Apple Party97

By Ian Betteridge, 10 September 1997

Oh no! It's another Apple Crash! by Ian Betteridge

In one sense at least Apple have finally overtaken Microsoft. In this year's Clash of the Launches (Microsoft's OfficeParty 97 versus AppleParty 97) the Jobs-machine has out innovated the Gates-machine: while OfficeParty was trying (in time honoured manner) to sell the media a product - the Office 97 software suite - AppleParty was trying to sell it a concept.

If the AppleParty venue (a bunker somewhere deep beneath the Royal College of Art) was an appropriate mixture of spot-lit tech, food icons, free beer, and gloomy corners, the atmosphere was an uneasy blend of Women's Institute tea party (the PC press), a card sharp convention (the Apple dealers) and a family get-together of an incestuous Mississippi clan (the Mac journos). Back into one alcove and you'd find yourself in danger of being sold a 'slightly soiled' Mac system from a character looking like he sold his mother to the midwife officiating at his birth. Turn another and you'd encounter a pipe-smoking school teacher discussing Java with what looked like the forementioned mother. Get too close to the Mac journalists and you'd be catapulted into the set of Deliverance, complete with banjo playing degenerates screaming "squeal, piggy!" in Multimedia VR as you attempted to make good your escape.

So far, so tech launch. But then the (ahem) product was wheeled out. A slogan: 'only apple', all lower case, nice Garamond font, tasteful advertising in The Times. Yup, that's right, our friends from Cupertino were celebrating nothing more than a new advertising campaign. In a move that smacked of brilliance, AppleParty 97 was a yell, a plaintive cry affirming that the company itself is still in business. In another move that demonstrated it has finally learnt a thing or two from Gates, Apple invited so many of its own employees to the event that there was very little room to manoeuvre - or eat, neck copious booze and run away. This meant we had to stay and listen.

Apple long ago recognised what management gurus are only just waking up to: that the point of being a company in an industry dominated by one mega-corporation is not to produce physical products, but to sell the company. Hence the conventional computer industry approach of producing a product plan that makes it look as if you're about to capture a whole new market segment (use buzzwords! look like you shave using instant Ramen Noodle lids!) and then sell the whole company to Microsoft for $100-200 million. Unfortunately for Apple though, it remained an old hippy at heart. Whereas most folk took 'sell' to mean 'sell out', Apple thought that it meant marketing the brand to real live customers. >Wrong!<. Thus Apple ended up pioneering the technique of selling the brand by associating with it the signifiers of the product, rather than selling the product itself, and so managed to sell more people on the idea of owning a Mac than to flog Macs themselves. Given that ideas are supposed to be more difficult to sell than things, Apple is to be admired for this achievement.

The problem is that the Mac that most people bought wasn't the one made by Apple - it was the imitation Mac made by Microsoft, the one that runs on cheap PCs you can buy from Dixons. In this context, AppleParty 97 became much easier to understand. The purpose of it wasn't to sell anything in particular, nor was it to 'win friends and influence people'. Instead, it was an attempt to identify the idea of owning a Mac with some of Apple's physical products, and with the people who constitute the company itself. "Own a Mac," the story went, "and you help feed the needy children of these beautiful product managers." And: "Own one of these fine PowerBooks and you own the real thing." AppleParty 97 wasn't about telling you how fast its machines are; instead, Apple want you to understand that it's Apple that produces 'the real Mac.'

Oh dear. Time to plug my ears against the banjo music and get out of here before Apple gets fucked again. Coz this time around it ain't gonna be pretty.

Ian Betteridge <ianb AT> is a senior reporter for MacUser