“…is going to buy whatever Apple unveils today, right at 5pm, no matter what it is.” — Seen on Facebook, January 27, 2010
As I write this, it has been fourteen hours since Apple’s Steve Jobs revealed the iPad to a crowd of cheering followers, er, customers, this morning. For what it’s worth, I’m in no way impressed with the new iProduct. I’ve been working with Apple systems since I hacked up a “worm race” program for the Apple ][+ back in 1982, and I am writing this column on a 24″ iMac, so I’m very far from being anti-Apple — but this new tablet doesn’t do it for me.
Not that Mr. Jobs would care. As a company, Apple is very far from being the hacker-friendly maker of expansion-slot-packed beige wedges I knew as a child. One could argue that Apple isn’t even really a computer company any more, insofar as they don’t devote a lot of attention to making computers. Instead, Apple is a producer of design-centric goods which offer little more utility than their competitors while commanding significantly higher prices. Hmm… I think that means that Apple is a luxury brand. Don’t you?
After all, “luxury” doesn’t necessarily mean Brioni suits, megayachts, or any of the verses from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”. Rather, a luxury is simply something that one does not need, but that one wants, often for no other reason than the social standing or perceived prestige associated with the item. Luxury, in other words, is something that offers a boost in self-image and image within a community. The iPad will be a luxury item. Nobody needs an iPad. The functionality of the iPad doesn’t justify the price. There are cheaper, uglier, more drab devices that provide about the same utility for less money.
I would suggest that most iPad purchasers will be people who identify with the Apple brand and its cultural associations. If iPads were invisible, or if they looked exactly like Dell laptops, they would collect dust on the brightly lit Apple Store shelves. Instead, they will fly off those shelves and into the hands of people who want to be seen with the “right” product. Regardless of price. Regardless of function. Regardless of utility. Image is the key. And that is why the Toyota Prius is a successful luxury product. It’s also why the Honda Insight has cratered in the market, and it’s why the Prius spinoff, the hopelessly dumpy HS250h, is utterly doomed.