Yesterday, technology enthusiasts huddled around blogs to learn about Apple’s new products. They were fine, but there was something about the hype surrounding them that felt familiar. And then, a few hours later, I realized it: The iPhone of today is the Nike Air shoes of the 1990s.
It’s a simple observation, but it actually tells us a lot about how Apple’s product lines are evolving—and why the hype feels so misplaced in comparison with the “one more thing” era of Apple announcements. Apple, like Nike, has achieved a watershed level of popularity that doesn’t necessitate major risks. What we’re seeing now is the development of small, sellable nuggets of new technology that feel like cherries on the top of Apple’s real sundae: The billions of new phones that it will sell that don’t differ all that much from its most recent generation.
When I was a kid, Nike was a phenomenally popular brand. Kids at school wore Nike Air sneakers, and it felt like a calling card: “My family is sufficiently rich and willing to pay for technology I can walk on. I also favor Trapper Keepers.”
The shoes weren’t better, per se. But they did feature a bunch of ever-evolving innovations, namely air bubbles placed in various places. Reebok, the competitor, embraced technology as well, first with the Pump and later with wonderfully whimsical inventions like Helaxite, the Instapump, and something called ZigTech.
Nike remained focus on pimping out its Air Cushioning Technology, which basically amounted to putting sacks of gas in the soles of its shoes. Nike introduced the Air brand in 1979, but the big breakthrough happened in 1987 with the first Nike Air Max 1. The sneakers featured visible pouches of air, and by the time the 90s rolled around, Nike was basically just making shit up, when it came to the incremental improvements on its line of highly profitable sneakers—most of which were probably made in a sweatshop. The Air Max ad campaigns sort of say it all:
By the time Nike filled the entire sole of a shoe with air, it moved onto other half-baked innovations. There was Nike Zoom which did… something… and Nike Shox which look ridiculous. All were touted as technological upgrades. All helped Nike convince its fans to pay a few more bucks for shoes that still served the same utilitarian function of keeping your bare feet from touching the Earth.
Today, Nike remains a master of this game which is why it remains one of the most iconic and successful brands in the world, like Apple. Nike defined themselves with innovation, contrived as it sometimes was, and sold people on an idea that this product was different and better. Just look at the history of innovation in Nike’s air-filled shoes.
Yesterday’s Apple Day annoyed a few people because it was pretty boring. Well, compared to some other big product announcements—especially past Apple events—it included a lot of little improvements and new ways for you to give money to Apple. The products are probably marginally better, and a lot of people (including this blogger) are paying attention to how exactly that might happen. Apple’s latest slogan, like Nike’s before it, is simply hilarious: “iPhone 6S—The only thing that’s changed is everything.”
Take the new iPhone 6S, which comes with something called 3D Touch. It’s evidently going to to change the way we play iPhone games and probably confuse your parents. But ultimately, it’s supposed to be interesting for a lot reasons that fit neatly into a splashy presentation. Do you need 3D Touch to enjoy your iPhone? Absolutely not. Do you want it? It seems that many people do.
Nike came up with Air Max around the same time as the Reebok released the Pump. The timing is sort of analogous to Apple’s revealing 3D Touch not long after Samsung released its Edge devices. A screen that knows how hard you press is potentially as useless as a screen that wraps around the side of the phone. But the one-upmanship of incremental innovations ensures the devoted brand-lovers will continue to feel superior as long as they buy into the hype of the latest thing.
Did Air Max technology make run faster and jump higher? Probably not. Does an especially sensitive 3D Touch screen make you better at texting your friends? I doubt it. Do these billboard-worthy improvements make you look and feel awesome? To a lot of people, I’m sure they do.
Images via Nike