I’ll be buying an iPhone 6s this year but I can’t say I’m overly happy about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to own a device that I think is the best overall smartphone on the market right now. I just don’t happen to think it’s a religious experience. It won’t change my life forever. And I sure as hell won’t stand in line outside the damn Apple Store for hours to buy one. Why? Because at the end of the day, it’s just a phone.
I mention this because The Verge’s Vlad Savov on Wednesday published a much-talked-about essay detailing the ridiculous amount of hype that the tech media generates every year for every new iPhone product launch. In particular, Savov notes that the iPhone often gets worshipful press treatment that would make the Dalai Lama and the Pope jealous. Even more incredibly, Savov says the iPhone is completely worthy of such treatment.
“The iPhone is reviewed like a transcendental entity that’s more than just the sum of its metal, plastic, and silicon parts, because that’s what it is,” he writes. “Assessing an iPhone against a blank canvas is akin to describing Notre Dame or Sagrada Família as old, large, religious buildings.”
Can you even be serious about this.
Look: I spent a couple of months with the iPhone 6 this past summer and I concluded that it was the best overall smartphone on the market because it did a lot of key things very well. Its camera takes beautiful pictures, it has a superior app ecosystem compared to Android and it actually lets you install the newest software the day it’s released.
But it’s still just a phone, and it’s really not that much better than Android. Sure there are many good reasons to prefer it to Android, such as the ones that I listed above. By the same token, there are also many good reasons to prefer Android to iPhone. Personally I can’t stand the way Apple tries to lock down what you can do with its devices and I absolutely understand why millions of Android users prefer to put up with their favored platform’s shortcomings to have more freedom over their devices. There is nothing metaphysical about it, however — it’s just phone software and different people have different preferences.
So if there’s nothing metaphysical about these products, why do so many people think there is? Likely because that’s how Apple thinks about them and how Apple wants everyone else to think about them. Recall this famous quote from Steve Jobs about the spiritual side of Apple products:
“There [is] something beyond what you see every day. There’s something going on here in life beyond just a job and a family and two cars in a garage and a career… And a lot of people have set off throughout history to find out what that was, whether it’s, you know, Thoreau or whether it’s some Indian mystics, or whoever it might be… It’s the same thing that causes people to want to be poets instead of bankers, you know? And I think that’s a wonderful thing. And I think that same spirit can be put into products, and those products can be manufactured and given to people and they can sense that spirit. If you talk to people using the Macintosh, they love it. I mean, you don’t hear people loving products very often. But you could feel it in there.”
I have no doubt Jobs actually believed this sort of thing, just as I don’t doubt Medieval kings sincerely believed they were divinely chosen to rule over others. It’s easy to believe that you’re spiritually guided by a greater power when you think that greater power has your self interest at heart. That doesn’t, however, make it true.
I’ll say this again: The iPhone is a great phone. I even think it’s the best phone on the market. It is not, however, a transcendental entity. It is not a timeless symbol of human architectural achievement like Notre Dame. It’s something you pay a lot of money for, use for two years, and then unceremoniously dump because you want to get the newest, shiniest best lightest thinnest most amazing iPhone yet.
Why? Because it’s just a phone.