One of the reasons Apple stands out competitively is that it sells on the idea of magic. In reality, products like the iPhone have advantages and disadvantages that make them no better than other good products on the market. But people see them as more than that, a statement of status -- a device that signifies that they are part of an elite group. That perception remains unique to Apple, at least with consumer electronics.
However, over the past two weeks, the iPhone 4 has been under fire as an inferior product and Consumer Reports actually placed it on the "unacceptable" list even though it rated earlier versions toward the top of class. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the most powerful U.S. senators, sent Steve Jobs a personal letter, asking Jobs to fix the phone and disclose the problem Schumer said providing bumpers isn't enough. Last Friday, Jobs falsely said other companies' phones share the antenna problem -- one of four major problems plaguing the iPhone. Not only could that not be true, but the iPhone has a unique external antenna -- and the other phone companies are aggressively pointing this out. But this built on the idea that the iPhone is just another phone. Jobs just blew off Sen. Schumer.
If the iPhone is "just another smartphone," then where is the magic that folks thought they were buying? If people don't see anything special about the iPhone, will they want it as much? Did Apple just kill the magic? Let's explore this.
Magic is about making people believe in a perception regardless of the reality. Magicians don't really make people float or disappear, and they can't saw a woman in half (at least not in a way that can easily be corrected,) but they provide the illusion that they can. And we find the illusion entertaining.
Magic is inherent in Apple products. Apple builds products of better-than-average quality and sells them at a stiff premium. But it presents and markets those products much as a magician might stage a magic trick. The excellent book "Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs" details how things are staged so they convey the magical impression that they are more than they are or ever can be. And most people hold onto that impression even after they have purchased the product.
It isn't that they don't have problems -- no one's products are perfect -- but because buyers believe that what they have must be better than the alternatives, they put up with these problems and line up for new products year after year when they are released.
Apparently desire for status is hardwired into us as method of attracting more favorable mates. When we connect brands to status, those brands can become golden. In consumer electronics, Apple is the only truly universal status brand. People who have iPhones treat them as a symbol of having arrived and becoming superior to those that don't have iPhones.
This is perhaps one of Apple's strongest assets, yet it might have pissed both it and its magic away last Friday.
July 16, 2010: The Day the Apple Magic Died
As a magician, you learn that the trick tends to lose its attraction if the audience learns the mechanics of it. If I know that the floating lady is supported by a board and pedestal hidden by mirrors or clothing, it's no longer magic -- it is just engineering. What Apple may have done Friday is shown the trick and killed much of its status at the same time.
By falsely comparing the iPhone's antenna problem to most every other cell phone, it drew a line under all of them and showed the result as equivalent. The iPhone isn't magic, it is just another smartphone. It isn't special, it is just another smartphone. It doesn't enhance your status, it is just another smartphone. And given it is with AT&T, a widely disliked carrier, it is just another smartphone from a carrier that sucks. Instead of people having them being of high status, the implication is that they are stupid for not realizing they are just using another smartphone from a carrier they would otherwise avoid. There is no positive status in that. In fact, you might start connecting iPhone buyers to folks that aren't particularly bright, if you aren't careful.
I wonder whether Steve Jobs and Apple realize that if that message resonates, the lines to buy new iPhones are likely to get a lot shorter.
Wrapping Up: Time Will Tell
Changes like this take time. Back in 1995, people thought Windows 95 was a magic product. Microsoft screwed up the launch, and the lines for Windows 98 were far shorter. After that, folks didn't talk about lines anymore. That is to say it took a few years for the full impact of the impression to be felt because we do tend to be creatures of habit. But with ever more competitive platforms coming to market from RIM, Google, HP (Palm), and even Microsoft (Windows Phone 7), it's becoming much more important for Apple to continue to make the iPhone look magical. Unfortunately, at the same time, Apple appears to be killing that magic.
So, after watching Steve Jobs' painful and incredibly arrogant rant last Friday, do you still buy that the iPhone for its magic or are you thinking maybe a Google or RIM phone would be vastly better on a carrier that is reliable?