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The Apple hype machine

April 26, 2012


Steve Jobs had the charisma to make a MagSafe power adaptor sound sexy.
Steve Jobs had the charisma to make a MagSafe power adaptor sound sexy. – File photo by AP

I have witnessed four distinct shifts in consumer technology. The first came with the launch of Macintosh in 1984. It ushered the consumers and the market in a new era of personal computing. A radical departure from the oppressive Disk Operating System (DOS) command line interface, it liberated us from the shackles of Big Brother and gave us the power to be our best. In 2001, the iPod came along and turned the music industry on its head. The iPhone in 2007 dramatically altered the smartphone industry. As a matter of fact, Steve Jobs reportedly even said that the iPad, launched in 2010, was the most important thing he’d ever done. These innovations, while not entirely original, changed not just product categories but transformed entire industries and have made a massive impact on popular culture. Apple has even managed to transform the traditionally staid retail industry with its massively successful Apple Stores.

Apple’s relentless commitment to innovation, Steve’s magnetic, often abrasive personality, his famed Reality Distortion Field (it’s real!) and the company’s cult of secrecy has given rise to an unprecedented hype machine. It is further powered by bloggers, pundits, rumour mongers, tipsters, and know-it-alls.

It is a known fact that Apple never, ever declares anything. It’s their thing. Usually, all major product launches happen at Macworld in January, with occasional announcements at Worldwide Developers Conference(WWDC) in June. However, in 2009, Apple decided it wanted to set its own schedules. Now, whenever it’s ready, Apple sends out media invites designed to titillate and tease. The rumours and predictions reach a fever pitch leading up to an Apple event. Must-have feature lists, concept videos, ‘leaked’ photos, and ‘confirmed’ specs start doing the rounds at breakneck speed. And before you know it, the hype machine alters ‘reality’. Now that Apple is cash rich and no longer the underdog, millions of people tune into their live blog of choice waiting for THE ANNOUNCEMENT – the sum total of the hype machine’s frenzied fantasies.

Steve Jobs had the charisma to make a MagSafe power adaptor sound sexy. His famed keynote speeches could make even the die-hard critics lust for an Apple product. Tim Cook, operations whiz, and now CEO, hugely responsible for making Apple Inc. one of the most valuable companies on the planet, doesn’t have what Steve had. Phil Schiller, friendly and lovable, also lacks the personal appeal Steve had. Jonathan Ive, industrial designer par excellence, doesn’t interest like Steve used to. Steve Jobs was larger than life and now that he’s gone, there’s a gaping void at Apple.

Apple Inc. is no longer the little upstart it used to be. The company is practically the anti-thesis of what it claimed to be in the 1984 commercial. The gnawing lack of Steve, the hype machine’s often flawed machinations, the haters; the Android fan-boys have made the task arduous for the tech giant. Add to that the labour activists, the media hounds and a voracious consumer marketplace that wants bigger/better/faster at an alarming pace contribute to a level of expectation that borders on the ridiculous.

When the iPhone 4S was released, the world yawned. They wanted an iPhone 5. When the iPad 3 came out, the world decided that innovation at Apple was dead. When the company announced what it planned to do with its pile of cash, the pundits decided that Apple should buy Twitter because they don’t know how to ‘do social’. People decide to be demanding and over-critical all the time, with Apple.

To support my argument, here’s how an iPad 3 post-launch conversation with a friend went: X: Yaaaaar, yesterday’s iPad 3 launch was such a bore. Total meh! It’s all over. Android has won. Me: Rolls eyes. X: You’re such a fangurrl. Me: Don’t be silly. I’m the first one to call Apple out on ‘bad things’, especially App Store policies and bizarre design choices. I also don’t like the iPadification of the Mac but I know why it’s happening. X: Rolls eyes. Whatever! Don’t get all political on me. The iPad 3, like the 4S, is so disappointing. I was totally expecting something radical and they just don’t deliver anymore. Me: Look, Apple never said it was releasing an iPhone 5. The iPhone 4S was an incremental upgrade and it wasn’t meant for people like you who upgrade every few months. It was targeted at the fence sitters; people who’ve never had a smartphone before. Also, for the users of the original iPhone. X: Yes, yes, but Apple is supposed to be a trailblazer. What was innovative about the iPad 3? Me: What are your benchmarks? Innovation doesn’t mean creating something 100 per cent new, using ideas and never-seen-before technologies every 6 months. Apple iterates fast and releases consistent, steady improvements year after year. This is part of an incredible process that Apple has championed and it’s integral to their culture – and their success. X: (Groans) Me: The new iPad is about three things: Pixels, speed, battery. You cannot even begin to imagine the Retina Display until you see it. X: Ummmm… Me: The thing is, to understand the new iPad, you have to critically analyze and understand Apple as a company – its vision, its philosophy and the big picture. People expect a radical new product every time Apple launches something and when they don’t get what they’ve been fantasising about, they complain about the death of innovation.

Everyone was expecting a bigger screen on the iPhone 4S. However, Apple won’t do that. At least, I hope not. The current iPhone screen size is perfect. You can reach every corner with one thumb. That’s huge, from a usability perspective. If you want a bigger screen, use a computer or an iPad. Each device has a purpose. Why lose sight of that by trying to make the phone bigger and the tablet smaller?

X: OK, this is getting boring now. I just want something cool and new and shiny. Me: So you can show off and impress your friends? The new iPad is a reflection of Apple’s priorities. The company has laser sharp vision and focus. Wall Street and the consumer cannot influence what Apple does. The new iPad is all about how content ‘looks’ on the screen, how content ‘feels’, and the smoothness of the overall experience.

Because you guys didn’t get what you wanted, before you have even seen the iPad, you’ve trashed it. With Apple, what you pay for is the experience. And no one, even today, does it like them.

Sabeen Mahmud wrote this article for the April 2012 issue of Spider Magazine.