I am always amazed at the level of support that Apple as a brand receives from its consumer base. It goes beyond anything that has been previously seen for any of the other tech company either now or in the deep and distant past (for ICT firms that is about 10-15 years). It reached its apex with the announcement of the death of the CEO of the firm, Steve Jobs in 2011. The reaction witnessed was analogous to that which was observed after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. All over the Western World and possibly beyond there was an outpouring of grief in a manner that from the perspective of the outsider looking into the Apple community bubble seemed entirely disproportionate to the event. Apple had become the global religion of the 21st century with Jobs the new Messiah.
On August 20th 2012 the company eclipsed the previous record market capitalisation set by Microsoft in 1999 when its stock rose to $624 billion dollars. So why is it that Apple has managed to win out over all the others? Why is it that Microsoft is now the kid who always gets picked last for gym class, IBM the perpetual nerd who hangs out in the library and Semantic the invisible boy down the back of the classroom? How has Apple become the wunderkind of the tech world, the class jock, scholar and politician all rolled into one? And how does the company manage to maintain its über-cool image despite the various not-so-cool stories that have emerged in the recent past. Reports of serious employee mistreatment coming out of Apple’s main subcontractor, the Taiwanese giant Foxconn, would have severely damaged the reputations of any of its competitors if they had been involved in something similar. So why is Apple not tarnished in the same way?
I am intrigued by this conundrum because I have in the last year become one of the company’s cheerleaders, at least in the sense that I am now a card-carrying member of the Apple product owners association. I have the iPhone, the iPad and the MacBook. I even bought the Apple TV for god’s sake. And I also spent a good portion of the last few weeks trying to negotiate a position with the mobile phone operators to become one of the lucky or chosen few to get their hands on the new iPhone 5. So I write all this as a man broken, defeated by the Apple machine.
The question is why am I able to be conscious of this ‘evil empire’ aspect of Apple and yet I continue to go on buying the products? And let’s not forget that Apple products are vastly overpriced compared to their competitors. Yes, Android handsets may now be outselling their iOS iPhone counterparts but I would suggest that the profit margins tell quite a different story. So why do I consciously continue to support such a company?
As far as I can see there are a number of possible reasons for this. There is the fact that Apple products are very well made. Undoubtedly those Foxconn employees that work at the Longhua plant, anywhere up to 450K of them, produce a beautiful product. iOS and OS X interfaces are also fairly simply to navigate about and use. They tend to be quite robust as well, being not as prone to the catastrophic crash that Windows systems users seem to suffer regularly. Apple products also happen to be currently ‘cool’ and for me this is probably the deciding factor for most of us when we make that final purchasing choice.
Apple has come to understand that consumer products no longer need to be merely functional. Let us not forget that the iPhone is after all merely a phone and a phone’s primary function is to make phone calls. Even Windows OS phones can do this. All the other features are non-core, discretionary, the icing on top of the functional cake. Have we reached the stage in human evolution when we are really incapable of living without Angry Birds?
In a word, Apple has become the designers and masters of cool. How do you get consumers to choose your product over the other 20 products in the shop that are functionally very similar, at least in basic terms? You make your phone or laptop the product that the cool kids want to buy. And when you do this you can then charge them whatever you want for it and your customers, who are in many other aspects of their lives extremely liberal, can be persuaded to ignore those blemishes that might have built up on your moral record. Once the religion does the hard work by building up its critical mass of followers they then become largely powerless to resist the demands that the deity puts upon them.
The ‘creation of cool’ phenomenon has now become a fundamental component that is necessary for the success of all modern commercial companies. Put another way, cool is the new Fordism of postmodern capitalism. Now, just to be clear, I have nothing inherently against capitalism and the means that it employs to get and keep its customers. But I think that it is important that we all recognise the methods that capitalist companies are now employing to entice the market. Google and Tumblr are not cool because they are filled with employees that are naturally predisposed to this persuasion. Their coolness has come about as a result of the new paradigm shift in successful capitalism.
These days you are nothing in the commercial world if you are not cool and Apple has managed better than most to re-imagine itself along these lines. Microsoft is still bogged down by the old and staid tech image of the past. No one, not even the man himself would argue that Steve Ballmer is a Steve Jobs. It is very difficult to create a modern cultural movement, something that we now paraphrase as cool. It is in many ways intangible. It requires a careful monitoring of your customer, a finger on the pulse of underground cultural tremors. One must walk a tight line between the realms of ‘man’ business and ‘street’ culture and it’s along this road that you become omnipotent, capable of abuses of your subcontractor’s rights, strong-armed market hegemony and rampant profiteering.