It’s impossible to understand their success otherwise

Image by Gian Cescon via Unsplash

Why is Apple so successful and their products so popular?

The common narrative around this question is some version of “Apple customers are sheep” or “Because people will buy anything with an Apple logo on it,” or “Because people want to be cool, and Apple has a cool brand.” All nice, tidy answers, and all misguided. Because underneath them all is an unspoken but flawed assumption: the assumption that most people are stupid.

It’s an assumption that permeates everything from politics (“most voters are ignorant”) to the arts (“the average person has no taste to speak of”). And it’s somehow come to be a widely accepted narrative about the world’s biggest company. But it’s a narrative that couldn’t be more wrong.

As I will argue here, right at the root of Apple’s success is a profound respect for the reality of the ordinary person.

I can almost see the eye-rolling begin. It might help to explain how I got here.

The question that led me to becoming an Apple fan

I used to hate Apple with the best of them. I really did. This was back in the iPod days and continued for years after the 2007 launch of the iPhone. I bought wholeheartedly into the well-known narrative that their profits came off gouging people by selling overpriced but mediocre products to people who didn’t know better than to buy into the aspirational branding. That their success was rooted not in empowering people, but in exploiting their ignorance.

Not me. I wasn’t going to fall for that, and was happy to stick to my Android devices with their endless customisation options, right down to even customisations of the actual operating system.

Then came the question that changed everything.

I don’t recall how the question became clear, exactly, but I remember it started with noticing how many thoughtful and smart people I followed online took Apple products seriously. Not only that, but I had gradually come to notice how the company had consistently proved news of its demise to be greatly exaggerated. And so, the question started to take shape: “What if there’s something about Apple that I’m missing?”

From that question, a realisation that in retrospect has seemed to me incredibly obvious: manufacturers making the cheaper alternatives to Apple products weren’t doing it out of love for their customers. While Apple’s consistency at pricing their products a bit higher than most of the competition didn’t itself prove anything, I found it reason enough to wonder what underlay their confidence. Android phones were often cheaper, and it wasn’t surprising they were popular. But how to explain the far more expensive iPhones repeatedly doing so well? How to explain their making more money from a MacBook than their competition from seven computers?

Simply putting that down to “sheep” felt to me increasingly arrogant.

Over the years that followed, I found myself shifting from dislike to reluctant respect, and eventually open admiration. I got gifted an iPad two years into my shift that quickly became the favourite bit of tech I had ever had, and which I ended up using for 4 years. Two years later, I bought a MacBook Air, and it was the first time the use of a computer actually gave me delight. I finally gave in and got my first iPhone, about 5 years after that first iPad, and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve since got AirPods and replaced the iPad and MacBook a couple times.

But the farther in I got into what Apple “locked garden”, the more I came to see that underlying it all was a deep conviction that the ordinary person was worthy of respect.

It sounds too simple, until you realise that disrespecting the ordinary person is what humans have always done.

“The great unwashed masses”

The idea that the opinion of most people isn’t worth much goes way back. As far back as 800 AD, Alcuin of York wrote to emperor Charlemagne to ignore those who argued for taking the voice of the people seriously because, “the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness”. In an 1830 novel, Victorian author and playwright, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of “it was a dark and stormy night” fame) gave us the term “the great unwashed”. But few perhaps have put it as unequivocally as HL Mencken, writing in 1926:

“No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.”

No, it’s not new. I even grew up hearing people say things like, “Nigerians are so stupid” or “Nigerians are the problem with this country”. I’ve since found that every country has its share of holders of similar opinions. What’s always struck me, though, is how people who talk like that are so easily confident that they and their in-group are the exception.

That implicit, unspoken exceptionalism is something I have since become familiar with. People who say things like this of view do not consider themselves part of “the crowd”, of “the great masses of the plain people”. Goodness, no. They’re smarter, more thoughtful, more refined in taste than that—to their mind, at any rate. And therein lies the undercurrent of elitism in this dismissal of the views or opinions of the average person.

But as I wrote in a previous essay, being average—and taking it seriously—is underrated.

“The computer for the rest of us”

That was the tagline for the 1984 Macintosh. It’s hard to imagine now, but it introduced things we presently take for granted as part of a computing experience: the idea of a “desktop”, windows, and even a mouse. Oh, and no fan noise (something Apple has not stopped obsessing over). Like every Apple product ever, it also came with trade-offs in things people took for granted on computers before it: no second disc drive, not much RAM and no programming language included. And it was decidedly not cheap. But it attracted people who previously hadn’t been interested in computers: artists, designers and other creatives. For these people, the new things it had were the appeal, and the things it lacked didn’t matter so much.

If you know anything about Apple devices, what I’ve just described is just about every Apple launch. The MacBook Air, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Watch, AirPods, HomePods, M1 Macs. With each product, a technology previously limited to a small category of people was made more accessible to a wider range of people.

People who, before then, were mostly dismissed.

iPods made it easy to get music on and off a portable device (and just to get any music, period). Like Macs before them, iPhones shifted the perception of smartphones as a product for business people to something for everyone. iPads made it possible for the age range of “the rest of us” to expand downward to toddlers and upward to the most elderly, by making navigation of a complex computer as intuitive as manipulating paper. The Apple Watch and AirPods made computers both wearable and fashionable.

People sometimes like they think Apple’s secret is in having mindless customers who thoughtlessly buy everything they sell. It’s a simple theory that’s as misguided as it’s conceited. The reality (which isn’t even that complex) is they are brilliant at making things people want to buy.

If you’re willing to accept it, the inevitable next question becomes: how in the world does Apple so consistently make stuff people want to buy?

That question has been answered in all kinds of ways by various people, and often includes something about design. And sure, they do design everything with a relentless (and even ruthless) focus on designing for user experience, aesthetic appeal, and intuitiveness. The important thing about the question, though, is that it’s a humbling question. But it’s a necessary humbling: without humility it’s impossible to understand humility—including Apple’s use of, to borrow from analyst Horace Dediu, “humility as a business model.”

Humility as a life posture

I must here clarify just what I mean by “humility”.

At its simplest, humility is a posture of recognising and embracing the limitations of our humanness—a key one being the limits to our knowledge. The embracing is essential: being forced to accept limitations without is not humility but humiliation. But embracing also means going beyond mere resignation to recognising in our limits a gift and an opportunity. And so, when we embrace how little we know, we’re able to maintain an attitude of genuine curiosity and the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding into the humanity of others—and by extension, our own humanity.

And a most significant form of curiosity-as-gift is when we’re surprised.

That’s very different from the kind of arrogance that simply dismisses the choices of everyday people as due to stupidity. The point here isn’t that popular choices are necessarily right—everyone would agree that vox populi is not necessarily vox dei. But popular choices—and especially the ones that surprise us—represent a gap in our maps of reality.

I mentioned earlier that it’s not surprising that Android phones are popular: they’re often much cheaper, and the vast majority of their market share is in those cheaper phones. (And thank God for them.) But one need only observe the frequent predictions of Apple’s imminent failure (this time, definitely, you’ll see) to realise how surprising their success has been. From their business model and tight control to their product success despite seemingly weird trade-offs, Apple is as counterintuitive as businesses come.

Surprising popular choices like that are certainly worth understanding. But that understanding is simply impossible if we begin with the assumption that the popularity is down to the dumb choice of an ignorant customer base of “unwashed masses.” No, any real understanding can only begin with a serious respect for the people making those choices. We have to start from an assumption that these choices can be understood and that the people making them are, in fact, reasonably intelligent.

Curiosity begins with humility, and that humility connects us with the humanity of both others and our own selves.

Essay originally published at Mac O’Clock on Medium. Image thanks to Gian Cescon, via Unsplash.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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