Apple: Haute Technology?

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Update: This is a rather long piece, admittedly. So, here’s a short version (tl;dr as the kids say).

Apple has made itself into a very successful consumer technology company, with a core group of highly dedicated fans who see themselves as better equipped intellectually and aesthetically to appreciate Apple products than non-Apple fans. This core group drives record-breaking initial Apple product sales by upgrading year after year, and to them, Apple is technology’s version of haute couture, or that which is high and lofty. Their self-esteem is tied into purchasing Apple products (and perhaps other examples of haute culture), because for them and other like-minded people, doing so marks them as possessing superior taste.

Read the whole thing if you have the time, and let me know your thoughts.

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As I analyze the technology industry with an eye toward predicting where it’s headed, I naturally give a great deal of thought to Apple. This only makes sense; Apple must figure prominently in any such analysis. Ignoring them would be like ignoring the sun when considering climate change.

This thought process came to a head in the hype leading up to Apple’s recent product event and in particular by ABC News proclaiming the event’s “historic” nature. Clearly, I anticipated nothing truly historic, given my tweets on the subject and my post about it, and indeed, I was not surprised when nothing truly historic was announced.

Since the event, commentary has been decidedly mixed. Competitors like Samsung and HTC have ridiculed Apple, keying on things like Apple announcing larger phones as if they’re something new and innovative. Commentary in the tech media has been mostly positive, with the new iPhone and the Apple Watch meeting or exceeding expectations.  The mainstream media’s coverage, in my experience, has been largely the same as always–Apple makes the products they know, and so Apple is the company they talk about.

In truth, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus appear to be very well-made smartphones with a nice set of features. They’re designed and built with an obvious attention to detail, and Apple does a very good job of outlining those details when announcing and marketing their products. Of course, that level of detail costs money, and given Apple’s admirable penchant for profitability (which is a good thing in my book) it should be no surprise that the new iPhones are also very expensive–from $649 on the low-end to $949 (!) on the high-end.

For now, the relative pricing, at least in the US, can still be somewhat hidden via subsidies. The iPhone 6 starts at $199 on contract, not quite as egregious a delta from the high-end Android and Windows Phone competition, while the iPhone 6 Plus starts at $299. The days of burying the cost of a smartphone in a two-year contract, however, even in the US, are quickly passing us by, and Android (and Windows Phone) have long offered far more economical options. Apple’s place as a high-end technology company isn’t going to change anytime soon.

In evaluating the new iPhones and the Apple Watch as technology, it seems like they’re fine upgrades to established products and a very nice new product in an emerging category. Anyone who has bought into the Apple ecosystem would be well-served by an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus and, if they’re so inclined, an Apple Watch. There’s nothing controversial there.

At the same time, I don’t see anything that should induce an Android or Windows Phone user to switch to an iPhone, and I don’t see the Apple Watch as so profoundly great that it alone should be enough to convince someone to switch platforms. In fact, the Apple Watch (I can’t bring myself to name it simply as “the Watch”) seems to me like it does too much, and Google Wear is more attractive given its relative simplicity and focus–two words I don’t always expect to use together in describing Google. I can only hope that Microsoft releases a wearable that’s more Google’s style than Apple’s.

And yet, why the extreme hype leading up to the event? Why do some people seem to conclude that Apple’s announcement spells doom for Android and, certainly, for Windows Phone? Initial iPhone sales are bound to be record-breaking simply because there’s such a large installed base to upgrade. Will that be the story, or will we once again be told that Apple is taking over the market even as their market share continues to slip? Will this be simply shoddy journalism, should it come to pass, or something deeper?

It’s this disconnect between what I see as reality and how that reality is perceived that’s been on my mind. There’s just something about Apple and some of its fans that’s both fascinated and perplexed me, for years. Apple is a phenomenally successful company not just because they sell a lot of products, but because they’ve managed to convince so many people that they’re somehow unique and, I’d argue, inherently superior.

Think Different
Then, I remembered having a discussion with an Apple fan a few years ago that has suddenly seemed familiar to me over the last few weeks. Essentially, this fan said that his brain works differently than mine (yes, this is a quote), specifically that he is different intellectually and aesthetically in a way that allows him to appreciate Apple products in a way that I’m unable to do. Note that he didn’t actually know me beyond a superficial level–the only evidence for his assertion was that he likes Apple products and I don’t.

To him, it was self-evident–if I don’t like Apple products as much as he likes Apple products, then it’s because I’m not wired the same way as him and other Apple fans like him.

He gave some other examples of where (he presumed) he’s different. He cries at operas, he said. He prefers BMW over Infiniti. He likes eating at fine restaurants rather than at chains and fast food joints. Each of these were presented as further evidence of a different (he never actually said superior, but the implication was certainly there) intellect and aesthetic sensibility. For me, he perfectly encapsulated the attitude of some Apple fans as I’ve experienced them over the years–many of them really do seem to consider themselves as simply possessing better taste than the rest of us.

I didn’t argue too deeply with him, because frankly I saw no point. How do you argue with such an assertion? I didn’t bother mentioning that I, too, have shed a tear or two at operas, because the music can be heartbreakingly beautiful and poignant, but that I also get a chill down my spine sometimes when I listen to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. I too like eating at fine restaurants and can appreciate the skill involved with making a truly unique culinary experience, but I can also spend a fraction of the money for chicken tikka masala at my favorite local Indian restaurant and come away just as satisfied. And, I like Infiniti better than BMW not because I don’t appreciate BMW’s quality, but because I like the idea of spending 25% less on a car (say, $15,000 less, in my experience) and getting 95% of the performance.

And so, when an Apple fan argues that I “just don’t get it,” which is a common refrain, I don’t argue back. Because, in truth, I really don’t get it. I applaud the notion of individuals being “elite” based on hard-won characteristics like productivity, honesty, and integrity. But I don’t get buying expensive products as my ticket into a group whose members consider themselves elite merely because they did so. And then it struck me just what this phenomenon can be called.

From Dictionary.com:

Haute: adjective

1. high-class or high-toned; fancy: an haute restaurant that attracts a monied crowd.
2. high; elevated; upper.

There’s haute cuisine, or “high cooking” in French. There’s haute couture, or “high dressmaking.” And there’s haute culture, a linguistic mishmash referring to all things considered by those who run in certain circles to be high-brow and superior. Entire industries thrive on being haute, from fashion to the arts to automobiles–some people buy Gucci handbags and watch indie films and drive Mercedes not because they’re better than the alternatives, but because they believe that doing these things mark a person as part of an elite that can not only afford such things but who possess the good taste to do  them.

Which leads me to this conclusion: Apple is, now more than ever, a company where its products sell not just because they’re very good, but also because they’re a status symbol. In short, there are some for whom Apple is haute technology. Many people really do seem to buy Apple products because doing so makes them part of a close-knit, they might think elite, group. And Apple is often portrayed in the press as–of course–superior, with every other manufacturer lumped in as part of the unwashed masses.

I’ve read a few articles on a variety of sites that underscore my contention. One example:

“Apple is rarely the first with anything. It ponders longer and harder about what it wants to market. It considers details a little more deeply. And it has a ready-made audience of the relatively monied that buys into its essential ethos, not merely into any specific product.

Apple’s loyalists are exceptionally forgiving because they believe that Apple does, indeed, add things to their life. (Including, of course, a chest-puffing sense of self-worth.)”

Consider the implications here. First, a “ready-made audience of the relatively monied.” Certainly, Apple fans may very well tend to be wealthier; from a demographic perspective, that only makes sense given that Apple is generally a price-leader at the high end. Combined with the rest of the sentence, however, this notion of a “ready-made audience” is fascinating because it means not just wealthy folk, but wealthy folk who “buy into its essential ethos, not merely into any specific product.”

That is, Apple fans include a wealthy contingent who buy into Apple’s philosophy and, presumably, who buy whatever products Apple produces. That certainly helps explain why some people buy every Apple product iteration no matter how significant (or insignificant) the upgrade, and why initial iPhone sales are invariably record-breaking.

Now, please understand: I have no problem with people who can afford to buy nice things. I’ve long aspired to be one of them–given a childhood spent in abject poverty, I have no illusions about the value of material things in helping to make an enjoyable life. Yes, money can’t buy happiness, but it can surely make finding happiness an easier proposition. And people who work hard and create great things and are rewarded for doing so serve as constant inspiration for me.

What’s fascinating to me is not that Apple fans might be wealthier (whether or not they are predominately so), but about the combination here of wealth and philosophy, or perhaps cultural sensitivity. The assertion here is that Apple is successful at least in part because the company has a particular “ethos” and enough wealthy people share it.

Second, “Apple’s loyalists are exceptionally forgiving because they believe that Apple does, indeed, add things to their life.” That is, those who buy other company’s products are doing so for reasons other than what those products actually do for them. Honestly, I’m not sure what those reasons could be, but that’s as strong a statement about, say, Android users as it is about Apple “loyalists.” (I won’t pick on the typo “life” vs. “lives” here, except to note that it’s interesting from a group-think perspective.)

Third, and most telling: “(Including, of course, a chest-puffing sense of self-worth).” Read the whole article–it’s hard to tell for sure if the writer is an Apple fan himself, but I get that impression. Regardless, this parenthetical, as written, is a refreshingly frank recognition that being an Apple fan and buying its gadgets contributes to the self-esteem of many of its fans. One might even say that it’s central to some people’s sense of self, as a very visible sign of their perceived status at the top of the financial or cultural hierarchy.

Next, there’s this article on BGR about the typical Apple pre-order mayhem (which a conspiracy theorist might think is intentional), which says:

“But for the more enthusiastic Apple fans out there, preorder debacles and launch-day chaos have become traditions that Apple fans expect, and even thrive on. These crazy experiences bring Apple fans closer together and ultimately strengthen a bond that no other gadget fans share.”

The previous writer asserted that Apple fans are more “forgiving.” Here, the assertion is that they actually enjoy being jerked around by terrible customer service and a horrid, frustrating ordering process, because it helps them bond with their fellow Apple fans in a sort of shared first-world misery. Again, the emphasis is on the group that they belong to, rather than the individual enjoyment of a product that, apparently, is just hard to actually purchase.

My perspective is a little different. I say, if you want to buy a BMW because it performs incredibly well, then excellent, and I might even agree with you even though I still enjoy my Infiniti. At the same time, if you want to buy a BMW because you like the comradery of sharing a common interest, there’s nothing wrong with that either. I enjoyed being a part of the very dedicated and generally nice and well-intentioned webOS community back in the day, while I would argue that we were webOS fans because the OS was just that good and not because it somehow inflated our self-esteem.

However, want to buy a BMW because you believe it marks you as a person with superior taste, as inherently different from (better than?) the little people who simply can’t comprehend the superiority of buying one? Sorry, but that offends me. The same thing goes for buying Apple products.

Competing with the Clique
My point here isn’t to knock Apple as a manufacturer of often excellent consumer technology products. Certainly, Apple products do exhibit a highly respectable attention to detail, at least in terms of hardware design and manufacture and user experience. In terms of engineering, I sometimes think function follows form, evidenced by the iPhone 4’s “antennagate” episode and the fact that MacBooks can sometimes get exceedingly warm to the touch due to the choice of a heat-conducting metal and the lack of adequate venting. But aluminum looks good and feels solid, and avoiding extra venting makes for more elegant lines.

Rather, I’m merely proposing that Apple’s market strength comes at least in part from a profoundly successful effort to brand themselves as the singular purveyor of haute technology, and that their success is enhanced by appealing to the vanity and desire for self-worth possessed by many of its fans. They want to think of themselves as possessing superior taste and judgment, and Apple is happy to oblige. Consider: Apple spent $100 million pushing a U2 album to every iTunes user (involuntarily)–assuming, I suppose, that every Apple user so deeply appreciates the same (overdone and pretentious, IMO) music.

Microsoft appeals to the productivity-minded, Google to the hackers and cost-conscious, and HP to, well, fewer and fewer people lately. Apple, this narrative goes, appeals to people who drive Mercedes to the opera and spend $500 on dinner afterwards because they like to be perceived as people who do such things. And, one might conclude, Apple also appeals to the people who want to part of that group but can’t otherwise afford it.

That’s not all Apple fans, of course. I appreciate nice things as much as anyone, and when I bought my MacBook Air back in 2012 it was because Apple had the best option at the time. I certainly believe that Apple makes very good products and has plenty of fans for whom that’s plenty good enough. It’s for the same reason that I purchased my Surface Pro 3–it’s an incredibly well-designed and -engineered product that feels great and works just as well. I suppose I just don’t think Apple is the only company capable of making such excellent products.

In the end, though, it’s not just about the products. No other technology company can generate the kind of hype that Apple enjoys, and can turn a product announcement into an historic event. I submit that its this cultural imperative of belonging to a group of like-minded and self-anointed connoisseurs that lies at the heart of Apple’s success as a consumer technology company, and that this makes competing with them in selling highly personal products like smartphones and smartwatches incredibly difficult.

Samsung has so far succeeded by blanketing all ends of the market with flashy, sometimes gimmicky, products that have altogether grabbed market share but that, individually, don’t sell nearly as well as the iPhone. When it comes to perception, however, Apple is royalty while everyone else, Samsung included, are the serfs. Because I’m particularly interested in how Microsoft will compete in mobile devices, I have to wonder if their eminently practical approach of appealing to productivity will be sufficient to overcome a widespread desire to be one of the cool kids.

And so, that’s my position: Apple is consumer technology’s haute culture, and I predict that they’ll sell many millions of iPhones because of it. I’m not as sure about the Apple Watch; I think it’s entirely possible that in spite of its being the epitome of fashion when it comes to technology, not that people really want smartwatches. I honestly don’t know if it will sell more than other smartwatch alternatives (or, more than Google Wear collectively), but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that it will be perceived and depicted as the height of smartwatch fashion.

What do you think? Am I all wet here, or is Apple truly the technology world’s Brangelina? Let me know in the comments.

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  1. […] devoted quite a few words to my contention that Apple is today’s haute technology, arguing that many people buy Apple products at least in part because they believe that doing so […]

  2. […] I stand by my assertion that Apple is engaged in positioning themselves as today’s “haute technology,” in the same way and for the same reasons as we have “haute fashion.” […]

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