Culture

Why Apple keeps winning in style

Technically Incorrect: As technology becomes more fixated on fashion, the maker of the iPhone and the Apple Watch is well placed to take advantage.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


How fashion-conscious will Apple Watch wearers be? Someone, surely, will want the 18-karat gold version. James Martin/CNET

The money men took notes and couldn't suppress their smiles. Samsung executives took their Notes and slapped them hard against their foreheads.

Apple CEO Tim Cook had just announced that the company had sold 74.5 million iPhones in the last quarter of 2014.

It was even better than the money men had estimated. It was even worse than the Samsung executives had feared.

While the money men told themselves that Apple's was a brilliantly organized business, at Samsung they muttered expletives and, perhaps, expressions of incomprehension.

After all, what had Apple done in that last quarter? Merely released big phones, which Samsung had done years before.

A pause, then, just to remind ourselves of what Apple does right and how it might leverage that in the future. There's no accounting for taste. But Apple has turned taste into significant accounting.

There's almost a self-parody in Apple design chief Jony Ive talking about every new phone. He perhaps reached his peak parodic pomp with the suggestion in 2013 that the colorful iPhone 5C was "unapologetically plastic." But Apple really does have a superior sense of taste.

While Ive can talk about a rounded edge for a round week, what real people see, the minute they set eyes on an Apple product, is something that they might not be able to define. But it's something that their hearts and souls identify with style. It's something they want to be a part of.

Words might fail them. They might opt for the catchall "cool." But there's a timelessness, an attention not merely to detail but to the effect of that detail, that makes even old iPhones look good.

There's always been the perception that Apple products are reserved for those with more money. Money men like to talk about the margins Apple manages to maintain. But the brand now has a certain longevity and a powerful image-based presence. Its incursion into China shows that it's seen as coveted.

More powerfully, though, look at how Apple has managed to span the generations. In a survey in August and September of last year, 73 percent of teens said their next phone would be an iPhone. Can it be that there is one style product that kids don't mind being seen in their dad's hands?

The company's style superiority might now be taking on another dimension. Cook, not for the first time, mentioned Android switchers in his earnings presentation. Is it possible that some who had previously been value shoppers are now prepared to sacrifice a little more money in order to buy a more expensive phone?

The fashion fixation

After all, many is the fashion brand that has discovered new markets by understanding that people with less disposable income -- those who were thought never likely to buy Gucci or Burberry -- now want at least one item to show off.

I might not make a lot of money, but I can still buy a Burberry scarf. So there.

Have phones become so much a fashion item that there's an ever greater shift toward being seen with the right brand?

As technology becomes fashionized -- the whole concept of wearable tech, for example, necessarily carries a deep fashion component -- Apple is well placed to take advantage.

It isn't just that the company has hired brilliant individuals from the fashion world. (Did we mention that Apple's new retail chief, Angela Ahrendts, had been Burberry's CEO?) It's that its whole ethos from the beginning has centered on looks as much as function.

Indeed, an essential component of style is simplicity. So the way Apple's phones work nicely complements what the whole design is trying to achieve.

It's not that Apple's phones are without faults. The battery life still causes conniptions. The software isn't exactly perfect. Occasionally boorish and patrician Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson explained in today's British Sunday Times (paywall) that there are times that he wishes Steve Jobs had never been born, "but I will not switch to another brand because I simply cannot be bothered to learn how it all works."

We might be heading for a Futureworld where phones become more disposable, not less. As they lurch ever more toward fashion, we might be changing our phones every year.

Who better, then, than a brand already steeped in taste to take advantage of such a trend? The way in which fashion brands decide and drive what next year's look will be might, just might, be a template for Apple.

If the brand continues to sell more phones, more globally, might it well decide to present an increased number of versions, of styles, of nuances?

That thought process is already present in the new Apple Watch. In describing it last September, Ive said: "We worked extremely hard to make it an object that would, one, be desirable but to be personal because we don't want to wear the same watch. One of the reasons it takes us a long time [is] because, I think, people are very discerned. A lot of people don't wear a watch, at the moment."

In the end, Apple knows that it has to not merely maintain, but attempt to direct the zeitgeist. It has to foresee whether it can maintain just a few versions of its phone -- keeping them as classics -- or whether it must create more and more variations. Lines, if you like.

It isn't about a bunch of ads making people feel that Apple is the coolest thing. The ads merely exist to remind you what products are out there and make you feel good about them. It's the products themselves and the design behind them that are the best ads, the best marketing of all.

Apple starts from a position where most people still think it's a cool brand. Annoying at times, but still cool.

How would people describe Samsung's brand? For a time, it felt younger. It felt like the anti-Apple, at least in America. Recently, though, it lost its way. It sent out many products, but each with little definition or personality. The style, the impact, just wasn't there. There was no core attitude, no core principle.

As the style slipped further down, so did the profits.

How interesting that, just two weeks ago, Samsung hired Don-tae Lee as its new head of global design. He used to be co-president at London's Tangerine Studios.

Years back, one of Tangerine Studios earliest employees was Jony Ive.