means to be a connectional church, something nimble, adaptable and responsive to change? Who is developing a mobile future that will empower us to move confidently out into our neighborhoods; untethered from a fixed system that keeps God in a box underneath the desk running Windows 95?
Ballmer saw the opportunity clearly, and Microsoft was well positioned to capitalize on the opening Apple left with their iPhone strategy. Microsoft failed because they couldn’t recognize the paradigm shift the iPhone represented. As a denomination, can we recognize the opportunity before us and take advantage? Do we have the corporate agility and vision that Apple Inc. exhibited, or even Google’s savvy ability to imitate the right idea? Can we resist the urge to only invest in the status quo, and overcome the inertia of our structure, to dodge a Microsoft-like fate? Or will we continue to attempt to put new wine into old wineskins and act shocked each time they burst?