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Cult of personality

Have you ever tried to buy a pair of jeans and found that they just didn't fit right? I always hate that, particularly because I'm not one to try on clothes at the shop. It seems like every brand fits different, and has it's own quirks. And while I'd love to go buy a pair of high-fashion designer jeans, they just aren't in the budget.

I encountered the problem again shortly before my trip to China with our Mod Gods, when I took a trip to do some clothes shopping. After I was done, I took a short sojourn to my local Apple store. For those of you who don't have the privilege, let me tell you - it is exactly what the stereotype entails. A bunch of smartly dressed, frosty-tipped and highly gelled boy-band cast-offs, each offering polite welcomes to another Apple lover, as if I were part of some elite club - a technorati. It is the Abercrombie and Fitch of the computer world.

"I just need a battery," I said. I had come for a spare to my 13" Macbook, a tool that I have found utterly indispensable since I had acquired it in February. The battery life is only around 3.5 hours, and I had a 12 hour flight ahead of me. The latest reject from N-Sync explained my options to me, and mentioned the refurb batteries.

Refurb batteries at Apple stores simply mean that someone bought the wrong one. These batteries are then checked by an Apple "genius" at the "genius bar" (where the drinks are, I have yet to discover) to make sure it was not thrown at a wall, a dog, or other object. They are then sold at half price, simply because they lack the shiny plastic and virgin bubble-packaging.

He asked which colour my Macbook was, and I told him that it was the white one. When he came back, he said "I'm sorry, brother, but we only have black ones."

My mind immediately went to work. "Aren't the black ones the same as the white ones?" He nodded and verbally agreed. "So I could put a black battery in my notebook and it would work just fine," I continued.

"...As if I were part of some elite club - a technorati. It is the Abercrombie and Fitch of the computer world."

He looked like I had just shot his beloved kitten, then chuckled..."Only if you want to be a fashion disaster," he retorted, rolling his eyes.

I told him that I'd be happy to take it, and he seemed almost offended by my choice for a moment. However, he by no means became less polite toward me, still recognising me as one of his own...just maybe that I'd lost my way a little.

While ringing up the battery on some of the coolest scanners I'd ever seen, he chatted with me about the upcoming Leopard release, and then the picture on my credit card. Once my payment was complete, he bagged it up and sent me on my way with a slightly soft handshake and a truly genuine smile.

It was like a cult. All I could think of as I left was that I was glad I turned down the kool-aid. But for my leaving, three others walked in - and even I, as perturbed as I was, had left with a purchase.

I thought of writing this up then, but I figured I would wait a bit. I wanted to know what makes Apple's marketing so effective - after all, I held off any purchase from the company until nearly the end of 2006. Now I own an iPod, a Macbook, a few accessories...and though I would never, ever give up my Windows and Linux based desktops, I would own another Apple product in a heartbeat.

So what made me choose to write this up now? You guessed it - the iPhone. Yes, I'm bloody well sick of it, just like you. But it really makes you wonder, doesn't it? Windows Vista barely showed up on the radar of the general press, despite us all waiting with baited breath. But when Steve Jobs passes gas, it's on every news station worldwide.

The biggest bit of news since the iPhone's release has been the leak of its build price. It seems that the company is making over 50 percent from sales of the device, which has sent the company's stock on yet another upward movement. Of course, that's after the news that even if you live in the USA, you won't be getting one for a while, because they are sold out everywhere. Even the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia was in line for one.

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Brett Thomas

How does this happen? Apple doesn't have the market share, the money or the power to justify this level of super-stardom. So where does it all come from?

Well, in some ways, I said it above...it's a cult. A cult of personality. Apple has marketed itself as the "cool kid" of computers. And let me tell you, if there's any way to sell a computer to someone, make it sound like a hip thing to have. A lot of people have paired Apple to the fashion industry as a sexual orientation joke, but in some ways it should really be considered a compliment.

If you look at the world of fashion, 95 percent of the names you can think of are not brands that most of us can even afford to own. We laugh at them and their purchasers, joking about who needs to feel so "trendy" as to spend $800 on a purse or pair of jeans. On the flip side, we then go to our respective local big-box stores and buy the exact things that those companies designed a couple years prior.

Those clubbing jeans and that smart shirt of yours have gone through a couple transformations, mind you, but not many. Since the witches and warlocks of high fashion designed them, they were swiped, ever-so-subtly changed, had a few quality cuts in the manufacturing process, and eventually ended up in your local store for twenty quid. You then bought them, whilst you were thumbing your nose at the newest hoity-toity expensive pair that you will undoubtedly buy in two years.

"A lot of people have paired Apple to the fashion industry as a sexual orientation joke, but in some ways it should really be considered a compliment. "

Much like Apple, the Gucci, Versace, Prada and other nearly household names have very little of the fashion industry market share. Yet, every year, they go to astute fashion couture shows, end up on the front of magazines and show up on every star in Hollywood. They make ridiculous profits from their small sales, partially because they are being paid as much for their R&D as they are the final product - these designs will end up round the industry in a year's time, after all.

Of course, I say "partially" because they're also being paid for a well-built, attractive, and tailored product. Outfits that seem to "fit" the person wearing them, not just in the size but also in the overall appearance. They seem to "flow" for that person, the way a more generic outfit wouldn't be able to.

In all of these respects, I think it's pretty fitting that Apple is being compared to the fashion industry. I'll say this right now - I bet that, given a month or two to get the bugs out, the iPhone is a damn good product. Knowing Apple, it will likely be well beyond what its competitors will develop for several years. Despite all of the blustery hype, I bet it really will change what Joe Consumer thinks a phone should be.

On the flip side, in two years' time the best features on the iPhone will be integrated into other devices, many of which that will run off of Windows Mobile. Those improvements will be built on the mass efficiency of the Windows Mobile platform, allowing them to show up on hundreds of types of devices, though assuredly with a few quality issues (such is the problem with mass-scale, multi-unit design).

By that point, Apple will need to have another trick up its sleeve, and it undoubtedly will. The company is likely to ride the wave of its newest poster-child for a while, so there will be the usual design tweaks, new models, etc. I just hope there's not a mini or nano version, as I seem to lose my cell-phone easily enough as it is.

But, such is the life at the top of the fashion food chain. Unless, that is, you wish to be a fashion disaster.