For well over a year, the global technology media has speculated about how Apple would “re-invent” the smartphone on the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the original iPhone. Anticipation was high and the pressure was on for Apple. As the company with the world’s deepest pockets, and the inventor of the modern smartphone, it’s virtually a modern tenet that the iPhone would always be the market-defining leader in both design and technology.
Yesterday, Apple unveiled two different iPhones in a confusing and bifurcated product launch: the iPhone 8, and the iPhone X (“10”). The iPhone 8 is essentially the iPhone 7S, as it retains the 7’s basic design and technology, with only incremental hardware and software upgrades. The iPhone X, on the other hand, was touted as if it were a phone from the future, a starship communicator from the 22nd century complete with an ultra-advanced OLED display and a bezel-less design. While the iPhone 8 is the phone for now, the iPhone X is the phone for tomorrow, and therefore Apple gave it a very advanced price tag: $999 for the 64GB model, and a jaw-dropping $1,149 for 256GB.
The truth, however, is that this should have been a single product launch of the OLED-based iPhone X, and the total abandonment of its aging LCD-based iPhone platform. Expectations were that the iPhone would at least catch up to, if not surpass, the bezel-less OLED-based flagship phones already offered by Samsung (the S8 and the Note 8) and LG (V30). It’s clear that by keeping its LCD platform around for another lifecycle, Apple effectively conceded that it could not produce an OLED iPhone in sufficient quantities, nor at a reasonably competitive price.
The reason for this is no secret: Apple doesn’t actually make OLED displays, and relies on its main competitor Samsung for its supply. This gives Samsung a deep competitive advantage as the market shifts towards OLED as the standard by allowing it to limit supply and control prices for perhaps the most important smartphone component. Despite nearly limitless amounts of money, Apple simply does not have the technology it needs to compete in the global marketplace.
But while Apple holds only a 30% smartphone market share in the U.S., it hoards over 80% of smartphone profits, because it dominates the high margin ‘flagship’ end of the market. This means Apple is still seen as the standard-bearer, and the U.S. consumer will pay a premium for the Apple brand. This raises the question: how will Apple keep this up, when the iPhone 8 is in reality built from components that its competitors have deemed obsolete, and the iPhone X is really the same phone wrapped within a Samsung display?
If the increasingly absurd and propagandist nature of Apple’s product launch events like the one we saw yesterday suggests an answer, it is this: what Apple lacks in actual technology, it more than makes up for with ideology. Of this there is little doubt. We saw the induction of Steve Jobs into sainthood, and a formal declaration by senior vice-president Angela Ahrendts that Apple Stores were really dormant civic re-engineering projects all along, and that they would be activated into “Town Square” phase shortly.
Slavoj Zizek describes ideology as the psychological equivalent of Pokemon Go: an augmented reality that is layered on top of mundane reality, and which provides us with a meaning and purpose that is unavailable from an individual’s relationship with reality alone. The ideology provided by Apple is a coordinate system projected onto our social reality, emanating out of our iOS devices and enabled by the Apple ‘ecosystem.’
The Apple ideology is an update of American ideology itself, and despite the futuristic utopian aesthetic of their marketing strategy and industrial design, it sticks closely to the great tradition of American exceptionalism. It boils down to this: America’s innovation is innovation itself, and as such we live in the future everyone else will eventually follow us into, at which point we’ll be living in a future beyond that.
In the Apple ideology, the invention of the iPhone is mythologized into America’s second moon landing, mixed in with prophecy in that only one man really knew we were going to do it. Apple devices are physical embodiments of this ideology, allowing us to connect with the most cosmically significant acts of human intelligence when doing the most mundane activities of American family life: watching La La Land on Netflix while in bed, or distracting the kids with a finger painting program that involves no risk of spillage. iPhones are our family moon rocks.
Outside of Apple’s net of ideology, meaning and purpose is lost, and the iPhone degenerates into a mass of components of a quality and value easily quantified against a vibrant free market. As Zizek would point out, Apple’s American exceptionalism cannot be experienced when the devices are reduced to what they actually are. What everybody kind of knows, but nobody can really say, is that Apple’s products are exceedingly average.
The iPhone is as much a Chinese product as it is an American one. Six years ago, President Obama sat down for dinner with Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley generals, and asked the Apple CEO point blank what he could do as president to bring the manufacture of the iPhone back to the United States.
“Those jobs aren’t coming back,” Obama was told.
The primary issue, Jobs said, was not that Chinese workers cost a pittance compared to American workers, which is a commonly held belief. After all, the total labor input cost of one iPhone is estimated to only be about $30, or about 4% the total cost of a base model. Pay American workers triple that amount, and the iPhone will only be about 8% more expensive than it is.
The primary issue of why the iPhone can’t be made by Americans is because America has no city that can rival the sheer technological ability of Shenzhen. Just across the Chinese border from Hong Kong, Shenzhen is known as “the world’s workshop.” It is the global capital of hardware technology innovation. If Foxconn is Apple’s Taiwanese-outsourced manufacturing cathedral, then it can only operate while embedded within Shenzhen’s futuristic, hyperdense, and mostly family-run electronics bazaar.
Shenzhen, and therefore China, is far, so very far ahead of the United States in electronics and hardware innovation, and it’s almost unimaginable now that we will ever have the will to catch up.
It’s hard to describe either the scale or the freewheeling “shanzai” culture of Shenzen’s electronics business complex, but to me it’s a frightening hybrid of the maker movement, Blade Runner, and the Tsukiji fish market. Shenzhen is Tokyo’s Akihabara on nootropics. In this setting, far outside of Apple’s ideological coordinate system and closer to its vulgar manufacturing viscera, the loss of American exceptionalism is unsettling, even scary in an intimidating kind of way. One longs for the simplicity of the iOS ecosystem to tell us which way is up again.
Perhaps further explanation is of no use, and it’s better just to watch legendary hardware hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang give you a tour of a futuristic city living beyond ideology in this compelling WIRED documentary (length: ~1 hour, so grab a comfy seat):