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

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