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Does cult appeal alone give the iPhone its X factor?

None of the iPhone’s rivals have a similar magnetism. Nor do most brands across other product categories.

columns Updated: Sep 17, 2017 17:52 IST
From left:  The new iPhone 8, iPhone X and iPhone 8S displayed during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre on the Apple Park campus on September 12Cupertino, California.
From left:  The new iPhone 8, iPhone X and iPhone 8S displayed during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre on the Apple Park campus on September 12Cupertino, California. (AFP)

Once considered a niche brand popular with those in so-called creative professions, Apple products have now become mainstream and mass – or at least as mainstream or mass as their premium pricing allows. As anecdotal evidence, I offer that wonderful observatory of consumer behaviour, the airport (which is how I discovered many years ago that Amish was the new Chetan). Even five, six years ago, the MacBook was a relative rarity. Today, every second or third computer spotted in airports (and aircraft) is a MacBook.

Across Apple’s products, nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the iPhone.

Which means that while people may look askance at the Rs 89,000 pricing (for the entry-level model) of the latest iPhone X – and over Rs 1 lakh, the price at which Ratan Tata once launched a car, for the fully-loaded one —I do expect many people to go out and buy the phone.

Even in price-conscious India – although it is unlikely that those who buy Apple products can be labelled that – the iPhone5 is the most popular smart phone priced over Rs 20,000, CyberMedia Research said in May. As Mint’s Sapna Agarwal pointed out in a column earlier this year, one of Samsung’s biggest problems in India is that most CEOs of large companies use iPhones. Indeed, I know of only one CEO of a large company who carries a Samsung (I am excluding CEOs of companies that make phones who have to, perforce, carry those phones).

It isn’t CEOs, even young people (who can afford it), seem to prefer the iPhone to any other.

That’s strange.

The iPhone may have been exclusive when it was launched a decade back; it no longer is (so exclusivity as something that appeals to people is out).

Apple isn’t a young brand (it is dad and mom’s brand).

Nor is it, I am reliably told by the Samsung loyalists in the Mint newsroom, at the bleeding edge of technology.

So, what explains its ability to stay relevant, popular and aspirational; and, more importantly, consistently increase the asking price of a phone?

For at least some older users such as this writer, one thing that works is familiarity.

For long, I was a Nokia loyalist (my favourite was a Nokia Communicator).

Then, reluctantly at first, I moved to BlackBerry — and remained a loyalist even as others around me moved to the iPhone.

But for the past few years, I’ve been an iPhone loyalist.

It is easier to move from an iPhone 7 to an iPhone X or an iPhone 8 than it is to a Pixel or a Samsung.

Things like iTunes and the App Store (and continuing subscriptions) make it even tougher to make the change. Sure, there’s the Play Store (and I do have a second phone, an Android one, so I speak from experience), but it’s not like the App Store. Apple has managed to build a very sticky ecosystem around the iPhone that is also vibrant and secure. It’s also very profitable —the typical Apple customer spends more on the App Store than the Android phone user spends on the Play Store.

The iPhone is also, fundamentally, a damn good phone despite not being at the cutting edge of technology. It is built well, reasonably hardy, and lasts and lasts (like, indeed, many Apple products do), which explains why there is a thriving second-hand market for iPhones in India. It is also an extremely good-looking product with arguably the most glitch-free user interface among smart phones.

But none of these, independently or together, can explain why, for 10 years now, the iPhone has been the benchmark for smartphones.

That’s perhaps where the X factor comes in. It’s difficult to put a finger on it, but this is perhaps a bit of the cult of Apple and the cult of Steve Jobs. None of the iPhone’s competitors have anything similar. Nor, come to think of it, do most brands across other product categories. It is only the really top-end, storied luxury brands that do.

R Sukumar is Editor, Mint.

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