Imitation and Disdain: The Impact of Apple’s Success
Comment sections on the technology portion of the internet are fascinating places. After all, that might be where the terms “fanboy” and “fangirl” were created. It is definitely where the term “iSheep” came from, to describe the unwavering loyalty of Apple’s dedicated users. My father is one of these people, ever since the first iPhone came out he has used an Apple phone. The same goes for the iPad, after its release the notion of another tablet didn’t make sense. I remember a conversation once where he outlined the couple of software applications that he wished ran on the iPad so that it could be his only computer. As someone that has used Google and Microsoft based hardware and software for over a decade now, the fascination with Apple has always been interesting to me.
Equally interesting to me is the deluge of negative cult-like comments whenever an Apple product is talked about. It doesn’t matter what the category is. iPhone hands-on or review? Comments will talk about why a Galaxy S or Note-something offers so many more features. New MacBook Pro? Let me read about how a Dell XPS or gaming PC is so superior and cheaper. It is convenient for people in the tech community to despise Apple. There is a stereotype of the Apple user, a proverbial sheep in the eyes of the tech elitist. This is a person who wants to be trendy, buying a brand. A person who will blindly walk into the Apple store every fall and buy whatever new product that Apple is selling. Of course, the all enlightened consumer making these comments knows better. They would never waste their money on “Apple garbage”. To this person, I have a simple question. If Apple puts out nothing but overpriced garbage, then why does every tech company it competes with continue to mimic Apple’s ideas?
Influence is a funny thing when you are speaking to a crowd that is filled with self-appointed experts. It doesn’t matter the reason that you use what you use, it is not what they are using. And that must make you wrong. This is a fallacy. When looking across Apple’s 4 main current categories (iPhone, Mac, iPad, and AirPods), the copying of Apple’s designs is wildly evident. Don’t believe me? Let’s go category by category.
Apple’s cash cow at this point is the iPhone. It is by far Apple’s flagship product and the one that generates them the most sales across their distribution channels. Going through phone reviews throughout the internet it is evident that every reviewer seems to be bored by the iPhone. The design has gotten stale, allegedly. When Apple unveiled the iPhone X with its Face ID and display cutout notched display every Android fan was laughing. How could they remove the fingerprint sensor? Who would buy such an ugly device? That was in 2017. Fast forward a few years and now countless OEMs have gone the notch display route, and the Google Pixel 4 has gone to facial unlocking instead of fingerprint sensors. Android OEMs even have introduced in-screen fingerprint sensors to maintain the clean design aesthetic that iPhones have. On a personal note, I wish this wasn’t the case. I miss those rear-mounted sensors.
Another perceived sin at the time was when Apple decided to kill the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 because they felt that the future is wireless. Samsung fans in particular mocked this feature, which was easy to do. You know, because of #donglelife. Google also mocked this with the introduction of the first-generation Pixel phones. Fast forward 4 years since the iPhone 7 announcement and buying a high-end smartphone almost exclusively means having one without a headphone jack. The only exception to this is LG, and I personally commend them for staying true to offering the best-wired headphone experience on mobile. Even on the software side of things where iOS has switched to a gesture navigation system, it has now become carbon copied by almost every Android OEM. This has happened despite Google’s extensive data showing that Android users prefer the traditional three-button navigation system. Yet here we are. It really makes you wonder, if the iPhone is so stale then why does every phone out right now basically copy it in one way or another? Why do the Pixel 4 and upcoming Samsung Galaxy S20 have the same camera sensor design as the iPhone?
The second category that has created quite a bit of copying is in Apple’s AirPod lineup. Set aside all of the AirPod clones that are being cranked out by the crate in China. Ever since their introduction and subsequent mocking (I will never tire of the amazing toothbrush and Q Tip memes), other companies have been releasing countless truly wireless earbuds that look quite a bit like AirPods. All of these companies have made improvements to AirPods, namely in the audio quality arena, but AirPods still reign supreme in terms of mind share. Part of this is due to the seamless integration that AirPods have with other Apple devices. But the common theme is the same, if the design of these is so bad then why do companies like Huawei, Sony, and JBL keep on copying their design?
Finally, on the larger screen computing front, Apple has the iPad and MacBook. Two devices that are synonymous with their respective categories (tablets and laptops). This domination on tablets, in particular, is why most people refer to tablets in general as iPads. Samsung’s Tab S series of tablets borrow many cues from the iPad in the way of dimensions and using the magnetic pen attachment to the body of the tablet much like the on the latest generation iPad Pro. The imitation really intensifies when you look at the MacBook lineup.
Before the proliferation of the MacBook Air, Windows laptops across the board were basically the same story. Huge, obtrusive, and heavy. Then the MacBook Air was released and this concept changed. While the device at the time was mocked for its lack of port selection, this model is now the norm. Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3, Google’s Pixelbook Go, and HP’s Spectre lineup all take design cues from the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. It is a common joke that every 20-something that is at a Starbucks is using a MacBook and that this person doesn’t appreciate a “real computer”. Yet even gaming PC manufacturers have gone the route of more slim devices that are more approachable (MSI is a good example of this). So even the “real” computer makers have embraced the thinner and lighter aesthetic that Apple championed back in 2008.
There is a price for notoriety and widespread adoption in tech. Apple has done influential work to be a brand of status that is associated with quality and simplicity. The bad part of this is that they are left open to criticism by the very vocal minority who do not seem to be able to see past the idea that a streamlined software approach that Apple uses is a negative trait. The reason that these devices are so popular is that they are approachable to the majority that doesn’t want to have to deal with the never-ending settings menus and just want to use their devices with minimal fuss. This approach has sold Apple many devices across its entire product portfolio. But it has also led to the perception that their devices are “toys”. Yet it is this success that the competition really wants to imitate when it all comes down to it.
It is the success and popularity of the iPhone that makes LG, Huawei, and many others decide that it is okay to release a phone with a notch and no headphone jack. It is the ubiquity of the MacBook that compels HP and Microsoft to make ultra-thin laptops with a limited amount of port selection. Lastly, it is the convenience of AirPods that makes countless companies try to replicate that experience through hardware design. The design of these Apple products signifies success to many of these product designers that are far too aware of the bottom line as opposed to design elegance. They look like Apple’s offerings because people buy Apple’s products, and this must be part of the formula to success in today’s tech landscape.
This is of course, a fallacy. The Apple experience is so much beyond mere hardware design. It is an overall experience that the more devices that you use the better the integration. This is where the “Apple magic” that the company touts in its keynotes is derived from. Therefore, merely following Apple’s design trends is only seeing the story on a surface level. Apple is a company that tries to marry hardware, software, and integration. And for the most part, it is usually successful in this venture.
I go back to people like my father, who happily use Apple’s products and marvel at their ease of use, simplicity, and reliability. I recall one time where he had a Samsung Galaxy S4 as his second phone, and he remarked that using it felt like “cheating on my wife”. I laughed at the time, but the message was profound. For him and many others, using an iPhone just felt natural; how a phone was supposed to feel and be used. It is a Utopian experience that so many manufacturers have tried to achieve, yet where so many have failed in the pursuit of it. Think about this when the next Apple devices are announced and look to that comment section. The person typing out that response about Apple devices being sub-par is probably typing that on a phone, tablet, or computer that tries to be on par with a device designed by Apple.