He's gotta have it

Written by Chris Caines

January 20, 2005 | 00:00

Tags: #512mb #apple-ipod #chris-caines #column #dvd #ipod #mac-mini #radeon #shuffle #soundblaster #technology

Companies: #apple

We live in a veritable salad-cart world these days, in technological terms at the very least.

We’re starting to have real choice in the software or hardware we use and best of all, it’s beginning to come in a price which is more affordable for the average man on the street. Gone are the days of having to use a particular type of desktop, buy a specific DVD player or run only one OS. Now there is so much choice that finally you can start picking and choosing technology to suit your taste and your budget.

This article is spurred on mainly by some recent moves by Apple to edge their way into the ‘Joe User’ market by releasing some products in a price range which doesn’t require a second mortgage to consider owning. Unfortunately however, it raises the very clear issue that you still pay a premium for cool.

"It didn’t matter you could get better cheaper, it only mattered that that same pair of white headphones was protruding from your coat pocket."

For a short while the Apple iPod was actually the best portable music player around and those who wanted the best were happy to pay a premium for it, but very quickly other manufacturers came out with what I would consider to be far superior products at a more reasonable price. But yet the iPod was initially still outselling them by hundreds of units to one. Why?

Because it looked good and if your friends had one, you had to have one. It didn’t matter you could get better cheaper, it only mattered that that same pair of white headphones was protruding from your coat pocket. The iPod was your BMW to your friends Ford Escort and sure enough they would, by hook or by crook, pull themselves up the ranks to match your techno-superiority

For a long time PC’s only held this claim in the enthusiast circles. For several years my less techno-savvy friends would come round and see the box under the desk and not really bat an eyelid. After all, a computer was a computer and there was even something slightly kitsch-cool about having a worse computer than other people. Then computers became the flavour of the month and people moved onto knowing about the components, so we bandied around phrases such as “Soundblaster” compared to “Adlib” and “Radeon” compared to “Rage3D” as these cards would let you experience your games better than your friends. Suddenly people were taking an interest in the technology and using it as their Ralph Lauren equivalent in conversational willy-waving. The time had come to put your money where your mouth was and keep up with the Joneses. People regurgitate the marketing spiel off the side of the box, how often do I hear them talk about pipelines and anti-aliasing and want to say “Do you even have any idea what that is? No, you bought it because it was the most expensive!”

Taking a more realistic consumer approach, perfectly acceptable DVD players are now squarely in the £30 - £80 bracket and quite frankly, if you pay any more than that for one you’re either being led by good marketing and the feature carrot or it genuinely does something which the others don’t. Yet people do and they’re strangely proud of it, so are more than content to look down their nose at you if they find you’ve bought a £35 one from Argos. It plays my DVD’s, it does the job I ask of it fantastically well and in many circumstances there really is no discernable difference between the devices except the brand name. For every person who genuinely wants a quality product, I will find you many more who just want something which they can leave the price tag on. However give it time and once the enthusiasm has worn off from competing with their friends you will soon see a rake of £30 DVD players scattered around the various rooms in their house.


Take the iPod Shuffle. The Shuffle is, whilst cheap in comparison to its predecessors, still simply a portable music player with 512Mb memory and no display. Price up an equivalent, no… in fact price up a *better* specification for the same money. Easy isn’t it, but yet all I’m hearing at the moment is the must-have budget portable music player is the iPod shuffle. In fact, it’s marketing genius, sell the entire product on a feature that almost every digital music player has had since inception, random play. They will, of course sell by the bucket load… for a while. But the question you need to ask is why this product was brought out at all if the iPod was such a sure winner.

"Technology is so cringingly cheap these days, I almost despair at the ease with which people are suckered in by brand name marketing."

Technology is so cringingly cheap these days, I almost despair at the ease with which people are suckered in by brand name marketing. It almost feels like a desperate attempt to claw their buyers back as they have realised they simply cannot make their products as cheap as others. In the beginning, they had no competition and could afford expensive manufacturing processes but now that people are undercutting them easily, the big names have to admit that their products are just plain, well... expensive. Ok, whilst it may seem like I have intimated that these companies are breeding the ultimate cash cow by relying on people to want their latest products; this only holds ground for so long. What we see is a veritable burst of enthusiasm for a new piece of hardware which then sharply tails out after the public realise that yesterdays must-have is today’s just-had. To compete, companies need to either enter the ‘budget’ arena or keep banging out new expensive product after new expensive product and hope people keep buying it. Unfortunately, hope is not a way to gain market share.

Apple's reaction to this incredible price drop in technology is clear by their recent releases. The Mac Mini is now a near viable alternative to buying a cheap PC, obviously with the caveats that still a large portion of the computing populace are limited in what they can really do with it (and before I hear the arguments, I still can’t run all the software I need to on a Mac and as such, have no buying incentive) however, it shows that suddenly companies have to wake up to the fact that not-everyone will buy a brand name for brand name’s sake after the first round of excitement. If the Power Mac is the Breitling Watch of Macs, then the Mini is surely the Tag Heuer, which means hopefully at some point along the line, we’ll be seeing a Seiko for the rest of us who aren’t so concerned with topping our mates down the pub.

After all, they all just tell the time.
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