Is Apple losing its cool? - Part 1

Apple Macintosh ad 1984: revised for the iPod launch.

By Erik Christiansen

Arguably the most influential technology advertisement in history was the Apple Macintosh Super Bowl spot, in 1984. 

I won't bother describing it in detail, since anyone can check it out on YouTube. What I will say is that it was one of the first times (at least that I can recall) where a small underdog company took on a larger competitor (in this case IBM)  with such fervour. 

Apple has had its ups and downs. It has also had possibly the greatest second act of any American company in history - going from near bankruptcy (under the direction of Gil Amelio) to a market leader under Steve Jobs, who returned in 1997. Despite its past financial predicaments, what Apple has always had going for it is its cool factor. Microsoft was never cool, and it was often viewed as the evil overlord because of its huge monopoly in the PC industry. Owning a Macintosh meant you weren't one of the herd. It meant you liked excellent hardware, graphic design, or video production. It made you look artsy and sophisticated. Most companies would kill to have this appeal. That image has been essential for Apple, since it allowed the company to push the design envelope and charge a premium for its products.

In recent years, Apple has not exactly been the suffering. I'm confident that Steve Jobs and his executive team understood the Macintosh would never gain a significant market share (say 20%) or overtake Microsoft. To become a more dominant player, the only option would be to leapfrog the PC industry and get a head start in mobile. Apple was one of the first to the mobile industry with the Newton (a PDA), but it was way ahead of its time and lacked some essential functionality. Technologist and radio/internet personality, Leo Laporte, said it would have been a great device had it been more pocketable and had constant internet connectivity. Apple re-entered mobile in 2001, but this time with the iPod. Not until the release of the iPhone and iPad did Apple become the dominant force in mobile. Again, the iPhone and the iPad had a cool factor that Windows Mobile and Android didn't. But is this still the case?

The iPhone and iPad are great devices. They are well-built, reliable, have a simple yet elegant user interface, and are connected to a thriving and growing ecosystem which is currently unparalleled (if you include music and entertainment). But neither device has the wow factor it once did. They are more like common appliances, and are seen everywhere you look. This is to be expected when a device becomes so mainstream. But Apple has never been in a position like this before, and that drastically changes its relationship with competitors. 

Apple zombie: CC Image courtesy of Scott Beale

Apple zombie: CC Image courtesy of Scott Beale

Recently Nokia released an ad that depicts iPhone users as mindless zombies, wandering the streets taking photographs with ultra-bright flashes. Obviously the commercial is designed to highlight the excellent camera that Nokia's Lumia devices possess - namely their superior low light performance. But, the imagery is quite telling. Nokia could have depicted iPhone users in a multitude of ways, but they chose zombies. I suppose one could argue that it fits in with contemporary culture (the zombie apocalypse is a popular theme these days) just like 1984 resonated with earlier generations. But, I think it says a lot more.

Apple's competition sees it as the modern incarnation of IBM or Microsoft - a mobile industry monolith. Microsoft, Samsung, and Nokia all have aggressive marketing campaigns which place their companies and users in the underdog position, just like Apple did in its famed Mac vs PC ads in the mid 2000s. But, is this really a fair comparison? Does it say more about the insecurity of Apple's competitors?

Watch for part two of this article in the coming days.