Fanboy Unicorn

After Apple’s September 9th “Hey, Siri” event, I saw a lot of the usual comments on Twitter about how Apple fanboys think anything Apple does is new despite someone else having already done it before. In this case, the complaints were primarily focused around the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro, which for some reason apparently made people think of a certain iPad competitor.

I can understand their bitterness to some degree; Apple has a unique ability to be able to roll out things that other companies invented or implemented first, usually to endless yawns, and somehow suddenly get everyone interested.

In fact, Apple hasn’t been first with most of things they introduce, but that’s not really the point for them or for people who use their products. What matters is that Apple knows what they’re doing, and they do it well. They know how to design and market for actual human beings in a way that most tech companies don’t seem to be able to. This often makes a lot of the nerd crowd angry, but the kind of details Apple cares about really do make a difference to their customers.

Those of us who have followed Apple for many years (almost 40, in my case) know very well that Apple didn’t invent the mouse, the cursor, the touchscreen, the mobile app, the stylus, etc, etc, etc. But they did merge these technologies together symbiotically, making their products simple, functional, and enjoyable to use. Apple is good at that.

The Apple II wasn’t the first personal computer, but it was the friendliest, most accessible, and in many ways the most powerful, of the early wave of personal computers. It was fun to use, versatile, and it helped enable a technological revolution by bringing programming, gaming, and business applications into many homes. I think it’s more than fair to call it a game-changer.

Likewise, the Mac wasn’t a showcase of original Apple technologies either. Apple didn’t invent the mouse or the cursor or graphical user interfaces or the 3.5” floppy. But they did make them accessible to the general public in an easy to use but powerful package1 in a way that no one else was willing to or capable of at the time. All computers now have a familiar looking GUI based entirely on what Apple did with the Mac; many people alive probably don’t even realize that personal computers before the Mac were all operated by typing text at a prompt.

The iPhone completely changed the smartphone market in a similar manner. Looking at an image of smartphones before the iPhone and those that came after the iPhone is like seeing archeological relics from the ancient past juxtaposed with modern technology.2 Existing smartphones of the time were immediately rendered obsolete by the iPhone, and Apple didn’t have to invent the touchscreen to make that happen. They just figured out how to make something that seemed inevitable.3

There are actual cases of Apple users being dogmatic about how Apple does things, to the point of denying reality. Large screen smartphones are an example. I cannot recall how many articles I read and podcasts I listened to pre-iPhone 5 that derided large screen Android phones and called them “old person” screens, as though bigger displays were invented solely for elderly people peering down at huge buttons, trying to focus on them long enough to identify the one they wanted to press. I think even John Siracusa characterized them this way, smart as he is. I never agreed; I always thought the 3.5” and even 4” screens were way too small.4 A few years later, everyone now seems to grasp that large display iPhones are actually a desirable item. They’re selling very well, almost like people actually wanted them and couldn’t wait for Apple to wake up and stop making tiny screens the default option.

But I think in general, the idea of the rabid Apple fanboy who doesn’t understand context, has no ability to be critical of Apple products, and who simply waits for Apple to deliver another beautiful, expensive, non-necessity for them to snap up sight unseen is a complete myth. It may be what some people see when they stare at the Rorschach test known as Apple, but that doesn’t make it reality. Sometimes we do tend to think the way Apple does something is the only or best way, but that’s not fanboyism. That’s just human nature. We always think our way is the best way. That’s why there are different political, social, and religious systems in the world. People get stuck in one particular school of thought and start believing every other construct is evil or unpatriotic or unimaginable.

One of the benefits to being a rational long-term Apple fan5 is that it provides a bit of context. Most Apple users know very well that Apple products have shortcomings, but we also know the difference between the real problems and the straw-man issues invented by writers and internet critics. Anyone paying even the most minute amount of attention cannot help but notice that those most passionate about Apple are also the people most likely to complain and publicly call Apple out on the things that bother them about the company or its products. It’s actually people who do understand Apple who understand the problems they have.

Fanboyism is largely a fantasy, a golden unicorn that doesn’t exist but is desperately believed in by bloggers and haters to milk for page views and as fodder for online comments aimed at Mac, iPhone, and iPad users. It’s a product of the cynicism and the techno-partisanship that the internet seems to have either created or greatly exacerbated.

After I started writing this, I realized I want to write a post about what it was like to be a tech fan during the early days of personal computers. One thing we definitely didn’t have was the cynicism that’s pervasive now in bad tech writing on the web. There weren’t any Dan Lyons or Brian Halls yelling at clouds because they’re upset that no one takes them seriously.

By the way, lest I end on my own “old man yells at cloud” note, speaking of cynicism reminds me: I think a lot of what helped fuel the current trend of retro and 8-bit looking games is nostalgia for how much fun being a computer and technology geek was in the early days of personal computing. It was ok to like what you liked, learn a lot, and take advantage of the technology. I’m positive I’m not the only one who plays these games and is reminded of how unspoiled attitudes were then and how much anything seemed possible.

Tim Robertson of MyMac once said on the TechFan podcast that we are basically all carrying around magical devices in our pockets now, and all we can do is complain and see the negative. Unfortunately, he’s right. It’s crazy that people can be bored and jaded when there’s so much we can learn and do. Instead, we choose to hate each other based on the fact that we like different things.

  1. The original 128k Mac was memory and disk constrained, and it showed. Later updates made the computer more usable and helped unlock its potential to a far greater degree. The Mac Plus configuration allowed for adequte (at the time) memory and the addition of a SCSI hard drive. Unfortunately, the relatively crippled nature of the 128k Mac, combined with lack of software, established the Mac’s reputation and underpowered for some time. 
  2. That’s pretty much what it in fact is, actually. 
  3. Jony Ive likes to use the word inevitable a lot in fancy videos of him trapped in a white room, explaining his design process, but the iPhone truly deserves that characterization. One only has to look at every other smartphone (and even a lot of dumb phones) available for purchase to understand that. 
  4. I have long fingers, what can I say? Small screens are very difficult for me to type on and to hit those minute touch targets accurately. It has nothing to do with vision. 
  5. Not fanboy; there’s an important distinction, particularly considering how fanboy is almost always used as a pejorative.