Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

All hail Apple's remarkable machine (and we're not talking about iPad 2)

Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple Special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 2, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Apple unveiled the iPad 2 as the successor to its popular tablet, the iPad.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the dictionary, under "Adequate," is a picture of the Radisson Fisherman's Wharf. The San Francisco hotel leaves nothing to be desired - really, desire doesn't factor into it at all. The no-nonsense double beds feature Sleep Number mattresses, the firmness spectrum of which runs all the way from stone tablet to runny egg. There is no shortage of generic Pomo art on the fingernail-coloured walls. The hotel itself is conveniently located by a section of San Francisco waterfront lined with overpriced family restaurants and so tourist-trappy in general that even the militantly lazy seals homesteading on Pier 39 occasionally get up and leave. The Radisson is, in every way, acceptable.

The Clift, on the other hand, is a polished Maserati of a hotel. The trendy downtown boutique's restrooms smell like freshly peeled mangoes. The lobby is a dimly mood-lit expanse of exotic woods and bizarre furniture choices (a six-foot-high chair; a loveseat with tree bark for a spine; something that looks like it's supported by elephant tusks but probably isn't). Indeed, the décor at the Clift gives the unsettling but undeniably hip impression of something Salvador Dali might have put together for the world's most flamboyant poacher. A night at the Clift will run you the equivalent of three nights at the Radisson.

The Radisson was my home for two days last week as I arrived in San Francisco to observe Apple's big reveal of its new iPad tablet computer. The Clift could have been my home, had I accepted Apple's offer to pay my way here - something at least a few of the 150 or so journalists here for the iPad launch did. For two days, Apple snapped up a good chunk of the Clift's available rooms. One can only imagine the final bill.

Story continues below advertisement

Not that this sort of thing is all unique to Apple. If you're reading this article on a notebook, desktop or smart phone, chances are the company that made the hardware or software you're using has, at one time or another, offered to fly me somewhere in the world on their tab.

(There exists in Toronto journalist lore the story of a now-defunct freelancers' alliance whose members used to mark down every one of these junkets on a calendar and sign up for them months in advance, thereby effectively getting to see the world for free, often without bothering to write anything after each trip).

We came to San Francisco ostensibly to witness the second coming of Apple's white-hot tablet - the same gadget that Google, Motorola, Research In Motion and a hundred other companies are now desperately trying to catch up with. You've no doubt by now heard everything there is to say about the iPad 2: it's fast, good-looking and thinner than air.

In a few months, the same stage will feature a different act: maybe the next iPhone, and then the iPad 3, and so on. In a sense, every one of these events is less about the product and more about taking a very first-world kind of cultural pulse, witnessing the next sleek gizmo that folks will voluntarily sleep outside in the cold just to be the first to purchase.

But there's something bigger going on, something weirdly political. The more interesting part of all this hoopla is how Apple got to be far and away the best company in the world at making people want things. Over the past decade, nobody has come close to generating the kind of rabid, euphoric frenzy that Apple has for its iProducts. Outside the world of high-end auctions, rarely does the basic act of buying something elicit applause from onlookers. But show up at any Apple store on the morning of a new product launch and there they are, crowds of beaming people cheering wildly as one of their own successfully engages the cash register.

A day spent in the middle of a high-profile Apple product launch sheds some light on how this company became perhaps the best marketer on Earth. For one thing, they spend a lot of

1) Money.

Story continues below advertisement

Sitting in the auditorium of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where Apple makes many of its big announcements, I realized that this was the first time I'd heard Beatles music playing at a public event. The reason most companies don't use Beatles music - the reason movie soundtracks contain Beatles covers far more often than the real thing - is because the songs are ludicrously expensive to license.

But Apple doesn't have that problem. Last year, the company pulled off a coup when it convinced Beatles rightsholders to make the music available on iTunes. Just as with the bill for all those flights to San Francisco and nights at the Clift, one can only imagine the numbers that lubricated this arrangement. But the end result is that Steve Jobs walked onto the Yerba Buena stage this week to the tune of "Here comes the sun." The scene was reminiscent of a political candidate's public appearance at some campaign event, but with better music.

A lot of companies shovel money into their product launches. Car makers host test-drives in all manner of exotic locales; TV and movie studios spend millions on planet-wide media blitzes. But the technology industry, being the first to bounce back from the recent bout of global economic ugliness, has more money than just about anyone other than perhaps oil companies and the financial industry (and the latter are supposed to be keeping a low profile these days).

(Disclosure: during my stay in San Francisco, an Apple PR rep bought me dinner, which I promised to repay in kind. Further disclosure: tech companies do this sort of thing a lot - for any reporter who agrees to enough corporate invites, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is basically one big free meal).

Among tech giants, Apple's business model lends itself best to intense bursts of PR spending. The Facebooks and Googles of the world make all kinds of minor announcements all the time - product launches, acquisitions, subtle changes to privacy policies. But Apple-watchers can reliably expect three or four big splashes every year, usually focused on iPhones, iPads or an attempt to make one of Apple's other products look a little more like iPhones and iPads.

And at every one of these things, Apple leaves no stop unpulled. After all, what's a few thousand dollars in hotel rooms or plane tickets when you're sitting on $40-billion in cash?

Story continues below advertisement

But hanging over this kind of arrangement is at least the perception of conflict-of-interest. An invite to an Apple event is a fairly exclusive thing, and it's safe to say that the journalists who get invited want to be invited back.

Apple isn't unique in this respect, and neither is the technology industry. In order to make the most of these launch events, the company needs more than money, they need an almost military-grade level of

2) Control.

There's no fat on the iPad 2 announcement. Hours before the event is set to begin, the Yerba Buena Center is the site of a lean, quick-moving PR machine. Apple security personnel efficiently move a line of journalists into the building, where regional PR reps hunt down specific reporters and give them sleek-looking media passes. The camera tech people are given time to set up, while the rest of us nibble on fruit and bagels in the hallway. There is a hierarchy of media importance, with the big-name outlets at the top, followed by U.S. media, followed by media from the regions where Apple makes the most money, followed by everybody else. Inside the auditorium, more Apple security staff ensure the right people end up in the VIP seats up front.

The music will die down and Apple CEO Steve Jobs will walk on stage and the room will explode with applause. The ovation isn't unusual at Apple events, but is especially sustained this time because many people in the audience believed they would never see Mr. Jobs at a public Apple event again, on account of his illness.

When Mr. Jobs speaks, the cinema-sized screen behind him will seamlessly follow with a simple transition of bullet points and product shots. Stage-facing monitors will prompt him whenever he needs help. Despite the staggering weight of 1500 angry fingers live-blogging every second of the event, the wireless Internet connection will hold.

Like Google, Apple generally avoids the Consumer Electronics Show - the tech industry's annual Las Vegas clusternova of competing announcements and product demonstrations and generally a place so chaotic, nobody ever really knows what the hell is going on. Instead, all of Apple's big announcements are in-house productions. It's just you and them at these things.

(Apple has said almost nothing about this event beforehand - it never does. When the Globe and Mail was first invited to the iPad 2 launch, we were asked if we would be willing to come to California at an unspecified date for an unspecified announcement).

Apple's PR staffers are familiar with every person in the room. They monitor every bit of Tweeting and live-blogging, and jump to correct any egregious errors. After the presentation, we are led into a product demonstration room full of shiny new iPads. The ratio of Apple product experts to actual devices is pretty much one-to-one. These folks know everything there is to know about Apple's new gadgets, they just can't show their faces on camera.

The event in many ways mirrors the company's overall product philosophy - essentially, Apple controls the experience.

People make fun of Mr. Jobs for his obsessive use of the word "magical" to describe just about everything Apple does, but there's no better adjective. The whole point of magic - the only thing that makes it magical - is that you don't know how it happens. Otherwise it's just a guy in a top hat with some cards up his sleeve. Apple goes to extreme lengths to protect the magic inside its trinity of iGadgets - you can't easily mess around with the guts of an iPod, or install some exotic operating system on your iPad. Instead, you're expected to sit back, swipe your fingers across the screen and - hey, presto! - watch the magic happen. I have not an iota of evidence to back this up, but I suspect there's a strong correlation between the kinds of folks who end up on either side of the anti-Apple vs. pro-Apple debate and, respectively, people who want to know how the trick works vs. people who just want to enjoy the damn magic show.

And a magic show is exactly what Apple tries to put on at every one of their launch events. The unsaid message to the audience is: sit back, enjoy, occasionally say Wow. Don't think about it too much.

And when you really dig in to the core of Apple's PR strategy, that last bit is the differentiator. Any company can streamline its product launches, but there's something else about the way Apple does things, something strangely

3) Political.

Steve Jobs is up on stage. He is wearing the same jeans-and-black-turtleneck combo, that sartorial look he stole a long time ago from physics grad students everywhere. He looks very thin, the kind of thin only ill people look. But when he talks he still has that tone - a persuasive mix of guidance counsellor and car salesman, manic and calm all at once. The crowd moves in obedient circles around his fingers. There's not another CEO out there who can do this better, and if this really is the last time we see him running the show at Apple, both the company and the industry will have suffered a great loss.

But listen: When Mr. Jobs takes shots at his competitors for their lightweight app stores, the names of those competitors are right up there in big letters on the screen behind him. Normally, for legal or marketing reasons or just as an unwritten rule, companies don't mention their competitors in promotional material ("Bounty Paper Towels are twice as absorbent as the other brand, you know the one"). Not so with Mr. Jobs, whose frequent criticism of other companies for what he deems tiny seven-inch tablets tend to sound oddly emasculating.

And then when he talks about how "we believe with every bone in our body" that the way competitors think about tablets is wrong, he's using the kind of language normally reserved for arguments about war and abortion. Except he's talking about a piece of consumer electronics, one of the most popular applications for which, at the time of this writing, is something called Fruit Ninja HD.

And he wastes little time on obscure technical specifications, unless "magical" is some sort of objective industry benchmark. Instead, the audience is treated to a video about all the good the iPad has already done. The emotional climax of the video is an interview with the mother of an autistic child, talking about how the iPad has changed the boy's life. The only injection of subtlety in this scene is the director's decision to cut to another shot just before the woman starts crying. The resultant vibe is vaguely moral, as through there's something inherently right about buying an iPad.

Essentially, Mr. Jobs' rhetorical style adheres to the three main tenets that help politicians get elected: it is chock-full of hyperbole, frequently and overtly critical of opponents and very, very easy to understand. Look at those iPad commercials: "iPad is. Playful. Literary. Tough On Crime." The sales pitch isn't all that different.

And neither is the result. Apple is now a love-hate company, even by the already polar standards of the tech industry, which itself gave us the iconic image of the frothing, emotionally over-invested fanboy. Long is the list of profanity-laden e-mails I've received in response to articles that weren't so much critical of Apple as not sufficiently ticker-tape-parade-ish. On the other hand, here is a reader comment from a thread on the website Metafilter regarding Apple's iOS operating system: "Philosophically, iOS the closest thing [sic]to Stalinism you can get as far as operating systems go." Verily, Adobe Flash is the opiate of the masses.

It's difficult to overstate how successful Apple has been over the past decade. What was once a slingless David to Microsoft's Goliath is now the most valuable tech company in the world. Last year, Apple moved 15 million units of a new gadget even before most people figured out why they wanted one in the first place.

But along the way, Apple has done something far more significant. It has developed a simple but massively effective marketing strategy that in many ways mirrors the hallmarks of a successful election campaign. Competitors are already designing phones and tablets with more impressive specs than Apple's iPhones and iPads. But it'll take something more to unseat the incumbent.

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.