Essays on Technology and Culture

You Wanted a Hit

And we won’t be your babies anymore
We won’t be your babies anymore
We won’t be your babies
’Til you take us home.

LCD Soundsystem – “You Wanted a Hit”

The original iPhone was released June of 2007 and changed the very idea of what a mobile phone was. It was a “blockbuster”

The original iPad was released April of 2010, nearly three years later, and changed the very idea of what a mobile computer was. It was a “blockbuster”.

Now Apple has to — as in, MUST — come up with something equally revolutionary in less time in order to stay “relevant”?

Patrick Rhone – “Chinks in the Armor”

Who are you beholden to?

I quote Patrick Rhone, because Apple isn’t really going to speak for itself in this case. I’m sure I could find a relevant quote from Steve Jobs, or Tim Cook about Apple’s product philosophy, but I’d rather quote James Murphy. “You Wanted a Hit” is a song about how James Murphy as LCD Soundsystem doesn’t feel the need to make music for the sole purpose of being succesful as a pop musician. Certainly, he’s not going to deny success, but he’d rather make what he wants to make. Otherwise, “it ends up feeling kind of wrong.” This is the advantage of being an independent artist, with independent distribution, and being beholden to nobody except yourself.

Apple may be beholden to its shareholders, but it doesn’t act that way. That’s why they can spend their time making products designed with cutting edge manufacturing technologies. That’s why they can get away with charging hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for “commodity” products. That’s why they can iterate and improve on the same small, core stable of products year over year, rather than throw out products of every imaginable size, shape, color, feature set, and price point. Apple is not their shareholders’s baby. Their customers may get to take the products home, but Apple isn’t its customers’s baby either. Apple is beholden to Apple, and Apple alone.

This is different from any other publicly traded company out there, and certainly different from any other company in Apple’s field. This totally fucks with the heads of people whose job it is to understand how companies work, so that they know where to put their money—or more likely, other people’s money. These people need patterns, regularity, a systematic approach, and something that doesn’t require extra work on their behalf. It makes their job easier to know that every company works the same way.

Apple doesn’t care about making other people’s jobs easier. [1] Apple doesn’t care about making its own job easier. Apple cares about making great stuff. And it works.

The other problem is that hits are transient. Back to music: how many one-hit wonders are there? This is Wikipedia’s list of one-hit wonders from 2000 to 2009 alone. They have lists for every decade since the 1950s. Some of these artists went on to have long, succesful careers, but never hit the heights of their lone hit. Others burned out, or faded away. Remember the PalmPilot and the Treo? Look where Palm’s at now.

When the pressure is constantly on you to make a “hit,” it affects the quality of the work. You question everything. You file down the sharp edges. [2] When you try to make something that appeals to everyone, you run the risk of making something so beige and indistinct that nobody either wants or cares about it. The pasts of music and technology are both littered with these failures—products that tried to be something for everybody, rather than everything for somebody.

So, yeah, Apple doesn’t “do hits.” It just so happens that some of the things they do become hits, but that’s never the aim. As long as the money keeps rolling in, they’re on the right track, no matter what some Wall Street analyst says—much like a record company executive.

  1. Unless buying Apple hardware makes someone’s job easier.  ↩

  2. The corners around the indentation where you can grab and lift the screen on this MacBook are pretty sharp…  ↩