If BMW had an auteur—the kind of auteur Apple had until last night—would his fans gather at local BMW dealerships when he died to light candles and toss flowers in front of showroom windows the way Steve Jobs fans are now at Apple Stores around the world? Would they storm Twitter to post recollections of the first and second BMWs they owned and thank Mr. BMW for having made their ordinary trips to the store for milk and eggs more like cosmic adventures in motoring?
Obviously not. No other gadgets have wormed themselves into the global psyche the way Steve Jobs’s have. Like most of Jobs’s coups, the takeover was a matter of design. Although he had been synonymous with Apple since the late 1970s by virtue of the computer he developed and marketed with Steve Wozniak, and the cult of Apple was already in full bloom at the time of the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, Jobs didn’t fashion himself the maximum leader of the cult until he returned to the company in 1996.
Jobs’s restoration was read by his followers as a resurrection, and he encouraged this interpretation by using his regained powers as Apple’s guru to further mesh his identity with that of the company’s products. Jobs became his Macs and iPods and they became him. By and large, they were pretty good products, if not a little pricey. (Ask me, I’ve owned a few.)
What Jobs understood was that there was and is room in the computer market for a prettier or marginally better product—packed tightly in a very fashionable box—that could be sold at a premium price if he marketed them as “Veblen goods,” luxury products that convey status upon their purchasers. Jobs hasn’t been alone in this discovery. Take the modern American kitchen. It has become our most densely populated Veblen-goods petting zoo, with its Viking six-burner range with griddle and double oven, its Sub-Zero refrigerator-freezer, its Bosch silent dishwasher, and its MoMA tea kettle. The modern kitchen appliance signals the high status of its owner to friends and neighbors, and so do Apple’s products. When Appleheads visit your home or office and see your iMac or MacBook Air, you can see the Oh, you’re one of us! thought bubble forming over their heads. Conversely, these folks emit a palpable sense of disappointment if catch you with a Dell or a Toshiba. But you seemed so creative! You can observe this sort of messaging on the subway, too, as Apple owners steal glances at one another, bonding wordlessly as they pinch and flick their way through their iPhones and iPads.
Becoming a loved brand wasn’t easy for Apple. Given the automatic hatred the creative class (or those who think of themselves part of the creative class) has for corporations, Apple and Jobs should have been targets of scorn. What he and Apple had going for them at the beginning was their underdog position against IBM and then Microsoft. Apple wisely projected itself as the alt-computer company, a distinction Jobs cemented with the 1984 Super Bowl commercial. Just using Apple products was supposed to be an act of rebellion against the system.