A close colleague has called me out over my iPad. How can a man in my position still be walking around with an iPad 1? I’m bringing shame on my friends and tarnishing the family name. So what if my old iPad is still working well? Since when was that the point? Oh my God; it is, like, two years old. You have to keep up with the Jobses.
It’s the same with phones. I know sane people who will take time off work to queue for the latest iPhone. You just don’t want to be walking around with such an antiquated piece of junk as a 10-month-old iPhone. You may as well still be dressing like the guys from Miami Vice. With conformity comes self-delusion, however. It’s easy to spot the guy with an iPhone 4s at a party – he’s the one still insisting that Siri is really useful.
The only joy in this increasingly vicious product cycle – which is not unique to Apple – is that it is now coming back to bite the company. Last week, Apple reported a slowdown in iPhone sales as customers delayed purchases amid rumours of a new model. And with the next upgrade always on its way, there is nearly always reason to hold out.
Deep down, I do want the new iPad. I don’t need it, but I want it. Just as I want the newest phone; just as I once tired of the first-generation Action Man and wanted the new Action Man with gripping hands, moving “eagle” eyes and fuzzy hair. Why did a 10-year-old boy want the Action Man with the bristly hair? What was I going to do, perm it? I wanted it because it was the newest toy and it was cool. Sadly, my parents did not consider this an upgrade of sufficient moment to merit the expenditure.
Now, I want the new iPad with the gripping functionality and the “eagle” apps. I want it. Why can’t I have it? It’s my money. Everyone else has got one; it’s not fair. This time it’s my inner parent that’s resisting; it is telling me that I have a perfectly good iPad which, though lacking a folding metallic cover and a FaceTime app I’d never use, still does what I want it to do. For now, the inner parent is winning, but it’s a constant struggle.
This is the central genius of Apple’s marketing. It has recognised the vacuity and infantilism at the heart of our purchases, and built-in obsolescence, with poor battery lives and new software releases that are incompatible with older devices, to help us justify wasting hundreds of pounds. It has realised these are not phones or computers but toys, through which to channel our submerged spoilt child. I want this toy; I want it. The old one sucks. You can give it to my sister.
But giving in to these urges is still hard on the weak-willed. When do you jump in and buy? Even if you are there at the launch of a new product, you know that it is already devaluing; that even as you swank around with your iPhone 5, someone will tell you that the 6 is in the works and that it comes with a microwave. And then there are the 7in mid-size tablets … If I don’t buy one I won’t complete the set, but do I leap in for the Google Nexus or hold out for the iPad mini which may or may not be coming in the autumn? But shouldn’t I hold back in the knowledge that Apple’s second iteration is often much better? What if the iPad mini only has Google Maps and not the promised Apple Maps with new improved Australia?
Perhaps the sales fall-off is just a bump; after all, phones do have a replacement cycle built in, not least with their short-lived batteries. But the problem with joining the toy market is that “hot to not” is a rapid journey, and with each upgrade of this once life-enhancing gadget, the arc of the pleasure shortens and the case for the cheaper option grows. The need for each upgrade to dazzle becomes more pressing. A slightly larger screen, a marginally better resolution, a faintly useful new function, a bit more battery life – this is no longer the stuff of dreams, and the last thing these companies need is for our inner parents to gain the upper hand.