When Apple took over

Wondering why people lined up like lemmings for the new iPhone 5? Look no further than Apple's clever ad campaigns

By Willie Osterweil
Published October 14, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)
Customers wait in line outside the Apple store on 5th Avenue, for Friday's iPhone 5 models to go on sale, in New York, September 19, 2012.     (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)
Customers wait in line outside the Apple store on 5th Avenue, for Friday's iPhone 5 models to go on sale, in New York, September 19, 2012. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

Jacobin They fill the sidewalks with tents and sleeping bags, transforming once pristine city blocks with their very presence, sharing thermoses of coffee and small hot meals.

They don’t care about the evening chill, or the stares of passerby, or the police. And the police don’t care about them. Because on that bright morning when the Apple store opens, they’ll roll up their blankets, strike their tents, and go home with a shiny new iPhone 5, as happy as clams and just as stupid.

To liberals of the 90s, Bill Gates was the symbol of both wealth and malevolence incarnate. Not only was he the richest man in the world, but his monolithic and monopolistic enterprise was based on a mediocre product with built in buggy obsolescence. He didn’t innovate; instead he partnered with IBM, purchased DOS, and then exploited both. And through ruthless business savvy, the narrative goes, Microsoft strong-armed the market despite a middling product, terrible customer service, and ruthless cost cutting.

But one man, one company, made a career (and cult) out of this “critique” of Bill Gates.

Apple surpassed Microsoft as the most valuable tech company in 2010, but Jobs had long before eclipsed Bill Gates in the consumer’s CEO-aspirant imaginary. Benevolent Jobs, who died merely the 42nd wealthiest American, was worshipped by liberals with the same intensity that Gates was hated.

Jobs worship may well be the first truly 21st century cult of personality: its form much more discursive and posturingly individualistic than the uniform authoritarianism that marked the 20th century’s great idols (the last of whom, Kim Jong-Il, died two months after Jobs). An extension of the intense commodity fetishism Apple produced brilliantly as it marketed its bland but user-friendly aesthetic, Jobs was worshiped as the embodiment of design, creativity and innovation while Gates was reviled as the embodiment of monopoly, planned obsolesence and obscene wealth.

Once again, the narrative of Apple’s new role in the market was pushed by a highly successful advertising campaign.

What’s really going on in these ads? It’s not exactly the classic hip/square dichotomy: Jon Hodgman is funny and charismatic, and there is some amount of mutual respect here. Although Hodgman is clearly a square, ‘Mac’ is not primarily a cool guy who rejects Hodgman’s identity. Instead, ‘Mac’ is unshaven, informally dressed, kinda average. The difference is not between the square who sells out and the cool guy who opts out, but rather the technocratic office worker and the precarious creative. Mac admits that PC is good at getting business done, but business is boring, and he’d rather be drinking a latte at the co-work space he shares with an industrial designer and a start-up architect. Wouldn’t you?

The ascension myth of Jobs over Gates and of Apple over Microsoft is a spectacular reflection and reenactment of the rise of post-Fordist precarious labor over the sort of middle class white-collardom historicized by C. Wright Mills. Gates was a man who rationalized the computer business. He ensured his software was packaged with outside manufacturers, who would then do the messy work of race-to-the-bottom competition for him, but would all carry the same (and same priced) Microsoft OS.

Microsoft made money on every shitty Dell or pimped out IBM, requiring almost no hardware overhead of their own. Once Windows had achieved a certain level of dominance it was impossible to make a cheap computer without either it or a high level of technical savvy (e.g., Linux). Microsoft won, as Žižek put  it in a London Review of Books essay, when it had “imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolizing the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect,’ meaning collective knowledge in all its forms … Gates effectively privatized part of the general intellect.”

Since Apple couldn’t fight on the grounds of cost, it would compete on ease-of-use and, more fundamentally, “lifestyle”: it would fight for its patch of general intellect. Rather than infinite customizability, Apple would come bundled with iTunes, iMovie and Garage Band. Apple made the hardware, the software, and ultimately even the store you bought it in. Microsoft sold a product that was ubiquitous and fundamental, but Apple sold a whole line of products, an experience, a way of life. The narrative is well rehearsed.

Microsoft predominantly (and unabashedly) produces work tools: the Microsoft Office Suite remains its flagship product. The PC has always been clunky when it comes to media production and consumption (though less so than Apple and its legions want you to believe), and the graceful handling of these functions is what sets Apple apart. Of course, these “creative” fields of production are just as much work tools as Office; it’s just that your work is fun. You make music! You make movies! You’re not a slave!

And though gamers have always used PCs, they did so because you could upgrade video cards and processing speed and power as you needed — keeping up with the latest generation of games without replacing your computer — so that gamers ended up with machines whose internal functioning little resembled their office counterparts. A Mac, however, is a Mac, its functions largely black-box and proprietary. You don’t hack it and you don’t upgrade it, you just buy a new one.

Of course, it is in design and packaging, not computing, that Apple has really excelled. Other than its innovations in touch-screen technology and battery life (significant but outsourced achievements), Apple has offered little in the way of  technical invention. What Apple does best is user interface and visual design, which, if you’re feeling generous, you can call a kind of beautiful craft: sowing the glove to exactly fit the hand while also grabbing the eye. But design, especially when it comes to the mass-produced consumer object, is really just the arty end of the marketing spectrum.

Anyone who has walked into an office knows that, the vast majority of the time, all the cubicles will be filled with identical PCs. But go into a café where the precariat gather to work, and it’s little silver and white laptops covering all the reclaimed-wood tables. Because when you’re a remote or precarious or creative worker, your MacBook is your home office, your little gilded cage, the place where you make your art, your blog, your music, sell your artisanal hand-painted bicycle helmets.

Apple is the cool boss to Microsoft’s authoritarian: there’s a beer cooler in the breakroom, and everyone calls him by his first name, but, unlike the corporate managers, he just can’t afford to provide you with health care or dental or a retirement plan. “But it’s cool, he’s so nice, and the office is really open, he lets us telecommute three days a week, and I just really like working somewhere where I get to be creative and respected at the same time.”

You do. You love being creative for your work. You love your job. That’s why you’ve got a Mac.

Willie Osterweil

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Apple Bill Gates Business Jacobin Mac Microsoft Steve Jobs