Cult of the iPhone launch

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Last Wednesday night millions of geeks sat huddled over laptop computer screens following the great spectacle that was the Apple iPhone launch.

This year’s iPhone5 didn’t disappoint. The phone is on a par with the competition, had many of the rumoured features (like an aluminium back and a new port now called “Lightning”) and significant want-to-have factor to keep Apple’s revenue flowing and its share price skyrocketing.

But within days there were cries of dismay because it was merely “evolutionary” and didn’t have enough of a “wow factor” to impress.

Meanwhile, there was a war breaking out around the world sparked by the controversial YouTube clip depicting the prophet of Islam, Mohammed, in an unflattering light. Made by amateurs and clearly inflammatory, it has sparked a wave of protests and the death of innocent people.

For the first day at least, and Marikana notwithstanding, it was embarrassing to see tech toys become more important news than people dying.

The Boston Globe’s Farah Stockman captured the strange dichotomy of the freedom-of-speech issues at stake with the YouTube clip: “I can’t think of a time when the reckless actions of a few private citizens have cost us so much – in American lives, tax dollars and credibility around the world. Just because we have the freedom to say what we want doesn’t mean saying whatever we want is just or prudent.”

Apply that to Marikana and the ANC’s leadership battle.

Back in the reality-distortion field created by Apple’s carefully choreographed product launches, the tech pundits were back-thumping each other for getting so many of the leaked details correct. Yes, it now has an aluminium back, and a bigger screen, and, yes, there’s a new port called “Lightning”.

Oh, scandal of scandals, the power adaptor has changed. The multibillion-dollar accessories market doesn’t know whether to cry foul or yeehar as the potential to sell a new generation of sound docks and other add-ons beckons.

Apple is unique in the world in that it can radically change tack on its loyal fans. They will gripe and moan but will eventually be happy with their changed fortunes. Whether they like it or not. No other company on the planet can behave with such arrogance and get away with it. Or can claim such loyalty.

As a business principle you have to admire how Apple rigorously reinvents its products, keeping them fresh and ahead of the competition. This embodies what Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson: “If you don’t cannibalise yourself someone else will.”

The iPhone launch was like watching geeks participating in their annual religious fervour. I imagine it’s like it is for Catholics when the pope gives a speech, or for the millions of slavering, slavish fans of Manchester United when they play at Old Trafford.

This is the so-called Cult of the Mac at work. It’s a belief system as powerful as that of any organised religion. Its congregants are the passionate users who have persisted with Apple through the dark decade before Jobs returned to lead it back into the light and glory.

There has been a lot of soul-searching and muttering about the shallow nature of product journalism: how the technology journalists slaver and drool over small shiny objects that are marginally better than the previous model.

American comedy host Jimmie Kimmel sent a TV crew out onto the streets of Los Angeles. People were asked at random what they thought of the new iPhone – then the iPhone 4S. People authoritatively called it lighter and faster.

It might be my job to celebrate new technology and its advances, but it needs to be in context. How did we all end up worshipping a smartphone?

*This column originally appears on Times Live on 17 September 2012

Image: CNET

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