James Harkin: The iPad is a badge, not a product

Apple and HBO have triumphed by producing high-end stuff at a time when many of their competitors were travelling in the opposite direction

Share
Related Topics

Whoever said religion was dying never saw the queues that snake round Apple's stores when a new product arrives. On Friday night thousands of Britons, some having queued for three days, gathered to pay homage to the second coming of the iPad.

Many emerged holding their products aloft and punching the air. Never mind that iPad 2 was a modest and slightly disappointing upgrade on iPad 1, and that the uninitiated would scarcely be able to tell the difference. The rapturous way it was received had all the air of a revivalist meeting.

Apple's secret begins with its product. It refused to pay for the sort of spurious market research which often justifies big companies spreading themselves too thin or sinking to the lowest common denominator. Instead, under Steve Jobs, it's focused on making gadgets so beautifully functional that many people will pay extra to have one around.

It isn't the only big company to have taken this approach. The US cable channel HBO was chiefly famous for showing boxing matches and film re-runs, but then decided to concentrate all its efforts on producing high-quality drama. By swimming against the tide of mainstream American television, HBO was able to churn out genre-defying successes such as The Sopranos, The Wire and True Blood. Now it's one of the most profitable TV companies on earth.

Both Apple and HBO have triumphed by producing original, high-end stuff at a time when many of their competitors were travelling in the opposite direction. But somehow they've also managed to cultivate a kind of evangelical enthusiasm for their products in the audience. Apple, for example, doesn't seem to want customers but fans who want to identify themselves with the product. Carrying around an iBook, an iPhone or iPad has become the essential accessory of a certain kind of bourgeois bohemian. Apple fans come in any shapes and sizes, but what unites them is their insistence that they're somehow different from the mainstream – sleek but quirky, businesslike but iconoclastic. Among the most devout it's very much like a cult – there's even a popular website called Cult of Mac.

All this is very convenient for Apple's marketing department, but what does it say about us that we're so keen to identify ourselves with its products? More than simply products, gadgets like the iPad and programmes like The Wire have become badges – ways to identify ourselves in a world in which the traditional ways of classifying us by social class and mainstream religion are losing their purchase. On social networks like Facebook, it's easy to get lost. Profiling ourselves according to the things we really like makes it easy to mark ourselves out from the crowd, and gives us a flock to fly with.

Meanwhile the success of Apple and HBO might give the rest of our struggling retailers pause for thought. Many of the stores which dominated our town centres are fast approaching extinction, and the result has been to leave our high streets resembling ghost towns. If high street retail has a future, it's likely to see the replacement of those cathedrals of commerce with house churches, each organised around a cultish following.

The distinction between the fall of mainstream religion and the rise of its evangelical variant makes for an interesting analogy. Evangelicals know that the best flocks are manageable enough for members to identify with, and that what works best is to get people together in a live audience. With an infusion of missionary zeal our high streets might even be on the cusp of a new golden age of performance, talk and entertainment – and not just a shivering queue outside the Apple store on a Friday night.



James Harkin's 'Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours The Mainstream' has just been published by Little, Brown

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own