Apple died yesterday, and maybe you didn’t notice.
Not in the usual sense, where they’ll be less good at selling products, or even that their products are any less the exceptional quality that we’ve come to expect. In the sense that Apple is no longer the same company that it was yesterday, and a new one has emerged from the ashes. This happened in a few ways, actually, but there’s one in particular I want to talk about.
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
Gruber was talking about the $6000 Vertu there, but he might as well have been talking about the Apple Watch. Apple has long been ‘the luxury brand’, but it’s been an accessible luxury, unlike luxury cars or jewelry. The products are expensive, but they’re not outrageously expensive (and if they are, it’s because they’re so massively overpowered that most people really don’t actually need them). Apple has even been steadily pushing prices down and making their products more consumer-friendly so they’re now in some cases a markedly better value than what their competitors offer. With the Apple Watch, that is no longer the case — there’s a gold version whose only substantial differentiating feature is that it’s more expensive. Because it’s “gold” and not “gold-colored”, it’s not just a style choice, it’s a lifestyle choice. In other words — it’s the watch that most people won’t have. I’m sure the fashion experts have plenty to say about this from the perspective of desirability, but it’s a real shock to the standard approach of the tech world. I think Apple knows this, too — which results in the strange nomenclature. The only way they could name it that doesn’t sound overtly elitist is the awkward “Edition” edition.
It’s not “better” because it does more or it’s more pleasant to use, it’s “better” because it’s more expensive. Because it appeals more to the rich or those who want to appear so. Apple gets a lot of flack for being a luxury brand that people pay a premium for based on the brand, but if you’ve been an Apple fan for a while you know that that’s rooted deeply in the thought, quality, and support that goes into their products. It’s not just about the brand — most people I know who use Apple products do so because they work, not because they’re cool.
This is a dramatic shift in Apple’s cultural focus. Steve Jobs led Apple to be the company that produced the world’s best luxury phone that anyone could have. Tim Cook is now leading Apple to be the company that produces a watch with an option that has no benefit other than being the expensive one. I think this is my fundamental problem with this — the traditional way of doing things equates exclusivity with luxury, while Apple has always seemed to champion that luxury is a factor of excellence of experience. It is disappointing to see them put forth a product that shows otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong — I think this will probably work out very well for them, and Apple is the single company in the world that I most admire. But starting today, “status” is a feature, and that makes me a little sad. I’m not quite sure what it is yet, but I feel that something has been lost. Two days ago, Apple felt like a company that could bring everyone together without perpetuating the reality of class divides. I don’t see that here. It feels like Apple capitulating to a very specific form of “luxury” appearance and material and bringing all of its baggage along with it, instead of forging something new.
[Update: I’ve had a number of discussions about this with people, and I’ve been reminded that we still don’t know the price points at play here. I will retract most of my statements above if the gold version ends up being the same price as the regular model or within $100. But I still think the signaling and overall approach are worth noticing.]
[Another update: If it’s not clear, I think the watch is both a technological and social marvel, it’s going to be a huge success out of the gate, and subsequent versions will be even better. Probably the objections I’ve raised above are completely irrelevant to its success, but I still think there’s an important sociological point to be made.]