Are iPhone Owners Just Religious Zealots?

Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic can’t understand why Antennagate didn’t destroy Apple and send us all out to buy a new Droid X. Given no better explanation, Madrigal presumes that it must be due to our religious devotion to Apple. In other words, Apple sold 8.4 million iPhones in the third quarter of 2010 because we all believe Steve Jobs is Jesus and Bill Gates is Satan. I mean — hello? — it’s obvious.

According to Madrigal’s logic, our only interest in Apple’s products is as icons of our devotion. Similarly, we want nothing more than to prostrate ourselves and worship at the altar of Steve. We are adherents of the “religious narrative,” as Madrigal quotes, dictated to us by our congregation. Just look at all of those crazy people lining up outside Apple stores to buy overpriced calculators. I mean, really, who would do such a thing if he weren’t a delusional zealot suffering from product deification?

To support his assumptions, Madrigal cites two academics whose work is a study called The Cult of Macintosh published in 2005, two years before the iPhone went on sale. In the early days of Apple’s comeback from the dead, Apple’s zany devotees were a proportionately larger group than they are today, and the study was not unique in pointing out some of the wackiest outliers from this group. But, in a world in which Apple’s customers, who own more than just Macs, range in the hundreds of millions worldwide, these stereotypes just don’t apply anymore.

Madrigal quotes someone named “Thomspon,” whom he doesn’t identify — the quote appears to be misattributed from Heidi Campbell — as saying: “This resurrection myth, and the belief in the infallibility of Mac technologies [sic?] is going to keep people still invested.” The “resurrection myth” is referring to the return of Steve Jobs to save Apple. Sheesh. “Mac technologies”? That’s a clunky and inaccurate term, but I’ll skip it. At least she didn’t say “MAC technologies.”

So, since it isn’t religious devotion, let me share with you the secret that keeps people invested in Apple: good products. It really is that simple. It’s easy to look at today’s current computer and smartphone offerings and wonder why anyone would buy an Apple product. I mean, look at Windows 7: it’s so sexy and functional and has desktop search and that new taskbar thing. Surely no “Mac technologies” can compare to that? And the new Droid X! It does e-mail. It does the web. It has those app things people keep talking about. It does… other things. What’s so great about a Mac or an iPhone?

Consider for a moment how Apple built its brand loyalty. Look at those same markets just three years ago: remember Windows Vista? Remember how annoying it was to find that your 32 bit drivers for your crappy webcam wouldn’t work with your 64 bit version of Vista Ultimate Extreme Super (Not For Commerical Use) Minus Plus Student Edition? Remember bloatware? Remember recalls prompted by melting power bricks? Cramped trackpads with shotty gesture support? These were the products that had most consumers chanting “I hate computers” like a mantra.

In response to the rock-bottom-prices crapfest, Apple provided something that disrupted these low expectations and consumers loved it. Of course Apple didn’t always get it right, but they got it right 90% of the time, whereas most of their competitors got it right 30% of the time or less. Consumers weren’t buying Macs because of a resurrection myth with Steve Jobs as the messiah, they were buying them because they were fed up with the commodity junk market that was the PC. They wanted something nice that just worked.

Remember when the “smartphone” was the Blackberry or the Dash or the Palm Treo? Yeah, me too. It sucked, right? Then Apple introduced the iPhone, a product that everyone said had no market which, ever since, dozens of manufacturers have scrambled to copy and emulate. Yes, there were smartphones before the iPhone and some people used them — mostly business customers — but they sucked. Few people even knew what a “smartphone” was. The definiton then was a phone that could recieve e-mail and do a few tricks. Consumers didn’t buy iPhones because they believed Bill Gates was the embodiment of Satan, they bought them because there was nothing else like it on the market.

Apple haters just love it when a crappy product reaches feature parity with an Apple icon. As far as they’re concerned, that’s it, game over. If Apple’s product has x number of megapixels, and Product Y also has x number of megapixels, then Apple has lost, and you’re just a fanoy idiot for buying the Apple product. These people never consider the numerous unquantifiable variables that go into product design and marketing. Consider such features as:

  • tight product integration with existing consumer tools
  • an almost religious zeal in regards to a refined user interface and a smooth user experience
  • an emphasis on simplicity
  • attention to detail
  • helpful customer support
  • elegant and innovative hardware design
  • a respect for the difficulties of human-computer interaction and how these affect the product once it is in the user’s hands

These esoteric, unglorified features are the real reason Apple so often dominates their competition, not the spec sheet, the logo, or the religious devotion.

Most of Apple’s customers are unable to explain why they love Apple products so much, but this isn’t because they are stupid, or because they are religious zealots, or even because Apple’s products are “magical,” it’s because these minor but critical details are difficult to explain without a language that most people don’t possess. If you ask an average customer how his iPhone functions with respect to Fitts’s Law, he is probably going to shrug and say, “I don’t know, but I like it.” That is the way it should be. And that is exactly why people like Madrigal are unable to understand why Apple is successful. They see people enjoying Apple products and are unable to quantify the reason in terms of a spec sheet, so they resort to asinine explanations like cult behavior.

And if you’re just chomping at the bit to tell me that some people buy Apple stuff just because it has the Apple logo on it, I’ll be the first to admit this is true. But this is the result of, not the cause of, Apple’s customer loyalty. Most people know that Apple has a reputation for excellent products and they trust Apple to deliver where many others fail. So, even without knowing anything about the product itself, consumers feel comfortable with the purchase. If Apple failed to deliver on its promise to customers, this reputation would deteriorate quickly.

Antennagate was perceived by some as Apple failing its customers, so it is confuses people like Madrigal and Dan Lyons as to why consumers are still buying iPhones. The answer is simple: when you have a track record like Apple’s, it takes more than one humiliating, media-hyped failure to dislodge consumers’ perceptions. People trust Apple, even if they make a mistake every now and then. It’s like Darth Vader said to the Apple representative: what are you going to do? Buy an EVO? Most competing smartphones still regularly fail to deliver on many of the details that Apple has been getting right since 2007. That isn’t religion, it’s rational consumer behavior, and it is perfectly explainable for those willing to look beyond whiny accusations of “cult behavior.”

I am not religious about Apple products, I just don’t like wasting my time getting shit to work. I have a busy life. I don’t like headaches. I don’t want to scan through a thousand deeply embedded, poorly described menu items just to get my music player to do something as simple as remember where I was in my audiobook on sync. I just want to plug it in and go. When it comes to Apple products, I trust that they have gone through their stuff with a fine-toothed comb and worked out most of the kinks. I know that, for example, when I updated my iPod Touch to iOS 4, nothing was going to break. And, if something did break, I knew whom to call to get it fixed.

Apple does make mistakes. I don’t know anyone who claims Apple to be “infallible,” as Madrigal claims. I have mentioned Apple’s failures many times before, especially with regards to Apple’s horrible track record with mice. But, by and large, I trust Apple to make the right decision. When Apple fails repeatedly, I go elsewhere. For example, I don’t use any Apple-made mice. Logitech makes fine mice. I don’t worship Logitech. I don’t have a religious narrative with Logitech. They make good mice and I buy them. (But their drivers usually suck, so I use something else.)

Let’s look at another quote from Madrigal’s article:

…the iPhone does mean something, and it’s the type of meaning that transcends rational optimizing about features and raw performance. “Apple weathered the storm because there is such brand loyalty through the religious narrative,” Campbell maintained. “When you’re buying into Mac, you’re buying into an ideology. You’re buying into a community.”

When I first bought Apple products, I never bought into any ideology or community. I didn’t receive a membership card or get greeted at the door. I just bought a piece of metal, silicon, plastic, and glass. I took it home, I enjoyed it, and I decided to buy more of the stuff that makes me happy. If you call that “buying into an ideology,” maybe you’re right: I bought into the ideology that products should work for me, not against me. I bought into the ideology that I have the right to be lazy and stupid if I want to. I bought into the ideology that attention to detail paid off. Most importantly, I admitted to myself and to the market that I was willing to pay for high quality products.

This is the new model for most of Apple’s customers. Gone are the golden days described so lovingly in Cult of Mac. Seriously, it’s time to quit making excuses about Apple’s success. A few hundred die-hard cult fanboys does not a multi-billion dollar company make.

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