any (USB) port in a storm

I’ll never forget when the original Xbox was announced. There were howls from the Apple crowd, at a time when they actually were the underdogs that some still pretend to be. “Microsoft’s trying to take over everything! It’s monopoly! One company should not control so many products!” Flash forward to today, and Apple releases a broader range of consumer products than Microsoft does, and far broader than Microsoft did at the time the original Xbox came out. Indeed, a lot of Apple’s biggest fans want Apple to release a TV, a car, a watch…. Does anyone complain about one company releasing too many products? Of course not. Just like how Microsoft’s past market dominance was once seen as inherently anticompetitive, but Apple’s now is just the benefit of being the best. There’s not even the semblance of an equal application of these arguments.

I bring it up because Gizmodo’s Kyle Wagner today has written a post arguing that conformity and the size of a preexisting user base are in fact legitimate arguments for a product– that is, the iPhone. This, of course, was the claim by Apple fans against PC users for decades: you only use a PC because everyone else does; you’re a conforming sheep; if Microsoft didn’t have such powerful legacy effects and network effects, they’d be out of business. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, suddenly what was a black mark has become a virtue. That was then; this is now. The app ecosystem argument is actually the purest form of this that I can think of: the case made by Mac people was always “It doesn’t matter how many more applications there are for PCs. Our applications and OS are better.” It’s a perfect inversion, which doesn’t even go into the fact that the vast majority of apps in all ecosystems are useless vaporware.

The point here is not to indict every Apple user but rather to ask for some consistency in arguments. More, I want to make the case that, like a lot of our consumptive choices, our choices in personal electronics are far from solely or straightforwardly rational. I certainly can’t claim perfect rationality in this regard. In fact, my many years of having this wearying argument has certainly left me far short of perfect rationality. And that’s alright. If you’ve got the money to spend, a little irrationality in your purchases is far from the end of the world. The problem is that so many fans of Apple products have so long argued that their choices are objectively better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that Apple has reached a place of dominance because their products are inarguably superior. (I argued once that Apple was unlikely to dominate the gaming industry, as many of its boosters claimed– totally unlike the dominance of the Xbox they once feared, of course– and people took it very personally.) If the virtues of Apple products are real, they should be able to be discussed in a consistent way. And it’s okay to admit to a little irrationality in your consumption preferences. We’re only human.

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