Monday, August 16th, 2010

Steve Jobs and the Star-On Machine

Steve Jobs and the Star-On Machine
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Want an iPhone 4 in Canada? Well, you aren’t getting one… at least not without a long, long wait in perhaps one of the nerdiest lines one can imagine. That is, until tomorrow. My source says this Tuesday marks Apple’s “real” launch date for the iPhone 4, up here in the lovely, “great white north.”

The folks at Apple need to get their supply chain under control

Now, perhaps I just don’t understand the logistics surrounding the launch of a new technology. Scratch that; I don’t know anything about such things. So, you’ll have to bear with me, and my attempt at some rather plain contemplation surrounding the current “state of the iPhone.”

As I look at these strange congregations of sheep framing Apple Stores across the country, I imagine two distinct possibilities. The first, is that those in Cupertino’s executive suite have “goofed” royally, and simply cannot manage the company’s supply chain effectively. This could be the case. Perhaps they were caught off guard; thought they’d “go conservative” this time; or, were just waiting to see if anyone actually bought the thing. Who knows?

Considering the source, though, all of this seems unlikely. Let’s keep in mind that this is a company notorious for a rather severe need to control almost everything. I find myself reluctant to believe they’d take any chances with this launch—besides, didn’t they learn anything after the iPad “shortages” they faced a scant couple of months ago?

No, something tells me they know a thing or two about how to prepare for a product launch, as well as the appropriate number of units to “keep in the back.”

The Cupertino Theatre Company

The other thing Mr. Jobs and Co. have exhibited time and again, is a flair for the dramatic. In their world it’s not quite enough to be “good”; instead they speak of being “insanely great.” Rather than boring mission statements, they tell us about, “putting a dent in the universe.” I don’t think I’m going too far by saying that their product launches are highly orchestrated, leaving little to chance.

I further this train of thought with the suggestion that by deliberately limiting supply, they’ve found a way to extend their story and build increased (even frenzied) demand for their products.

In spite of hopes that more of us would be disinclined to fall for such trickery, these methods do, in fact, “just work.” Weeks after the launch, tweets abound with thoughts on how to get access to one of the few available units, while others use this platform to outright beg Apple to increase supply. Media outlets scurry to retail shops to “report” on these new product releases, as though documenting this sort of occurrence might somehow resemble legitimate journalism. And yet again, a great many are caught up in that same discussion that begins with, “are you upgrading to the new one?”

It’s hard to imagine more compelling marketing. It’s even more notable when you step back for a moment and remind yourself that all this frenzy is ultimately about a phone boasting higher resolution and a pretty good camera, but apparently loses signal strength if you hold it the wrong way.

By the way: for as flaky as my “source” is (he’s a fellow at a local cell phone outlet), I did find some validation in his comment last week. He explained, “I have a few more units coming in tonight, but you should just wait until next Tuesday or Wednesday. That’s when they really start to ship.”

Are all other marketers just doing it wrong?

My guess is that whatever business you’re in, you’re not particularly discriminating about who, what, or how much of it you sell. If a new prospect is a little out of your target market, you’ll likely make an exception. If they ask for added features, you’ll look into meeting their needs. Similarly, if someone orders more than you have, you’ll just add capacity to meet demand.

In most respects, this approach is sensible enough: sell to whoever is buying, act on customer feedback and suggestions, and produce whatever the market demands. Look around and you’ll see lots of this. Customers ask for lower prices, so, we reduce them. Buyers talk about features, so, we add them—and lots of them. And you never say “no” to a customer, or an opportunity for new work.

Apple’s curious, and seemingly contradictory, methods seem quite distinctly in contrast with all conventional thinking surrounding how to “woo” customers. They don’t go after every market. They’re slow to add features customers ask for—often appearing bullheaded and snobby in their approaches. Additionally, they continually release insufficient amounts of product—albeit for very short time spans—and subsequently create rabid fervor amongst a devout, and increasingly mainstream, following.

This form of enticement isn’t so much traditional marketing, in which the advertiser espouses the value afforded by a given product. Instead, it’s more like playground dynamics, in which, “the toy the other kid has,” becomes increasingly more desirable to other children. I suppose it’s that, in addition to the strange sense of comfort that comes from making the same choice as everyone else. (Who chooses the nightclub without a line over the one with?)

Apple has effectively found a way to tap into our desires on a multitude of levels, seducing us with this thing that few can get, but everyone wants, that is—each and every time—the greatest thing ever made… until the next version is announced.

Rants, capitulation, Sneetches

Yes, yes, yes… I know, I know, I know… I’m always carrying on in some way about Apple and my associated conspiracy theories. Worse yet, I’m the hypocrite who ballyhoos in this way, only to go on and buy as much Apple product as anyone else. Truth of the matter is that Apple leaves me loving, hating, reveling in, and distrusting them, all at the same time.

On the first point, they do make quite fine products. When I think “design + technology,” I can’t immediately imagine another company that so carefully considers each and every detail. On the second, their closed and monopolistic approaches concern me, and leave me feeling that we’re all better off if Apple remains one the underdogs. I like them as a “challenger” brand that serves as a kind of catalyst for innovation. Meanwhile, I feel better about them not having quite enough power to do things they probably would, if they were larger. (I just can’t shake the feeling that, given the opportunity, they’d turn into a bully awfully quickly.)

Moving forward, though, my shifting emotions of excitement and distrust, are the ones that I find most interesting. For the sake of this post, they are also the most relevant. While others are pitching for business, offering special deals, and wasting time on feature lists and “Musical Chairs” marketing, Apple makes everyone else look like they’re marketing in the stone age. They’re playing an altogether different game, and few of their competitors do anything more than poorly imitate them.

Perhaps Steve just paid more attention than the rest of us when his parents were reading Dr. Seuss books to him as a child. When I look at Jobs’ recent masterstrokes, I find myself returning to that story of Sylvester McMonkey McBean who so deftly used the Sneetches’ prejudice and greed to dupe them out of every dollar they had with his Star-On and Star-Off tattoo machines.

While Apple’s strategies don’t seem to be defined by these two specific human foibles, their approaches do seem to underscore some kind of need for meaning and distraction felt by the rich part of our planet.

This one got away on me

You’ll have to forgive me. This post began with a rather clear direction in mind but somehow I got carried away with ruminations about Apple’s true genius: the manufacturing of (irrational) desire. This sort of thing happens to me all the time, and I apologize for being so unable to resist tangents like these.

In my next post, I’ll come back to my original topic and contemplate scarcity and how it can be leveraged to create demand for your products/services—and perhaps even help us become more environmentally sustainable. For what it’s worth, I think this will be a much more interesting area to dive into, but I bet the one you’re currently reading will result in more discussion.

For now, though, I’ve got to wrap this up and see if I can get an iPhone. If I have enough time afterward, and a few bucks left over, I might even check how long the line is, in front of the Star-On machine.

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