A new electronic gadget was launched this week, you may have heard. Such is the speed of technological development that new products appear practically daily, but this one caused a stir. It was from Apple Inc. And when Apple unveils something, there is an anticipation that life as we know it may be about to change. It fell on Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, chief executive and the coolest man in circuitry, to introduce the iPad.
Essentially an overgrown iPhone - although it doesn't make calls - it comes fitted with a selection of tasty extras, and is fashioned, as all Apple's products are, into a sleek and desirable piece of digital loveliness. Those who have had a chance to play with it, describe it as a multifunctional device that will browse the internet, run games, movies and music, secure the future of the written word, reshape the way we live, work and think, keep the rain off, and double up as a tea tray. All this for a launch price of around US$500 (Dh1,836), which includes the kudos of being the first to whip one out of your shoulder bag.
Yet to the millions of Apple faithful - the MacFanboys as they are known - the importance of acquiring the company's latest offering goes beyond status or even practicality. A pre-launch survey, carried out in Britain, last week found that 54 per cent of UK consumers would like an iPad whatever the cost or specification, while stores in the United States, China and the Middle East are bracing themselves for a mass stampede when the machine goes on sale in April. Indeed, analysis by Reuters Breakingviews estimated that $25 billion of Apple's current market value could be attached to expectations about the iPad's success.
The mystique of Apple now blankets the world in a great, heady cloud of feel-good fervour, transcending the barriers of age, class, sex, race, religion and geography. Beyond the range of electronic goodies, the brand has come to represent an attitude and a lifestyle steeped in the notions of individuality, modishness, taste and techno-chic. "The power of the image is everything for Apple," says Marc Gobé, a Paris-based global marketing consultant and author of several books on branding, "Great brands have an emotional connection with their customers. They make you feel better about yourself. The sense of what Apple is about comes through with every product it makes, and you sense it when you pick one up."
To its customers, therefore, Apple has become not so much a company as a cause. In a world of homogeneity and standardisation, it flies the flag of resistance, challenging those who might otherwise take the easy, mass market options to open their minds to the redemptive qualities of good looks, quirkiness and ingenuity. The iPod, a piece of design once described as "maxi-minimalist", was initially greeted with derision by an industry conditioned to the idea that the buyers of portable music players wanted flashing lights and fancy readouts. Today the iPod, having vastly expanded the market, has sold more than 220 million units. At the same time, iTunes has revolutionised the music industry.
For all the funkiness of its image, Apple is a tough place to work. New employees are told that the minimum creative standard expected of them is "early Beatles", and a coda of secrecy bordering on paranoia pervades everything the company does. Yet Apple's refusal to give advance details of its products, and its propensity for suing magazines and websites that claim to have them, seems only to feed the market's hunger for its gadgets.
This Midas touch has established Jobs, in the view of Fortune magazine, as "the most powerful businessman on earth" and his company as "the world's most admired". At 54, he sits on top of a multibillion dollar fortune, and at the centre of a global personality cult, love-bombed by his customers in a way that any other head of a large corporation might find faintly embarrassing. The only cloud has been his health.
He has survived cancer, a liver transplant, and what, in a rare communication to Apple's customers, he described as "a hormone imbalance that was robbing me of my proteins". Compounding these afflictions are the particular stresses of containing the biggest, most assertive, ego in Silicon Valley. "If there was an assembly of all the friends, employees and would-be partners Steve has alienated down the years," says David Plotnikoff, a seasoned Jobs-watcher on the Sacramento Bee newspaper, "they'd need a stadium to accommodate the mob."
Despite this no other business on earth inspires the kind of fanaticism Apple enjoys, and it is necessary to look deeper into the company's story to understand why. In the great war for silicon supremacy, Jobs and his men are the Jedi, and Bill Gates's mighty Microsoft the forces of the Empire from the Dark side. Ruthless, predatory and terrifying, the Microsoft startroopers have been trying to crush their smaller rival for as long as they have both been in business.
To survive, Apple has to be smarter, faster and more innovative, yet the differences go beyond the products. The men behind the two firms are driven by strikingly dissimilar aims. "Bill Gates," writes Robert Cringely, author of Accidental Empires, which chronicles the pair's long-standing rivalry, "sees the personal computer as a convenient tool for transferring every stray dollar, pound, franc, peso and kopeck in the world into his pocket. Steve Jobs sees it as a way of changing the world."
To this extent, Jobs represents the vestigial spirit of Silicon Valley - a billionaire honcho in the corporate sense, but still a dude at heart. The Valley was full of such people in its early days of delinquent creativity, before the Vengeance of the Geeks descended, only to be supplanted in turn by the Rise of the Suits. Today the computer companies that crowd what used to be the San Fernando Valley suffer from a perverse and depressing "we wanna be different" sameness.
At Apple, the appearance, the feel, the vibe of a computer is as important as the function it performs. Much of this is down to Jonathan Ive, the company's English-born head of design, who joined the company in 1977, and has been primarily responsible for ensuring that Apple products possess a "look" that could only be Apple - from the translucent lollipop coloured bulging iMacs of the late 90s, to the minimalist iPod a few years later and the sleek aluminium powerbooks of today. It is a look, explains, Jobs, that says: "Someone cared about me."
This may be because, when he was very small, Jobs was fortunate to find someone who cared for him. His mother was an unmarried student, his father a Syrian immigrant, and a week after his birth he was put up for adoption and placed with a blue-collar California couple who raised him in Cupertino, close to San Francisco. He failed to shine at school, dropped out of college, and thought of becoming a rock musician. Instead, he took himself off to India in search of spiritual enlightenment.
When he returned, he met up with an old schoolfriend, Steve Wozniak, who had designed a rudimentary computer for his own use. Jobs was impressed, and together they formed a company, Apple Computers, based initially in Jobs's garage. The growth of the business proved to be more than Jobs, still drifting dreamily through his 20s could handle, and in 1983, John Sculley, a seasoned Pepsi Cola executive was brought in to take charge of the day-to-day business. Two years later, Jobs was forced out. It would be 12 years before he returned, having made a second even larger, fortune as a founder of Pixar, the animated movie company behind the Toy Story films.
The battle for global domination had long since been won by Gates, but Apple, with Jobs at the helm, proved it could still set off fireworks. The iMac computer was launched in 1998, followed in 2001 by the iPod music player, and the iPhone of 2007. All were trendsetters, and the world wondered, as it only ever can do with Apple, what would be next. The answer arrived last week in the form of the most hotly-anticipated tablets. It may have received a mixed reception but, between the scepticism and the panegyric lay an acknowledgement that it would sell because it is a gadget people will want to be seen with, one that will set them apart from the crowd, and tell the world who is on Apple's side in the battle between good and evil.
* The National