How Apple keeps users hooked and ready to spend more.
In the history of computing, there was a time, when there were some people who called themselves computers. This is not a story about mis-identification or about how we have become mechanised in this age of rapid digitisation. In the early days of mainframe computing, when computers were the size of a reasonably large room, fresh graduates in mathematics and physics were literally employed as “computers”. They computed code, processed it using advanced algorithms and transferred it, physically, from one point to another. Eventually, when things changed and computers started residing on our desks, the people who were computers vanished. They were replaced by “mother” boards and chips and connectors and buses, the opaque infrastructure that hides behind our graphical user interface.
This separation of the human from the technological, the personal from the prosthetic, the individual from the gadget marks a significant change in history. This was the shift that marked a distinction between the user and the machine. The machine was produced and assembled as a working system that the user used. The user was not imagined as a part of the production system. The personal computer was the story of de-personalisation, where the living computer, within the mainframe, was now outside the system. Much effort has gone into establishing the computer as a personal thing. The Web 2.0 turn of portable computing has tried to bridge this irony — on the one hand, the computer remains a closed system that you cannot open up unless you are a “hacker”. On the other, the computer is now fiercely personal, embodying your lifestyle choices and ideologies.
This irony is captured the best in a brand that made a bitten-into fruit a cultural icon of our times — Apple. Advertorials that promote Apple products from personal computing devices (desktops, laptops, tablets) to music and entertainment gadgets, proudly proclaim “I am a Mac”. This declaration, reminiscent of Napoleon who once proudly declared, “I am France”, has become a thickly coded carrier of meaning. When you say “I am a Mac” you don’t just announce to the world that you are an Apple user. You suggest that you have “arrived”. You are uncommon. You are discerning. What remains unsaid is the fact that you can afford to be a Mac.
Apple uses a language of aesthetics, packaging and assumed superiority in order to gloss over the fact that its products are significantly more expensive than other similar products in the market. Indeed, your avid Apple user will argue that there are no other similar products in the market because an Apple, like the cheese (not yet a computer brand) stands alone. The world stays divided right now around Apple, there are people who swear by it and there are people who swear at it. And yet, the brand grows as a sign of hope and fierce loyalty.
For all the speculation on what makes Apple and its messiah-like figurehead Steve Jobs such compulsive icons, I add the thesis of personalised de-personalisation. Apple has succeeded in harnessing the tension of personalising the de-personalised gadget by making the user a part of the evolution experience. Instead of proposing that their gadgets are mere products to be used, Apple brings out “flawed” products where the “flaw” is a part of the design. It allows its users to feel in control, by discovering the flaws and feeling responsible for the next new designs that enter the markets based on their feedback. Apple products insist to the users, through design, packaging and marketing that they are responsive and reciprocal. It is this integration of users in the evolution of their products that allows Apple to obfuscate its real nature of closeness, opaqueness and cult-like evangelism.
It is in light of this that Job’s performed indifference, even if done jokingly, to the people who form the loyal user-base for Apple, makes sense. Recently, at an interview, Jobs was asked why Apple does not perform user surveys to design their products, and he replied that it is not for the user to know what he wants. It is almost as if he takes the forbidden legacy of the Apple seriously, and in his god-like avatar, tells the audiences that they are not really supposed to bite this fruit. At the same time, he makes a hoopla about the fact that the user is an integral part of the products, which enter the market with obvious drawbacks — iPhones without cameras, laptops without USB drives — so that the smaller flaws can be corrected and Apple can continue to create new markets and followers, all repeating proudly, “I am a Mac”.