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Burning the early adopters

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Friday, Sep 7, 2007

As a foe of hype and the phony value of novelty, I was a bit disappointed to see Steve Jobs backpedal so quickly on his de facto attempt to hang early adopters out to dry by cutting iPhone prices only a few months after the device hit the market. It was like he wanted to make a mockery of the early adopters, and show what suckers they were for rushing in. (To which I’m inclined to say amen. It’s a small Pyrrhic victory in my unwinnable war against status displays rooted in consumerism.) They thought they were getting something elite, rare, and expensive; now Jobs is telling them they got the crappy, overpriced beta version of a product intended for the broadest possible customer base. As much as I can understand being pissed paying full price for something that gets reduced a few months later, the first=round iPhone buyers had to know what they were getting into—that few hundred dollars was just part of the cost one must pay to be first on the block with a new toy. It’s a small price to pay for the experiential good of feeling special and superior to the iPhoneless for one brief shining month. If it hadn’t cost anything, there would have been no bragging rights. “If they bought it a month ago, well, that’s what happens in technology,” Jobs said. It’s like he purposely wants to reduce the window for early adoption to as short a period as possible. As economist William Polley pointed out, “The effect is to segment the market into the patient and the impatient.”


And who really cares about the iPhone anymore, now that everyone knows someone who has one? The moment when you can be impressive by brandishing one has probably already past. Again, that’s what that $100 now be rebated paid for, the right to be part of that initial wave of media-stoked excitement. With this price slashing move, it’s like Jobs wants to once and for all end the notion of Apple as a leading-edge gadget maker suitable mainly for geeks and hipsters. He seems to have decided that the mass market he wants Apple to dominate can’t be hemmed in by the associations of exclusivity that have adhered to the company’s brand thus far. The truly hegemonic brands—the Coca-Colas and Microsofts of the world—aren’t restricted by a need to be cool or to come off as an underdog.


Clearly Apple intends to make the ubiquitous handheld WiFi device, as the concurrent release of the iPhone that doesn’t even work as a phone (the iPod touch) shows. This seemingly quixotic and redundant device is actually sort of perfect for someone like me, who wants the benefits of anywhere-internet access without being beset by the annoying expectations that I’ll have to (a) talk to people on demand or (b) ever listen to voice messages. This device helps me imagine my dream: my phoneless future (which somewhat resembles the epistolary past), where all conversations are necessarily face to face, and all other subordinate communication occurs via email.


Anyway, the price cut was a courageous move, and not just because it cost Apple’s stock several points when investors concluded the price drop meant sales weren’t as strong as had been hoped. Apple relies on early adopters to do the job of proselytizing for the company and giving its products an aura of cool—making their release dates into pseudoevents that the tech press can breathlessly report on. Nevertheless Jobs didn’t hesitate to alienate them with the price cut—sending them the message that their mission of shilling for the company has been accomplished and the cachet that they hoped to retain for being on the gadget vanguard was now being stripped as Apple veers toward the mass market. Apple’s days as a niche product are well over, and the company’s devotees will eventually recognize that there is no identity perks to using Apple stuff. It just makes you like everyone else, one of those featureless shadows in the iPod’s marketing campaign, one of those rotating clone computers in the ads for the iMac running incessantly during the televised U.S. Open tennis matches.


But by issuing his apology (and the rebate offer), Jobs is in a position to reap some praise from the consumers he is signaling that he no longer cares about—he can seem iconoclastic for acknowledging a mistake in pursuing a tried-and-true business strategy of shooting for the mainstream even while continuing to pursue it, with even more vehemence.

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