The God Paradox, or: Could Steve Jobs Make An iPhone So Awesome, He Himself Couldn’t Launch It?

I am a medium-rabid Apple fanboy, having started out on the Apple IIc (excuse me, //c) when I was a sperm. And, yes, I spent this morning reloading several liveblogs of Steve Jobs’s WWDC Keynote Address like a rat hitting … Continued

I am a medium-rabid Apple fanboy, having started out on the Apple IIc (excuse me, //c) when I was a sperm. And, yes, I spent this morning reloading several liveblogs of Steve Jobs’s WWDC Keynote Address like a rat hitting the lever marked cocaine.

For those of you with, you know, lives, today saw the anouncement of the iPhone 3g as well as the very cool looking (though awfully named) Mobile Me sync and cloud-computing service. If you’re talking about the “Making Tech Things That Are Cooler Than Anyone Else’s Tech Things”, then Apple is winning.

But it strikes me that they’re losing the expectations game. If you read the Apple fanboy blogs (and, boy, do I read the Apple fanboy blogs) the fevered pitch of speculation leading up to the announcements managed to build a mountain so big God himself couldn’t lift it. In fact, I think nothing could have lived up to the process story.

(Much of the speculation happened to be inspired. My favorite was the so-called iTablet, a handheld computer about four times as big as the iPhone, with about the same feature set. I still think they should do that.)

And it further strikes me, since this is a pop culture blog, that this is the same problem that some summer movie blockbusters have been facing. The plots, the running times, the box office performance, the star salaries, the concession prices having to do with summer action tentpoles have become so bloated, that the actual content of the experience of going to the movies can’t compete with the hype.

12 Comments on “The God Paradox, or: Could Steve Jobs Make An iPhone So Awesome, He Himself Couldn’t Launch It?”

  1. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Who would want the iTablet? “Just like the iPhone, except too big to be easily portable!” I understand graphics guys go all woozy over tablets, but there are any number of tablets you can buy and connect to your macs – you don’t need Steve Jobs for that. Yeah, I know some people would want a tablet MacBook, but not many. It’s a niche product.


  2. fenzel OTI Staff #

    I would bemoan this tragedy of which you speak, if it weren’t for flicks like _Iron Man_, which every once in a while remind me that the reason we come to expect to be wowed is that, sometimes, we are wowed.


  3. fenzel OTI Staff #

    Oh, and the inflated costs probably have more to do with the bloated American economy than the movie biz.


  4. Shechner #

    I think a lot of the problem here is that with our level of connectivity – what with the System-of-Tubes and what have you – there tend to be very few surprises about new product roll-outs. Since the internet tends to focus quite heavily on the tech sector and the consumable media, there’s often a lot of leaked information – bona-fide or not, first, second, fifth hand, &ct… – about almost any seemingly minuscule bit of minutia in these arenas. The fanboy blogs might have been rife with the all-too-easily predicted speculations, but so too were pretty much any general-audience analyst’s discussion, or even material meant for the general tech-enthusiast crowd. I mean, I’m no Apple fan – often quite the opposite – and *I* had heard about the 3G upgrade, GPS function and lower price when the rumors first started, and that was certainly not from reading the fansites.

    Iron man _was_ quite awesome, but we certainly expected it to be from the preliminary material we were given, right? Seeing the Iron Man trailer, there was no doubt in my mind that the movie was going to be far better than many of its collegues, and this was only strengthened by the indefatigable flow of data surrounding it which streamed into my eyeballs every day. So, when I saw it and loved it, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Still, though, the question arises as to whether a person’s lack of surprise regarding a piece’s quality influences whether he/she can be surprised by the details of its content. My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “sure – these aren’t linked traits,” but now I’m not so sure…

    So, an interesting question is this, then: what can we do to surprise people, these days? How do you get the word out that you’ve got something good coming, without letting the world know what it is? Intentionally misleading trailers, disinformed industry leaks? We start to verge on the territory of the ARGs, which might not be a bad thing, if ARGs had been shown to be effective means of advertising, and not a gross time-suck. AND, even if you could veil the nature of a product while extolling its sure impact on society, would the modern audience accept this? OR would the *demand* leaked-details to whet their appetites?


  5. wrather #

    I am writing another post collecting my thoughts about the foregoing. In the meantime…

    The inflation of summer blockbuster budgets is due to a lot of things… one recent development is relative ease of access to vast sums of hedge fund capital… but as to where that money is going, a ton of it goes to CGI, which has become super-expensive and, when badly used, detrimental to storytelling. (Of course, anything in a story badly used is detrimental to storytelling.) The irony is that computers were supposed to cut production costs dramatically, since we wouldn’t have to hire six million extras for Lord of the Rings. Turns out, though, they needed six million animators.

    Oh, and an iTablet would have been awesome, Belinkie’s dispiriting failure of imagination notwithstanding.


  6. fenzel OTI Staff #

    That is an excellent question, Dave.

    First things first — leaks are good. Leaks are just teasers that look like they’re by accident. But you want your leaks to happen in a way that is constructive for the release cycle of your product.

    In order for that to even be an option, you have to understand the release cycle of your product, and you have to manage it competently. One reason why tech companies in particular have problems with surprises is how snags in development or project management can push your release date back by months or even years –you have to go back and recode your user interface, or what have you (sorry, not very knowledgeable on IT, just enough to get by in these conversations), and suddenly that image that snuck out on the Internet three months before your original planned announcement is a year early and fails to drive any excitement.

    Because here’s the thing — it isn’t surprise we’re doing here. The point is not to surprise people — surprise is a tool, but it’s not the goal. The goal here is to build an expectation, and then surpass it. Get your market to think you’ve got something cool coming, give them little bits to figure it out, and then present them with something that surpasses what they were thinking about, and they’ll love it. People love having their expectations surpassed.

    Yes, that’s a form of surprise, but surprise might not always be the best word for it. For example, if you designed a luxury car so that it ran really smoothly and silently, and even had sound-cancelling technology built into the speakers, and your consumer has some idea of what it is, but when they actually drive it, they’re wowed — that’s surpassing expectations, but surprise isn’t the best word for it.

    If you have a reputation for frustrating people’s expectations, well, you’re probably fucked. Because when you’re building hype for something, you’re asking people to have faith. If you’ve screwed up before and failed to deliver and it’s hurt your brand, it doesn’t necessarily matter so much how you launch your products — you need to build a new brand image from the ground up so people trust you and believe what you’re saying when you say you’ve got something you want them to buy. Or else you find some segment of your brand that isn’t tarnished, and you push that (like the Dodge Ram — Dodge had a deserved reputation for shitty cars, but it didn’t have a reputation for shitty trucks, and it had a good name and brand for it, so the Dodge Ram a really good call.)

    So, once you’ve gotten your development cycle under control and you know that you’re releasing in line with the strengths of your brand so that your consumers know to start building expectation so you don’t disappoint them, well, you need to understand what those expectations are — what those people want.

    Because they usually don’t want “products.” Maybe they want a new toy or a status symbol or something that makes their life easier or something new or something that makes them feel the future has arrived. Maybe they really want a 2/1 dork for R. Maybe they want to never be away from their computer ever. But if they really want a jackal pup, and you give them an iPhone, well, congratulations, you fucked up and pissed them off. There are probably more products that fail because they successfully and competently deliver something other than what their customers give a shit about than products that fail because they are just bad.

    It is a very delicate process, there is no formula for it to succeed, and you’ve really got to understand your product and your audience to be able to do it often and successfully.

    So, you need good management to keep things on schedule, good branding to keep the audience engaged, good market research to understand what your customers want and expect from you and in general, and savvy folks who can align form with function, the conference room to the convenience story – more than a slick marketing campaign, you need an elegant melding of what your product is, how your product is made, and how it is sold — in other words, you need a designed experience. You need elegance.

    I think this is what you’re getting at when you talk about ARGs, but ARGs aren’t the only way you cogently integrate production and product with branding marketing and customer engagement. There are designed experiences that are meant to guide the eye and serve as performances of their own that aren’t ARGs.

    Take, for example, the Apple Store. The Apple Store, in my experience, is pretty much the shittiest store in the whole world at just being a store (other than that Samsung showroom in the AOL Time Warner center mall that wasn’t actually selling anything that I went to once – they didn’t even refer me to anybody when I asked for a DVD player). You can go there and wait for like four hours just to get somebody to accept your application to get your warranty covered. You can spend a whole day there on a chore and be ignored by the staff and not buy anything.

    But it’s a _designed_ experience, and it serves as a powerful reinforcement of its brand. If an Apple Store looked like a CompUSA, it would be out of business in a week. Hell, I think CompUSA _is_ out of business, and could give you everything you can get at an apple store for half the price (off-brand) and an eigth of the time, plus furniture (off-mission).

    To go back to my nerd slip from before, I really think one of the best, easiest ways to learn about product launches and customer expectation is to pay attention to the development and release cycle for new _Magic: The Gathering_ cards. Because it’s fucking brilliant – oh, they screw up sometimes, but people only notice because the expectations are so high. I don’t even play the game anymore (As I did when we lived together, Shechner, last year, of course) and I still read their articles on product design and development and pay attention to their set releases.

    When you get right down to it, very little that’s essential to that product actually changes — there’s no new technology, no new materials — nothing that couldn’t technically, have been done fifteen years ago (and their shitty software development speaks to that, too).

    But every year they release 3 or 4 sets of new trading cards for their game, each of which includes a few hundred new cards. They’ve been doing that for 15 years.

    They’re topping 10,000 cards now, I think, and they still have to think of tons and tons of new ideas and keep finding ways of stretching and reinventing their game. And they do a phenomenal job of it.

    And to get back to your question, Shechner, their solution is that they play to the top of their intelligence, they are transparent with their audience, and they manage their “rumors seasons” deliberately, with a combination of releasing material themselves and depending on organic growth of internet rumor mills to drive interest in their product.

    Their product designers and developers, along with other leaders in their game, have new articles out on the web every day. There’s podcasts, there’s video, there’s live events. There are official releases, fake official releases, and unofficial releases. They even had to put somebody in check with a lawsuit recently for pushing too hard on the unauthorized leaks, but his rumor site is still up, and he’s still pushing out the leaks every season.

    But Magic cards have an advantage – they are a product that is essentially about discovery, and there’s a lot to discover. There’s only so much you can discover about a telephone. So you can’t manage the information in the same way. Building hype is much harder when you could summarize everything interesting about your product release in a few sentences.

    And that means you have to go back to what your audience wants instead of a product. Hype that. Hint at that.

    Nobody really wanted _Cloverfield_. But they did want a mysterious movie that wowed them the way that trailer did. And so J.J. Abrams sold them not his movie, but that want.

    It’s in the last episode of the Sopranos, too — when you discover you’ve been had. You think you want the end of the story, so you buy it, but then you find you’re not buying the end of the story, you’re buying wanting the end of the story. You’re buying a show where you want to find out what happens next episode – not a show where you actually find out.

    That truth is jarring for a lot of people’s senses of reality and fairness, but it’s usually how it works.


  7. fenzel OTI Staff #

    So, yeah, the short answer is, if you’re selling an experience that people actually want instead of a superior product, a lot of the issues around leaks become a lot easier to wrap your head around.


  8. Mark #


    just wanted to underthink this one for a change. i really really want the new shiny shiny.


  9. shechner #

    Well, I’ll certainly concede to Mr. Fenzel (and to St. Augustine), that to a large extent consumerism is less about the anticipation of owning a product, and perhaps even to having an experience, and more about the *anticipation* of having the product. The lust for something, the anticipation for it, is a source of energy for us, and that upon which we feed. To this end the release of trailers, teasers, leaks, spoilers and so forth are tremendously powerful, and especially if applied with the care and precision that Pete outlined.

    Still, though, I think we can take the Godelian approach here and encompass the duality posed by my first question and Pete’s answer to it, and restate it as my first question renewed. Which is to say, (and I was trying to get at this in my earlier post) at what point does the current rhythm of leak, rumor, release, critique, etc… become so comfortable for the consumer that he fails to gain the anticipation from it that it intends to provide? Consumerism is, after all, frequently compared to drug addiction, so at what point does even this *routine*, functioning as a singular unit (the “learning the existence of – learning covert details about – seeing release of – anticipating purchase of – actually consuming” unit), become one to which we’ve developed a tolerance? Are we jonesing for more – and is *that* why the things we used to crave with wanton abandon now seem so lackluster?

    I’ll parallel Pete’s discussion of the deft deployment of Magic cards with perhaps its antithesis, which turns out to be eerily appropriate this week. We should perhaps consider the cautionary tale of “Duke Nukem Forever,” which – for the bajillionth time this week during its ~12 year (!!!) development, announced alleged game-play footage. See:

    I can’t determine if it gives me hope or total despair that every time 3D realms dangles the carrot, Gamers still get genuinely excited. Maybe this answers my question – maybe we can still anticipate things, despite the doldrum of the world of endless product release cycles and the inevitable numbness it engenders, if we just want said things JUST SO DAMN MUCH.

    It also helps if there are hookers.


  10. shechner #

    Whoop – way to read, Shechner. My first paragraph above should have read, “less about having a product…. and more about the *anticipation* of having the product.” Mmm…editing.


  11. fenzel #

    People want things to believe in. They want to think their heroes will come back. It’s either the audacity of hope or an extension of Typology.

    Honestly, I hope Duke Nukem Forever comes out and is the best game ever made. That would be beyond poetic.

    Actually, the whole Duke Nukem Forever cycle has done what nothing else in the world could — turn Duke Nukem into a Christ figure.


  12. divisionbyzero #

    I think the hype machine over Apple products has really been in place for 20 years… it’s just that it’s operated largely in Maclot circles and obscurity until recently, when Apple has raised its national profile and expanded from beyond computers to consumer electronics. I mean, look at the famous 1984 ad…

    I humbly refer your readers to the Apple Product Cycle. It’s uncanny how precisely this plays out… every… single… time.


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