It’s commonly understood among those closest to me that I don’t like Apple. Some people assume it’s because I work for Lenovo which competes directly with the Cupertino cult, but that wouldn’t be the real reason. I’ve been an Apple skeptic for way longer than that – almost as long as it’s taken them to move from niche computer maker for desperate hipsters to global behemoth with a near $180 billion cash pile. Nevertheless, I’ve bought two Apple products in the past three years, an Ipad for my Mum and a Macbook Air for my girlfriend. It’s what they wanted, and who am I to argue? And I like FaceTime, let me state that upfront.
However, being truthful there’s something about the brand that I find rather off-putting. Apart from the bulbous Imac – a favorite of internet cafes in London – I had no exposure to Apple until the early 2000’s when I worked in Taiwan at a semiconductor company. I noted the grossly overpriced desktops and laptops (driven by weak, power hungry IBM CPUs) that graphic designers used for the software, but it’s fair to say I didn’t notice what Jobs was up to until the Ipod arrived. A friend started waxing lyrical about the device, but nothing he said made much sense to me as I already had an mp3 player made by Creative, a Singapore digital audio brand. Everything the Ipod could apparently do, the Creative could do, so I assumed it was a passing fad.
The success of the Ipod was hard to ignore though, with Apple’s stock finally starting its long climb to the stratosphere, and the company making its ignominious late switch to the Intel x86 CPU platform it had always resisted, so its laptops could finally compete on a level playing field with a Dell.
So what’s was the secret? How did this company that was perennially a follower in terms of hardware gain so much market share and prominence? The best recent analysis is from CNET writer Chris Matyszczyk who published a subtly satirical thought piece entitled “Why Apple keeps winning in style” After gently poking fun at Jony Ive’s absurd pretensions (the Iphone 5C was “unapologetically plastic”), his key observation was this: “what real people see, the minute they set eyes on an Apple product, is something that they might not be able to define. But it’s something that their hearts and souls identify with style. It’s something they want to be a part of.” Apple products are perceived as beautiful because people want them to be beautiful, and people pay more because they want to pay more. It’s nothing more than a fashion brand. This despite the fact that the Iphone 6 resembles what Samsung were producing three years ago. It’s a giant con trick, masquerading as design leadership, and no matter how often the “Apple is beautiful” mantra is repeated, it simply isn’t true. All you can say is that the design philosophy is simple and consistent. Every Apple product is unmistakably Apple and that’s all that matters, because it’s what people absolutely want to identify with. It’s not form or function, it’s a feeling, and people want to belong.
This didn’t happen overnight and resulted from an incredibly clever marketing campaign masterminded by Steve Jobs who literally lived the brand with his garage start-up story, black polo necks, simple haircut and constant repetition of key themes like “design” and “innovation”. The mythology surrounding Apple is simply astonishing with otherwise intelligent people often repeating statements that don’t stand up to any critical scrutiny (Apple invented the mp3 player, Apple invented the smartphone, IOS is easy to use (ofcourse it is – you just paid $1300 for a $500 laptop – it has to be easy!!) and not vulnerable to viruses or malware (sigh!)).
Apart from the cult of Jobs himself, it was product placement that sealed the deal. Bloomberg Businessweek laid out Apple’s ongoing strategy in a 2012 article saying, “Apple has spent decades strengthening its subtle but powerful grip over Hollywood.” The company has become synonymous with the aspirational Northern California lifestyle and if you just watched contemporary TV or movies you would be unaware that there are any competing brands at all. You could say that other global brands have achieved the same effect, with Nike synonymous with a can-do attitude and sport success the world over. However consumers that like Nike will typically also wear other brands too, while with Apple it is all or nothing it seems. Apple’s market dominance is something unusual with consumers acting as a herd and outright rejecting competitors, especially at the high performance end of the market where ironically Apple’s products are always one or two generations behind.
Assisted by a compliant press, who along with the advertising sector formed Apple’s original core customer base of hipsters and contrarians (the irony!!), very little even -handed media coverage of Apple products exists. Apple products are better because they are Apple, a tautology best demonstrated by UK newspaper The Guardian where any review of a tech product, be it a tablet PC or an electronic toothbrush is tempered the by refrain that “it isn’t Apple”. Witness this article about the new Iwatch. It couldn’t be any more slavish if it tried including this bizarre quote from an ‘analyst’ – “Even if it only told the time, Apple is likely to sell millions of them with the first launch,” said Ben Wood, head of research at analysts CCS Insight. “Apple makes beautiful things and the Watch is beautifully engineered. Combined with its brand credentials it’s going to be a fashion statement and a status symbol with a much broader appeal than current smartwatches.” So basically it’s an Apple, therefore it’s a winner and there’s no debate about its beauty – none at all!
The scary thing is that according to Matyszczyk’s article in an August 2014 survey, 73% of teens (presumably US teens) said their next phone would be an Iphone. Combined with their closed ecosystem, centered on Itunes, which is designed to skim rents and ensure customer retention by making it difficult to move owned content elsewhere, Apple’s success could run and run.
Add their $180 billion of legal muscle to defend their US patent bank, and emerging services like ApplePay, and you get disturbing visions. Apple could conceivably start to control larger and larger portions of the economy, influence government policy, and ultimately become the uber-monopoly everyone used to fear at the end of the nineteenth century when the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil was the bad guy.
Happily they might well screw up and lose their reputation for ‘cool’ well before this happens. As the Icloud fiasco proved they are no less vulnerable to security concerns as any other big company or government. Secondly their penchant for making “beautiful” products has surely reached its Waterloo with the Iwatch.
The emperor has no clothes with this one and I don’t think Patek Phillipe will be quaking in their boots at the tasteless gold plated version. I can’t wait to see the Singapore fashionistas counting their steps down Orchard road with chunks of vibrating plastic hanging off their slender wrists. That said, I’ve always been wrong about Apple before so maybe my opinion shouldn’t carry much weight. I’ll be right at some point though. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.