Apple and Wanting to Belong

Fast Company has a rich examination of what might be contributing to the (perceived) degradation of good feelings about Apple by Bruce Nussbaum. This passage I feel boils down the argument for the most part (though I recommend the entire piece), and I want to break it apart a little.
The gist is that the more Apple seems to the general public to be “just another company” rather than a generator of culture or ethos, all the worse for Apple. As he puts it:

The shift in Apple’s narrative frame from awe to money is changing the meaning of belonging, a crucial ingredient of Aura.

No one feels like they’re “a part of something” by using a Microsoft or HP product, but I know I felt like I was adopting a culture of sorts when I graduated from iPod to Powerbook in 2004. But those were different days.

He goes on:

Instead of new and wonderful things that make our lives better, we hear constant talk of share prices, cost of iPhones, and price points in the “globalization” of products.

Yes, there is constant talk about these things, especially with Apple’s stock price decaying the way it has, but I don’t think this really filters down to the broad customer base. The tech enthusiasts, the business types, yeah, they care about this and blog about it until they can’t wiggle their fingers anymore, and that can influence the rest of the public’s opinion, but on the whole, I think opinions of Apple will be formed at the individual, person-to-gadget or person-to-service level.

And Nussbaum gets there:

Charging for the iCloud introduces a tax to belonging to the community. And cutting costs by threatening to fire the competent and friendly staff in Apple stores—the physical “face” of Apple to its followers—marks a distancing of the company with its followers.

As a former blue-shirted drone, this rings very true. Those stores really are little embassies for the Nation of Apple, and it was difficult enough providing the very high level of personable attention that Apple Stores mastered with the number of staff (and small physical space) we had. When the new-and-then-suddenly-former head of retail John Browett began nickel-and-diming the staff (after I was gone), it was a huge red flag to me that the tide had turned to an unfortunate post-Jobs era. By letting the stores wither, even a little, they would be sacrificing one of the things that made them a “culture.” I know those moves have purportedly been reversed, or at least slowed, but I also happen to know that things are not as they once were.

Apple once provided an optimistic, modern, creative existential meaning to its customers, who wanted to belong and were willing to pay extra to get into the community. But now it’s as if Apple has set out to break the bonds that connect it to its community.

This may be inevitable. Apple reached critical mass with iPhone and iPad, and now there are so many folks now wandering into the “Apple culture,” that it’s not really possible for it to be as “exclusive,” or elite as it once was (or felt). It’s just, well, normal.

But I don’t think it’s fair to say that Apple has “set out” to make this happen. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, Apple is doing what it’s supposed to do: making the best toys it can and making as much money as possible in selling them. It’s probably not fair to say that Apple has opted to neglect this feeling of culture or community in order to focus on money. Jeebus knows they have enough of it. It is fair to say, however, that they’re just not succeeding in creating that culture, by releasing half-baked services, by producing applications that are bloating into near-unusability (iTunes and iPhoto are my nemeses).

Ironically, I would guess that if maintaining a self-important subculture is important to Apple (and I don’t know that it ever was), I could see a concentration on Macs versus Apple generally. They’re still easily the best PCs out there, and they still have a market share one could describe charitably as “plucky.” But that’s not where Apple sees its future, and I suppose nor does almost anyone else. But before there was an i-anything, remember, there was a Cult of Mac.

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13 thoughts on “Apple and Wanting to Belong

  1. At the risk of seeming contrarian:1. I’m prepared to accept there are differences between iPods and other MP3 players. They are essentially meaningless however. You don’t join a culture when you buy a consumer device that plays MP3s.
    2. iPhones are perhaps marginally different from other smart phones, but again – probably not enough to count as making a ‘culture choice’.
    Now, once you get to Macs, or even iPads, you’re on fairly solid ground. (Mind you I loathe both – but I will certainly concede that they are substantially different to Windows or Linux running machines. Of course I’d say they were worse, and others would say better, but different we’d agree on).
    Apple’s reinvention of itself as, essentially, an MP3 selling and playing company was what saved it. And arguably that was also the first step in destroying its culture. After all, iPod is now to MP3 player what Hoover is to vacuum cleaners, or Kleenex is to tissues – or at least that is my impression.

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  2. Apple has always been “Just another company”. Hell, in fact, they’ve honestly been one of the worst, from everything I’ve ever been able to see. They’ve just got a great propaganda department.
    Macs are, for their price, some of the absolute worst PCs out there, and Apple does everything in its power to keep you from making them better. They’re overpriced, barely upgradeable, cryptically designed trainwrecks that get by on looking cool and pandering to people who want to feel like elitists but don’t actually know shit about computers. The one good thing that can be said about Apple is that they provide enough competition to make Microsoft pretend to be honest, but, honestly, they don’t even do a great job of that.
    This is my single obligatory “No, Paul, stop being an Apple fanboy” post for this thread. I will go do something else now.

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  3. They’re still easily the best PCs out there,

    ATI Radeon HD 5770 1GB Graphics card for Mac Pro – DL DVI/2 x Mini DP £226.80
    ATI Radeon HD 5870 1GB Graphics card for Mac Pro – DL DVI/2 x Mini DP £418.80
    – – –
    Passmark
    Other names: ATI Radeon HD 5770
    Videocard First Benchmarked: NA
    G3DMark/$Price: 16.59 Overall Rank: 85
    Last Price Change: $99.99 USD (2012-10-10)
    Description:
    Other names: ATI Radeon HD 5870
    Videocard First Benchmarked: NA
    G3DMark/$Price: 12.69 Overall Rank: 41
    Last Price Change: $199.99 USD (2012-03-24)
    – – –
    226.80 British Pound Sterling equals
    355.26 Canadian Dollar
    418.80 British Pound Sterling equals
    656.00 Canadian Dollar
    Let’s see, even if you can upgrade your Mac hardware, it costs THREE TIMES US MUCH as a PC.
    I mean, let’s not get carried away here. Some prefer Macs, Some PC’s, but don’t say that Macs are “still easily the best PC out there,” when I can build my own PC, that matches any Mac, for 1/3rd the price. You are still promoting the Apple Culture of Superiority when you say unsubstantiated crap like that.
    I think the wheels started to loosen when the reports of the working conditions for parts supply companies in East Asia became publicized. People are starting to catch on that not only are iPhones and iPads equaled, more or less, by Android powered units from Samsung, they are limited in their options to customize and there are no alternatives. I get all kinds of questions from Apple users about how to do this or that on their phones, and rarely from Android users, which own the smartphone market.
    Custormers are pretty loyal to Apple, though, much as any brainwashed cult member is to their cult.

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  4. mikmik: That’s a ridiculous comparison. Apple makes ONE tower PC with an upgradable video card, while the tower is the standard form factor of the windows world. Low demand for the part and a perceived monopoly means they charge an arm and a leg for that point. It’s only a perceived monopoly though: many folks have successfully bought PC video cards to flash for their Macs. RAM and storage drives are also platform independent, meaning that’s pretty much the only part that costs three times as much.
    I’ve priced Macs and PCs repeatedly, because I actually research my purchases. When spec matching the actual components, new Macs are usually 10-15% more than an equivalent PC. I won’t deny that you can get significantly more power for that 10-15%, or shave more off by substituting parts (i.e. the price difference between a 27″ FHD and the 27″ QFD used by the iMac is substantial) For what you get though, the price difference isn’t as insane as “PC cultists” like to pretend.
    A lot of folks can easily justify that price difference through the experience and aesthetics of their computer: just because those are subjective qualities doesn’t make them any less real or important in the purchase of a computer. Hell, I could probably save another $40 off the price of a cheap plastic case and hold it together with polystyrene foam, but not wanting “Jabba the PC” doesn’t make someone a cultist. =P

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  5. @Drew “Are those current prices and is that the best available? That GPU is at least 2 generations behind.”Yeah, I almost blew an aneurysm writing my comment. I just googled ‘Mac video card’ and I didn’t really see anything in the first 30 results but that page. Those cards are still DirectX 10, and unless you are into some fairly heavy gaming, those cards are still popular, although discontinued. That’s why I compared them to equivalent PC cards, and I got all apoplectic about that one comparison. I should settle down a little sometimes!

    I’ve priced Macs and PCs repeatedly, because I actually research my purchases. When spec matching the actual components, new Macs are usually 10-15% more than an equivalent PC.

    Okay, I certainly stand corrected. Even I should know better.
    I did point out that I know some people that love Macs, and since they are high level graphics developers, I don’t doubt it.
    That’s interesting about flashing BIOS and firmware. Good idea. I haven’t though about that since Apple moved to the x86 platform. PC hardware seems, to me, to be quite easy to get, and good deals right now, too.
    Yeah, sorry, I did go overboard. I was countering the OP about Apple being far superior. Seeing I’m a hardware guy(these days) building PC’s, I don’t have much experience with new units. I like to tinker, so I know I’m biased. But still, Pc’s and Androids are so much more customizable. I can start with a good mobo and upgrade the processor, vid, hard drives -> SSD, piece by piece, and end up with something wicked, and I don’t know if that is feasible with Mac’s.
    Still, all the graphics pro’s like Macs, for some reason.
    This is hilarious Mac killed my inner child

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  6. Still, all the graphics pro’s like Macs, for some reason.

    Built in color profiling and native PDF support are big reasons. Quicktime back in the day was huge for video as well, since it supported so many audio, video and image formats natively. Since most multimedia programs were based on it, you didn’t need to cobble together multiple programs to translate the file types independently.
    For me, it’s stability and reliability. Macs have saved my ass a few times, when Adobe files start to get corrupt or hog too much RAM.
    In fact this is the only reason I haven’t done a “Hackintosh”, using a custom boot-loader to install MacOS X on a Gigabyte-based PC system. You can find out a lot more at http://www.TonyMacX86.com. The good news on a Hackintosh is that it’s actually cheaper than building a Windows computer, since the OS is only $30. The bad news is because they aren’t officially supported, selection is limited, and building them takes a lot of fiddling to get working, which I no longer have the time or patience to deal with.
    Now, if Apple were to release an “official” atx intel motherboard, I’d be an incredibly happy camper.
    To be completely honest, I’m actually nearing the end of my rope with Apple, even as a graphics designer. I don’t like the trend towards hermetically sealed computers which can only be upgraded at inflated prices up front; a trend which seems to be infecting the rest of the industry in the Ultrabook and tablet ranges. Apple also seems to have painted itself into a corner regarding the Mac Pro, which has been pretty neglected over the past couple of years. Cook pretty much promised that those will get an update this year, so we’ll see.
    I’m also seriously considering a Surface Pro, as opposed to a MacBook Air or iPad. If you really want to see an insane price difference, compare the $900 Surface Pro with the $3500 third-party “Modbook”, which encloses a MacBook in a wacom-based case. Yeesh.

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  7. To the original post though, I have seen this transition. I used to belong to a mac user forum years ago. In the past decade it transformed from a Mac Users forum to an Apple Investor’s forum. Old fans who loved the product have become corporate cheerleaders who love the stock.
    That means these days, I buy Apple products, but I’m rooting for the competition. Short of massive government regulation, it seems to be the best way to keep them in check.

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  8. Why is it that for a PC running Linux or Windows, the need/ability to tinker is a good thing, but for a Hackintosh, it is bad? If you don’t want to tinker, get a real Mac.
    The hermetic-sealing is a non-issue for me. The first thing I did with both my current Macs was to extend their RAM. The MacBook got the full Moby; the iMac got its two spare memory slots completely filled so it has 3/4 Moby. I replaced the hard drive in the MacBook with a bigger one.
    The biggest problem I see with Apple these days is that they have fallen irretrievably in love with their iOS UI and want to take all that cool stuff to the desktop OS X. But my desktop machines are not tablets! They often run multiple screens and multiple apps. I wish Apple would stop trying to make the mutliple-app workflow on OS X just like the (sucky) multiple-app “experience” on iOS. And Apple trained me for twenty years to scroll the thumb in the scroll bar in the opposite direction from how the content moves. I’m fine with that. Don’t reverse the direction on me! I hate trackpads!
    But I use Linux and Windows and OS X at work. After a day of struggling with DLL Hell and Upgrade Hell and all upgrading Java and Eclipse and Mercurial and argh, I still would rather use a machine that “just works” at home … and that’s still a Mac.

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  9. Apple is making 50 billion profit per quarter. They must be doing something right.
    My theory on the lower stock price is that the Apple TV effort, including the agreements with the media and cable companies fell through or is delayed and people with inside information know this.
    But there will be other markets that Apple will improve. What Apple seems to be good at is to identify a market and make a device for it that doesn’t suck. Think about phones before the iPhone and tablet computing before the iPad.
    Jobs (PBUH), mentioned cars and inordinately amount of times as a market that sucks. Doesn’t the new Apple campus look like a racetrack..hmm…

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  10. Charging for the iCloud introduces a tax to belonging to the community. And cutting costs by threatening to fire the competent and friendly staff in Apple stores—the physical “face” of Apple to its followers—marks a distancing of the company with its followers.
    As a former blue-shirted drone, this rings very true. Those stores really are little embassies for the Nation of Apple, and it was difficult enough providing the very high level of personable attention that Apple Stores mastered with the number of staff (and small physical space) we had. When the new-and-then-suddenly-former head of retail John Browett began nickel-and-diming the staff (after I was gone), it was a huge red flag to me that the tide had turned to an unfortunate post-Jobs era. By letting the stores wither, even a little, they would be sacrificing one of the things that made them a “culture.” I know those moves have purportedly been reversed, or at least slowed, but I also happen to know that things are not as they once were.
    I was also a former blue-shirted drone, although it was more black than blue and there was an occasional red, or green, thrown in. And then…
    Then I had two strokes and instead of waiting while I got better… They fired me after six years of service, starting with the first weeks we put the store together.
    Oh well, I still love the stuff, I can do without the needing to worry about the customers (I was a Genius.)

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  11. You know, you can (more than likely) use the PC part instead of the Apple part. You did know this? Yes?
    ATI Radeon HD 5770 1GB Graphics card for Mac Pro – DL DVI/2 x Mini DP £226.80
    ATI Radeon HD 5870 1GB Graphics card for Mac Pro – DL DVI/2 x Mini DP £418.80
    – – –
    Passmark
    Other names: ATI Radeon HD 5770
    Videocard First Benchmarked: NA
    G3DMark/$Price: 16.59 Overall Rank: 85
    Last Price Change: $99.99 USD (2012-10-10)
    Description:
    Other names: ATI Radeon HD 5870
    Videocard First Benchmarked: NA
    G3DMark/$Price: 12.69 Overall Rank: 41
    Last Price Change: $199.99 USD (2012-03-24)

    I used to do that on my Mac before I went to using an iMac.

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  12. I think there’s a hidden variable…
    Linux. If smart is sexy then Linux makes ya look sexier than Mac. Unfortunately for Macs they are a hardware company and Linux can run on Macs just as well. But then why pay extra for marginally better hardware? Priorities have shifted.

    Like

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