Hype this! Apple's marketing puppet show continues

We segue into 2010 with rumors swirling around the biggest mega product announcement since the iPhone. If Apple's mythical tablet device -- the "iSlate," if insiders and analysts are to be believed -- is in fact announced sometime in January, Apple fans will once again dance in the streets before lining up in the middle of the night, wallets in hand, ready to buy into the latest must-have doodad from Cupertino.

Not that I'm one to make resolutions. They are, after all, pointless promises that are inevitably broken before the last bit of confetti has been swept out of the gutters in Times Square. But if I ever had to make one, it would be to ban the Apple hype machine permanently from our midst. The noise from all this speculation is hurting my head, and I just want it to stop.

Because we're all talked out

Please don't misunderstand where I'm coming from. I'm a big fan of Apple. I've got two Macs in the house, three iPods of various generations, and an iPod touch on the way. I like to spend time in Apple stores because, even if I'm not buying anything that day, they have a feel-good vibe that few other retailers can match. I'm even debating putting an Apple sticker on my car because it'll make my kids happy. But after spending much of the past year with a sore neck from conflicting reports about Apple's supposed tablet device, I'm pretty tired of having every conversation dominated by something that's never even been officially acknowledged by this officially secretive company.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)Which, I realize, is entirely Apple's goal. Without saying a word, Apple has managed to yet again get the faithful to whip themselves into a frenzy over what might be. The company has reaped billions of dollars worth of publicity without buying so much as one television spot or magazine ad. It isn't baseless, of course: You have to have a compelling product to engage consumers. People don't get excited about the run-of-the-mill, and it takes a lot of special sauce to create a seemingly never-ending string of aspirational products. Apple has it, whatever "it" is, and no other company of its generation has managed to connect with everyday consumers on quite the same level.

So it's clear the company's done its homework and has succeeded in exorcising the demons that almost destroyed it in the 1990s. Thanks largely to the stewardship of Steve Jobs, Apple has rewritten the design and marketing rules, and rightfully deserves to have consumers want its products. But to what extent? Should they abandon their families and camp out on strip mall sidewalks for days on end to be the first ones on their block to bring home Apple's newest baby? Should people fearful for their jobs pile on even more credit card debt just so they can upgrade their dowdy old phone for an iPhone, complete with a fat (and expensive) monthly voice and data plan? Should all conversations revolve around future products whose potential feature sets swing wildly by the day?

The tablet ain't no netbook

While a certain amount of speculation is healthy for any industry, I believe there's a tipping point beyond which it becomes more than a little silly. We spend so much time discussing the minutiae of what this mystery thing may or may not do that we forget the big picture of why we use technology in the first place.

As I wonder about the tablet, I can't help but think about netbooks. These diminutive, inexpensive devices were the hardware story of the year as budget-crushed consumers looked for ways to remain productive without cutting into that week's grocery order. There was no runup of publicity surrounding netbooks. No lineups around the block. No frenzied speculation about feature sets.

The netbook is the anti-tablet, then, a known device with known capabilities that consumers instantly get. The tablet? Not so much. Not that Apple should ever feel the need to make its own netbook, mind you. The company will never play in the low-margin end of the market. It doesn't need to play the price game to compete, and the tablet will continue that premium strategy. But when the hype machine kicks into overdrive, too many consumers end up buying not because they need it, but because they feel they'll be missing out if they don't buy in now. It's as shallow as the pet rock was, a purchase rationale that revolves around being part of the crowd and not around actually meeting a particular life need.

“We spend so much time discussing the minutiae of what this mystery thing may or may not do that we forget the big picture of why we use technology in the first place.”

-Carmi Levy

Which is why I'm so troubled by this latest chapter in extreme Apple fanboyism. The tablet may yet be the solution to a number of critical challenges facing a range of industries. It could be the platform that saves the newspaper and magazine industry. It could be the e-book reader solution that does for book publishing what the iPod did for the music industry. It could rewrite the future of any company, in virtually any industry, with the courage to strike a deal with Mr. Jobs. But until we actually see the device and know what it's capable of, we just don't know.

Which makes every breathless report a senseless exercise in crystal ball-gazing.

Perchance to dream

Maybe the ongoing recession has made us more willing to dream about what may be, to adopt a childlike desire to buy stuff that makes us feel good about ourselves. Maybe tough times make it easier to sell something based more on fiction than on fact. Maybe we all need a little escape, and the hype-in-overdrive may indeed give us precisely that opportunity.

But at some point, we need to get back to reality. And when I pull my wallet out of my pocket in 2010, it'll be to buy something that directly addresses a known issue in my personal and/or professional life, and I won't be lining up in the middle of the night for the privilege of being among the first to have it. As Apple's herd moves mainstream, I'm quickly losing my desire to buy into its mindless mania.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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