When the head of Apple strode on to stage at the California Theater on Tuesday evening the expectant crowd whooped and cheered. It was a similar – albeit more low key – reception at Pier 57 in New York City on Thursday, when the head of Microsoft appeared.
The tail end of October has been dominated by the Big Two launches: Apple’s iPad Mini and Microsoft’ Windows 8 and Surface tablet. Complete with banked photographers and ecstatic press scrums trying to get a glimpse of the latest “model”, they felt as much like fashion shows as product launches.
But that should come as no surprise. It is all part of a shift in technology that has gradually moved away from an emphasis on utility to today’s holy trinity of look, feel and lifestyle. A shift pioneered by Apple but increasingly championed by all tech firms, it takes its cues from fashion, positioning tablets, computers and software as cultural beacons: stamps that immediately say who you are or, rather, who you aspire to be. If anything proves just how far technology is ingrained in our lives, it is this.
Yet what’s most significant about this move is not what it tells us about Apple or Microsoft or any other technology firm, but what it tells us about ourselves.
Everyone think different
For most people, a modern tablet computer or operating system is a minor miracle of excess, able comfortably to accomplish every daily digital task demanded of it. But what we merely do is no longer the key factor. Far more significant is the way that owning and using these objects makes us feel: status, self-expression and how we would like to be perceived by others.
It is something that is subtly and repeatedly emphasised by tech firms. The rhetoric around the iPad mini is familiar enough, with official descriptions emphasizing its beauty, fluidity and tactile intimacy of experience. Even Microsoft, though, are now playing the same game for all it's worth, with the public presentation of Windows 8 coming across as an attempt to out-Apple Apple.
According to Microsoft’s product guide, “Windows has been reimagined to focus on your life. The beautiful, fast, and fluid design is perfect for a range of hardware... it’s smooth, intuitive, and gives you instant access...” And so on. What’s on offer is a kind of technological sublime, promising not only the ultimate lifestyle accessory, but a place where the experience of living itself can be perfected.
The move from technology manufacturer to fashion label has helped Apple become the world’s most valuable company. More than anyone, it has defined the increasingly image-conscious space within which digital technologies try to position themselves. Think of its 1984 advert for the first Macintosh or its “Think Different” campaign of 1997, which emphasised that buying into a technology immediately bought you membership of a cultural elite. This worked well, but what really gave it a kick was when gadgets left the office and appeared on the high street. With mobile phones and MP3 players, people were able to show off just how different they were all the time by simply popping a million identical pairs of white headphones into their ear.
Today, Apple had completed its transition from a technology company into a lifestyle brand: something that comes complete with apparent media privileges. As Alexis Madrigal, editor of the Atlantic tech noted when Apple showed its latest commercial: “Gotta say: that's a damn good iPad Mini commercial. Luckily, the press does all the work of explaining the thing, so Apple can just brand.”