Monday, 18 February 2008

Apple sells magic

I don't know why I never thought of it before.

Apple lovers and haters alike understand that there is a certain unmeasurable “cool factor” to Apple products that is the main reason why people buy them over other similar (and perhaps better) products. I think it's clear that this cool factor has a lot to do with Apple's Advanced Marketing Techniques. (There are other disputed factors, of course. Among them quality, design, vision, and market savvy.) The people at Apple (along with their marketing team) know how to make the most of products that may not be revolutionary, but which certainly appear that way to the average person. That's the magic. (And so you know, I'm using “magic” in a value-neutral sense here.)

Celebrated science fiction author and physicist Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I'm not sure if he has considered the effect of marketing on this so-called “law”. I think Apple has, if only tacitly. You see, Apple does not develop exceptionally advanced technologies. They are, however, quite good at using current advances, and putting them in fancy packages. The thing is, most existing pre- or near-market technology is far beyond what the average person understands. (Despite constantly increasing usage of technology, I'm certain that most people actually have little understanding of how their gadgets work.) And when that fact is combined with a futuristic design, the result can be startling to the lay person. Basically, with their marketing Apple takes advantage of the knowledge gap between us and their products, which makes them seem more advanced than they actually are. It appears that a sufficiently advanced marketing strategy can make a moderately advanced technology seem like magic.

I have no idea why it took the MacBook Air (MBA) for me to recognize this. I guess it's because unlike recent Apple products like the iPhone and Apple TV, the MBA stands out for what it doesn't have rather than what it does. That is, with the iPhone, Apple combined several still burgeoning technologies (Wi-Fi, portable web-surfing and video, touch screen), with the lifestyle standards of the day (digital music playback and mobile telephony), and added their unique software and design flair, thus creating the new must-have cross-generational lifestyle device—nearly superseding their own iPod (they even redesigned the latter product to match it). All of these technologies exist separately, but Apple put them together and created what appeared to be an highly advanced device that has no peer in the North American and European markets. The MBA on the other hand is a product that already exists—a laptop—and it's functionally inferior to other laptops on the market. Still—and this is crucial—it speaks to the future of the laptop and of personal computing generally. Apple has tried a similar formula as they did with the iPhone: they've taken several upcoming technologies (solid-state “flash” hard disk memory, wireless data transmission*, “multi-touch gestures”, embedded video recording), but then they've actually removed certain standard features in the hope of appearing more advanced and cornering a new lifestyle standard—ultra-portability (the computer has no CD or DVD drive and only the barest minimum of ports). But they've made it seem shockingly thin, and this, Apple is betting, is the main feature that will make this laptop appear sufficiently advanced for us simple people to see it as magic. And importantly, they've done it before anybody else. (Other companies have developed ultra-portable devices, but had you heard of any of them before the MacBook Air? Maybe you geeks had, but I bet the average consumer had not.)

I see through you now Apple! Not that I believed that the fanaticism around Apple wasn't half marketing, but now I understand better what constitutes that “cool factor”: simple magic!

Very clever. But will it work?

*Of course, we have been able to transmit data wirelessly for decades (not including by voice!), but you all understand that I'm talking about current mainstream computer technology.

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