iCaramba! Enough Already!

A Commentary by Hajo Schumacher

The iPad is for show-offs. and the iPhone 4 makes it difficult to make a simple telephone call. Apple used to be hip, stylish and ahead of the curve. now, though, it has become totally uncool — and not just since Steve Jobs stepped down.

It happened again just recently. yet another elderly member of Germany’s parliament sauntered up, pulled out a neat leather case and whispered conspiratorially: “I’ve got one now, too.”

The correct response to this would have been: “Yeah, so what?” But politeness demanded a feigned: “Great.” People who purchase Apple products feel like they’ve joined some kind of elite club — and they apparently want everybody to know about it.

The iPad has attained the social cachet once enjoyed by things like color TVs and inline skates. It’s almost like you can hear its owners shouting triumphantly: “I’m hip! I’m in front! and I can afford it, too!”

More than half of the members of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, can now be seen gliding their fingers over iPad touch screens. Of course, it’s not about looking something up or even working. no, this moment, this brief time in which the briefcase is opened and the iPad is taken out is only about showing the rest of the world: I’m with it. I’m connected. using an iPad looks more impressive on TV than flipping through ring binders.

It’s the same with pulse-monitoring watches, red wine and handbags: It’s not about functions, uses or taste. no, it’s about showing off. indeed, the iPad is the must-have, cool-kid item of the 21st century.

Though you can’t even use Flash on them, some people touch every Apple gadget with an almost religious awe. Having one frees you of any digital inferiority complexes. indeed, you soon won’t be able to attend a seminar, sit in on a meeting or take a train ride without seeing some hot-shot open up his iPad case.

It’s curious, too, especially when you consider the fact that you can’t really write properly on an iPad, that it’s not easy to make phone calls with it and that it requires you to sign up for an additional cell phone contract if you want to get Internet access while on the go.

Apple is like Sushi

The economic victory parade of the iPad and iPhone is accompanied by a dreadful emotional letdown, a bit like with the latte macchiato before it. something that was pleasingly different, that gave its supporters a certain feeling of hipness, has been sucked dry by its sheer ubiquity. What was once cool has now become the epitome of uncool. if everybody has something, it can no longer set you apart. The most valuable company in the world produces exactly what all the other most valuable companies in the world have produced: soulless junk. Apple is like sushi: What was once exclusive is now as common as a lower back tattoo.

Back in the day, when everything was better, the Macintosh enjoyed a reputation for being a well-designed tool for graphic designers. Apple was a protest against the evil empire embodied by Bill Gates. its sleek devices were designed by people like Hartmut Esslinger of Frog Design, and inspired by Dieter Rams of Braun fame. they turned the brand into a statement. they combined functionality with a feeling of Californian liberalism.

Mac users basked in a feeling of belonging to a select group. Steve Jobs, the eternal hippie, was the chummy opposite of the hyper-ambitious nerd Bill Gates. People happily paid more for the products so that they could feel they were somehow on the right side. The high prices were always also a kind of donation. and it fitted perfectly that the Silicon Valley company was on the verge of going bankrupt in the 1990s.

An Obvious Master Plan

Apple’s history of massive success first started with the iPod. even skeptics had to concede that it took marketing genius to transform something as dirt-cheap as an MP3 player into a outrageously pricey luxury good. The iPod’s rise was accompanied by that of iTunes. it was obviously part of a master plan that aimed to have customers only spend money in the hermetically sealed Mac world.

For Apple, value-creation cycles, restricting freedom of choice and gathering mountains of user data have all been part of the same thing for a long time. sure, Google might have its tentacles all over the place. But Apple is worse. Without any democratic mandate, Apple officials determine what content will be made available via its App Store. indeed, things that would be enough to trigger a major scandal at your average multinational don’t seem to stick to Apple. There’s hardly a single German publisher that wouldn’t prostrate itself before Apple, because the lords of the apps are the only people who can grant access to the revenue sources of the future.

The first cracks in this love affair between Man and Mac came with the launch of the iPhone 4. As usual, the Mac-devoted media — including yours truly — took over the job of providing free marketing for the product. and, as with the launch of any new Apple product, that of the iPhone 4 was celebrated as a global spectacle. But one thing was ignored: The iPhone 4 is the first cell phone in ages that I have trouble making calls with. half of my calls are dropped.

Communicating gets particularly bizarre when two people try to talk to each other using iPhones. using carrier pigeons would be faster. Steve Jobs explains that it isn’t the phone that’s the problem but, rather, its users, who don’t hold the miracle device right.

A Community of Believers Detached from Reality

Firms everywhere get sued whenever their products don’t do what they’re supposed to. Apple enjoys legions of militant fans who point out to any Apple critics that they’re just too dumb to use it right. Apple and its customers are today’s L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology: a community of believers completely detached from reality. The lines that used to form in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome can now be found outside the Apple Store.

What started with the iPhone 4 has now come to encompass all Apple products. they no longer run smoothly with each other — and not at all if they are of different generations. take, for example, iCal, the Mac calendar. The idea behind it is that up to four people can keep a shared calendar, that it will ideally be updated after each new entry is made, and that it syncs on your Apple computer, your Apple iPhone and your Apple iPad.

Thankfully, I have Stefan to help me. “No problem,” he says. “We’ll do that with the cloud.” Stefan is a freelance computer technician, therapist and extortionist. unfortunately, his first standard phrase (“That’ll be fixed in no time!”) is never true. That’s because his second standard line is: “We have to reset it.” all devices have to be in the same place at the same time. only then can they all be reformatted so that they can all have the same new software versions. this is a serious logistical effort, and it promises the exact opposite of mobile communication: immobile silence.

And every time it’s the same song and dance: a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of praying — followed by the inevitable letdown. at a certain point, the entire calendar is messed up, but only on one computer. and then on all the iPhones. now there are 12 copies of all the phone numbers in the address book, and the data volume makes each search take an eternity. Stefan is relieved. “Great,” he says. “At least the phone numbers are still there.” next week, we’ll have to start all over from scratch again.

Incidentally, Stefan doesn’t use an iPad. “What for?” he says. good question.

Digging out the Nokia

Happiness lies in simplifying your life. The Volkswagen Golf will start being interesting again once everyone is driving Porsches. at least it runs. and it doesn’t leave a lingering, hollow feeling of having been scammed because you have to run all the way across town to get your hands on a copy of the exotic program “Keynote,” which doesn’t install itself even after three calls to the help hotline because you first have to completely delete the test version from your computer and even that doesn’t work.

And how are you supposed to get an installation CD into an iPad anyway, if it doesn’t have either a drive or a USB port? buy the app, dummy. But why? I just bought the same program on a CD. Doesn’t matter. You have to buy the app.

It gradually becomes clear why Apple is the darling of the stock exchanges. What we have here is a game resembling a chain letter designed to go on forever, one that people have to keep forwarding if they want to feel like they’re ahead. Apple is a drug, and everyone is hooked.

Almost everyone, that is. Yesterday, I dug out my old Nokia phone from a drawer. Finally I can make phone calls again! is there life without Apple? I’m not sure, but I’m sure going to give it a try.

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