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Monday, September 16, 2013

The iPhone 5C and the Allure of Shownership

When Apple introduced its less expensive version of the iPhone last week, many techies and tech followers â€" including me â€" groaned and poked fun at the shiny, toy-like designs. To me, the candy-colored bodies looked like a cheap marketing gimmick, a lazy throwback to iBook laptops from a decade or so ago. It seemed like too big of a diversion from the minimalistic, streamlined look that has become the norm for Apple’s current line of hardware products.

But a chance encounter with a stranger this weekend made me rethink my original position.

I walked into a sleepy Italian cafe to order takeout for lunch. After paying, I sat down to wait and pulled out my iPhone to respond to some text messages. The young cashier who rang me up watched wistfully. “I want an iPhone â€" I’m so sick of this thing,” she said, waving around a big gleaming boat of a Samsung device. “Really?,” I said, attention sharpened, going into reporter mode. She had minor complaints about the Android operating system, but mainly, she said, she just liked the way iPhones looked. I told her the new iPhones were going on sale in a few days and her eyes lit up and she nodded and said she wanted one of the color ones.

I told her that I’d been eyeing the gold one myself, even though I already had a perfectly good phone right now. She said the gold and silver ones looked nice, but that they weren’t flashy enough for her. Most people wouldn’t be able to immediately tell it was the gold one just by looking at it, she said.

“I want people to know that this is a new phone,” she said.

The interaction made me wonder if my knee-jerk reaction to the C-series phones was too hasty.

One of the iPhone’s biggest strengths has always been its branding and aura as a luxury item, a device that lends its owner an unparalleled level of cool and chic. Having the newest iPhone or iPad was an even stronger symbol of status. It is something that rival hardware makers have struggled to emulate and a reputation that could potentially be damaged with the introduction of a cheaper device, as my colleague Brian X. Chen reported last week.

But as the iPhone evolved from the third-generation 3GS model to the fourth and fifth, something interesting started to happen. It was virtually impossible to tell the devices apart. At a glance, the iPhone 4, 4S and 5 are practically identical.

Of course, that is partly because the current iteration of the iPhone is pretty good â€" and Apple doesn’t seem to see the need to improve on it very much, as Matt Buchanan over at The New Yorker wrote last week.

But perhaps Apple is starting to realize that even if they don’t need to make significant changes to their flagship phone, they still need to sate the desire of their buying base, who want to show off their phone hardware as much as they do a new pair of fall boots or a new handbag. Originally, that was the iPhone itself, then the introduction of the app store and the plethora of cool games and services you could demo to your friends. But the iPhone 5C, which is only marginally better than its predecessors, are designed to make people feel good about buying what is essentially an old phone, repackaged in colorful plastic. The psychology of the new, in other words. Because for better or worse, Apple isn’t just about ownership â€" it’s about shownership, and inspiring desire and jealousy in those around you that you’ve got the latest device.

Of course, this is just one story, just one take and one anecdote among thousands of possible anecdotes about the future of Apple and the iPhone. But its one that I will continue to mull over in the days before the next iPhone goes on sale.