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Why Apple’s Distortion Field Works


When Steve Jobs recently made an appearance on Apple’s earnings call, he – to put it mildly – caused quite a stir. He said 7″ tablets like RIM’s Playbook and the Samsung Galaxy Tab will be DOA. He argued that the fragmented nature of Android is “a nightmare”.

Put in a more straightforward fashion, he smacked a lot of people down.

Yet, many rushed to smack him in return. RIM CEO Jim Balsillie suggested that people will soon tire of Apple telling them what to think. A Tweetdeck developer, whom Jobs referenced when talking about Android’s fragmentation, responded with bewilderment, saying that they have two developers working on their Android app and that it was fine. And good on them all. Jobs’ comments were, if nothing else, pretty arrogant.

But Jobs’ incendiary statements were also evidence of how the man thinks: my way may not be for everyone, but it’s the best way. And with Apple reporting an incredible $20 billion of revenue, it seems many agree.

So why is that that Steve Jobs and Apple in general command so much attention? And more to the point, why does this Apple “reality distortion field exist”?

What Is The Distortion Field?

Obviously, the Apple Reality Distortion field is not a real thing. But it is a useful term to describe a couple of interesting phenomena that surround Apple products:

  • Apple the company seems to set the terms of debate in the tech world. Once the touch-screen arrived, it was touch-screen vs. keyboards. Closed vs. open debates are now about Apple vs. Google. Form vs. function arguments frequently reference Apple’s design. Apple is the company who have become a lightning rod for contemporary discussion about technology.
  • Apple is perceived to be first to the market, even when it is not. Take something like Airplay. It, at least in theory, differs little from the DLNA wireless standard, but many blogs are calling it a gamechanger. Similarly, Steve Jobs called Facetime “the first video calling on a mobile device”, which it clearly isn’t.
  • Users of Apple products fervently defend them against criticism.

So this is something we tech nerds know. But why does this happen?

Apple Has Become a Symbol

Nerds on the web (like us) often look at products in terms sheer functionality. I know I for one was pretty amazed when, on my Android phone, I could directly upload photos to Dropbox or simply install a new media player because I didn’t like the stock one. You can’t do this with Apple products, we claim.

But when people use examples like that as an example of why Apple ‘ain’t all that great’, what they miss is that Apple is not simply a tech company, but a cultural symbol. It isn’t necessarily about ‘sheeple’ or Apple’s marketing successes as much as much as it is that Apple, the media and the public have positioned Apple as a sign of the cultural importance and potential of technology.

For at least the last hundred years, technology has become the thing in our culture that is symbolic of how we’re moving into the future. And Apple has become the company many in our culture look to to determine the direction of that movement: what the trends will be, what technology will dominate etc.

How Apple Got There

So how is it that Apple became this symbol? Well first, it is not the only one. Google are there too, as are RIM, Sony and, even though people don’t realize it, Microsoft too.

But Apple seem to be the most prominent because of a simple, overlooked fact: its products are really obvious. You don’t have to be a tech-nerd to understand that touch screens are neat. You don’t have to be a geek to know that carrying around your music collection and scrolling through it quickly is useful. You don’t have to care about software to know that the way the App Store manages updates is really plain and clear. The benefits of Facetime are clear; no-one cares that you could do it on a Nokia phone years ago.

The point is that Apple’s grand sweeping statements (“we think this is the future of everything!”) connect with people quite easily. And because its products impact culture and not just tech – in things like the mobile web, the iPod, or the iPad – Apple can say what it wants because they are the ones setting the tone of the discussion. It is Apple who is showing everyone, rather than tech geeks, what technology is capable of and how it makes your life better.

What’s more, love them or hate them, Apple has innovated in creative, exciting ways. Whether touch-screens, iTunes, the App Store, the Macbook Air or the iPad, Apple is doing things before others. That’s key. It means that Steve Jobs can be an arrogant jerk because he can actually back it up.

So sure, the ‘reality distortion field’ can be annoying. Sometimes Apple will claim slightly crazy things – like open is bad, or that Android is terrible. Sometimes people forget that other companies are doing things that are just as exciting and innovative. But without understanding the reason for it – that Apple has become our culture’s symbol for how technology is supposed to work – it will never change, and we’ll be in Steve’s thrall for as long as he’s around.

  1. Really nice article! Apple is and always will be at the top of technology, whether we like it or not, or whether other companies produce better stuff or not. Apple has achieved something that no other company has or ever will achive. Getting non-technophiles to love technology!

    1. SaveTheCoder – I don’t know about “always will be”. Things are cyclical and Apple isn’t immune to that. The arrogance level is always an indicator of an impending fall; like Microsoft 15 years ago.
      Google is doing their thing and Microsoft is resurging so we could be in for a TON of innovation with three big competitors spending and competing.

      1. @JD “The arrogance level is always an indicator of an impending fall; like Microsoft 15 years ago.”

        So Apple no has 15 years of unabated growth and record profits ahead before it’s fall. Oh wait, Microsoft never fell although it’s sun has set. Google? Watch them fail as they lose control of Android.

    2. I’d say “top of marketing” rather than “top of technology” as most of what they do isn’t original, they are just excellent at wrapping it up in a pretty package and marketing it to the ignorant masses.

      1. But it’s that pretty little package that’s so great to me. I don’t mind paying extra for something to “just work”, which is why I like the closed platform. I don’t like Apple’s products because I’m simple or ignorant, I like them because life can be hard and since moving to Apple’s products, I’ve had many less headaches over computing products. And as a developer, being able to get into the unix side of things is a plus too.

  2. I wanted to enjoy your article but there were a lot of grammatical errors that turned me off. And coming from me that says a lot it case you were wondering 😛

    I must say though Google is following the same path as Microsoft which will inevitably hurt them. All the cultural icon/symbol stuff aside something that Apple offers a complete experience. From manufacturing, to support, to training, to repairs, so on and so forth until infinity. Their products “just work” as Steve says as well as the unity of Apple’s products. Android is on so many different phones, with so many manufacturers, with so many carriers, and with so many different versions.

    The below statement revolves around Apple’s Mobile Devices:
    99% don’t care if you can download a different media player and it’s not because “the media and the public have positioned Apple as a sign of the cultural importance and potential of technology.” rather people just don’t care because what comes on an Apple device “just works” for those 99%.

  3. Apple’s strength is as you alluded to – it just works and it’s the PERFECT timing. Earlier in the cycle of CE & PC’s – people bought into the “magic” that devices could provide but it either didn’t work or was just too hard (ie: a Pc did not mean your kid would become an astronaut). Look at mac ads or iphones, what do you promise you – not a lot but that’s what the average person wants. Look at the ridicules droid ads with the robot arms or the WIn ads where MS seems to be saying they take credit for our work and our users are all deluded into thinking they are better looking than they are? WTH? Or the stupidest ads for the palm launch – this pale model saying all the lights would turn green. Who believes that a smartphone would do that. People accuse apple of hype but really – they are anti hype. again, look at the phone ads, I tap the screen and I can facetime – and in reality, it works exactly like that – no robotic arm necessary – no hype and now, people are buying because they realize it’s the truth.

  4. Just out of curiosity, absolutely no trolling or flame, could Apple get sued for false advertising?

    The thing is, a lot of their products are NOT the first to do it. Videocalling for example was available in Japan for at least a decade or so. I had Sony Ericsson K800 in Europe that could do videocalls. And there are many many other examples where Apple claims to be the first, but in reality, they are not.

    It’s like if BMW made a new series of cars, and said “We made world’s first car that can accelerate really fast!!!!”. We all know that is not true.

    All of those Apple claims “first this, first that” are just not true in most cases.

    1. They are probably all true in some form/fashion. Facetime is basically one click video conferencing so it is the first for the masses.

  5. “Apple are the company who have become a lightning rod for contemporary discussion about technology.”

    Apple is singular. It would require an “s”to be plural. The sentence should read: Apple is the company that has become a lightning rod for contemporary discussion about technology.

    When a authors doesn’t understands or uses simples Englishs grammars, ones have tos questions his/her abilitys are to speak factuallys on anys subjects.

    Justs sayings.

  6. Apple seems to understand user experience, that is, 90% of have got other interests in life.
    Apple has brought industrial quality manufacturing to products for the average consumer.
    Microsoft in collusion with Intel had stifled computer innovation for over 10 years.
    Apple may not have invented the individual pieces of technology but made it a joy to use.
    Apple is actually more open than Microsoft. It’s just that Microsoft gives people the illusion of being open by having virtually a monopoly on the desktop and with chip manufacturers and OEM’s under their control.

  7. Do you guys have a facebook or myspace fan webpage? I searched for one on facebook but could not locate one, I’d love to become a fan!

  8. The Apple’s success is not limited to the iPod, iPhone and iTune. You can change all that products with Mac Plus Mac Se and the story will be the same,

  9. At root this is an unresolvable perennial disagreement between semi-autistics and marketeers. The rhetoric of new Apple introductions invariably provokes techie saying ‘already been done’ and, usually, they’re right. But what geeks like me may be doing is merely exposing their own borderline Aspergers syndrome. Personally, I rarely hear the company definitively trumpeting pure technical firsts, except in (I’m sure carefully weighed) ambiguous marketing-speak. Rather it makes such claims because it’s often the first time the feature has been made viscerally usable to the average person – boasts frequently substantiated by user surveys (and subsequent sales). *That’s* Apple’s core skill – understanding that the most functional, and thus often most appealing, design *must* work intuitively not for those odd, high-IQ people who ‘live’ computers, but for ordinary folks who don’t. It’s a very high hurdle, which Jobs and his marketeers clearly grasp. The technically-minded, by their very nature, will always have a harder time accepting and implementing it. And guess what kind of people (in the main) are in charge of Apple’s rivals?

  10. “Apple are perceived to be first to the market, even when they are not. ”
    “Whether touch-screens, iTunes, the App Store, the Macbook Air or the iPad, Apple are doing things before others.” Sort of contradictory, and I think THAT is what’s at the heart of the “Distortion Field”.

    Apple claims to be, and IS frequently, “…perceived to be first…”, using touch screen and even multitouch as an example. Multitouch had been around for awhile, just not available on a consumer product. Take Facetime, also a concept that had been around for awhile, even ON consumer products, something highend cellphone users from other countries were quick to point out when Steve Jobs announced it, referencing phones like the Nokia mentioned in this article.

    So the point REALLY isn’t whether Apple is innovating or not, it’s that they are PRODUCING. The problem is that everyday you read on the web about some new “magical” device all the tech sites are saying is going to be amazing, and it seems the majority of them never make it to market. Apple is in the business of keeping their business TO THEMSELVES, and then suddenly appearing at market with a device that puts many new technologies into a single – svelte – package and releases it with much fanfare. The result of this seems to be that people now TRUST that Apple is going to continue to impress them with “disruptive” new technologies in increasingly amazing designs. As I mentioned above though, this seems to primarily be the consequence not of innovating new technology, but rather being smart about bundling and reconciling other cutting edge technologies into an attractive package and not leaking things to the press years ahead of the release date.

    In short I believe the distortion field is a result of very clever PR/Marketing and good design choices. Having said all that, I am disgusted by the effect of the distortion field and the cult of mac. When a product is good, celebrate that. When there are design flaws, OWN UP TO IT, FIX IT, and move on. Don’t worship the devices or the man.

  11. Most people want a product they don’t have to worry or think about. That used to be IBM. PC’s had the most programs and tech people to go to when there were problems. Your work used them. Easy choice. Now, Apple has developed a reputation for quality and innovation. It may not be the absolute best at one particular thing, but I know before opening the box it will be innovative and easy to use. Is the HTC, Blackberry or Motorola better? One is better for this; the other for that. But Apple will be near the top in most everything and fun to use. I don’t have to think about it. It has earned trust…which translates to Billions. A trust Toyota used to have. Something as simple as giving us the most chips in a chocolate chip cookie (Chips Ahoy was a revolution-sadly). Walmart kept its promise for lowest prices. In a world where we have to fight from getting ripped off constantly…people get truly excited about a company that keeps its promise. Its a rare thing. The drive to increase margins by making crappier products is just too strong.

  12. I completely understand your point of view, but the fact still remains that now Stevie is becoming so vulnerable from Google and others that he’s rampantly slamming them in public. He’s always been a cocky MF, but now he’s diving into details and identifying flaws in other systems. Well, the reality of the matter is, Apple products, regardless of their adoption rates, are losing ground to Android products. There are simply more Android powered devices that are coming to market with way more functionality than Apple can every catch up to. The release cycle of the products, regardless of who the innovator of the product is, is getting shorter and shorter by days as well. So by the time IPAD was announced, Samsung was made their announcements in parallel. Apple TV in my opinion is so weak compared to some of the competing devices, I don’t even know why Apple would even release that product.

    In next 3-5 years, Apple is going to become what Microsoft is right now (stock prices and all — cash cow, but not innovator). They will have to take a back seat in technological framework and be a follower instead of leader. Because of they “closed” approach, they simply can’t innovate fast enough. Even if they “open” the system up because of the on coming threat, it’s TOO LATE!!!!

    1. There are more android phones because they are available on nearly all carriers. In the states iphones only work on ATT. Just wait till verizon gets in next quarter.

  13. Why does the writer of this article use the singular subject “Apple” and the plural verb “are” ???

    Is that the way the write English in Canada?

  14. Great marketing, great design ( even if a minimalist style is, in the end, a matter of taste). Good quality, but overpriced. All their products work fine together, but the whole concept is built so once you chose an iThing you have to buy them all, you have no other choice. I’ve just read that once you have a mac you don’t go back. I guess that’s just because you can’t. It’s a good strategy for the company, because you should change all your hi tech items and that’s not very comfortable, at least financially speaking.
    I personally think that buying an Apple product it’s a kind of trap, a nice looking one, I admit. And i see all this fuss more like a trend, and people pay the price for the feeling of being different and still belonging to a community. As a challenger, Apple can market that sense of being cool, and different and trend setter. I doubt that from a dominant market position the company would be able to sell its products at the price (and profit) they do today. Would you pay three times more just for a click less?

  15. Great article, apple isnt a creator just an appropriator, and whats more they often pass the innovations of others off as their own. I however do not find apple products a joy to use, the laborious task of going through itunes to get media on my phone was one of the things that made me go back to Android. But you have a good point they established themselves with the public (mistakenly) as a technology leader when in face they have been behind other tech companies in almost every field except the digital download of media, they just shout and preen the loudest about how their technology is the leading edge, case in point watch how fast they start exclaiming that wifi synch for media is their invention and how it changes everything when their next OS comes out next summer…I can already do that with winamp and winamp mobile on my android. apples advertising likes to promote itself mistakenly as the leading edge sometimes whilst simultaneously putting down the competition (think I am a mac and I am a PC) where as the competition generally tends to promote itself on it’s now and inovative abilities (think I’m a Windows 7 PC or Droid does) and in a positive nature (rather than puytting down the competition. So perhaps thats part of the reason people still mistakenly believe apple is a leader…in anything technology related. While I applaud taking the high road and would hate to any of the competition (especially me favorite, Android) start putting apple in it’s place be deriding it for it’s back@ssward way of doing things and inferior os and devices maybe the competition needs to star speaking a little louder to be heard above the droning hypnotizing buzz that is the apple hype pervading the digital world.

    @Zac and Savthecoder apples days are numbered they are neither a inovative or a particularly good technology company…what they are is a effective hype machine

    1. @Rob

      We can argue all day about which is better. I don’t disagree that Android and Windows are/have been innovative in multiple ways. Also, yes, Apple purchases companies that innovate and Apple purchases innovative products from other companies. When it then claims these innovations are Apple’s it is not a lie, Apple owns such innovations. I’m also guessing the “laborious task of going through itunes to get media on my phone” did not involve an iPhone. I agree that Apple’s products are not great for using with every device on the market, I cannot even connect my current phone to my Mac let alone to iTunes, but such is life. Apple designs products to be used together in a cohesive way. Take, for instance Mac hardware and Mac OS. Yes you can buy better hardware, but in the end it is the relationship between the two that is most important. I’m willing to bet you have never truly used an Apple computer seriously. I know there are limits with my MacBook, but there are far less troubles than my work Windows machines.

      I would be remiss if I didn’t add this. Watch the rollout of “new” features in the Windows world, or Android as a whole, who are they imitating? What does Windows 7 look like (Mac OS maybe? hmm). What do updates to Android keep making better? (a lot of features Apple has in iOS, hmm). This one really gets me, look at all the Android tablets and Windows tablets coming to market. They are all imitating what Apple has already released! Hardware, software, and PACKAGING!

      Yes, Apple does nothing but buy other peoples innovations, claim them as their own, and stupefy the masses. That must be why they are in a position to purchase nearly any other technology firm in the work right now, they should just give up and sell it all to Mr. Gates.

  16. *big words big words big words*…and now to the point: Apple is winning because of their marketing strategy. They sell “cool” to people and not just products. Currently no other company is doing that as hardcore as they are. Some try to compete (example: old spice commercials, HTC commercials etc), but none of them have been as good at it as when Apple essentially tells you you are not cool unless you buy their products.

    Life is all about marketing and selling. Think about it, every time you talk to someone new, you are essentially selling “who you are” to that person. You don’t tell them what you can do to interest them, you lead them to be interested in you by talking about things that make them feel they want to be interested in you. Anywho…long diatribe cut short: Great Marketing wins.

  17. Funny to hear things like “Apple is and always will be at the top of technology” said in an apparently serious tone. Rome will never fall.. The unsinkable Titanic.. and Apple, the perpetual leader of technology.

  18. BAh I say… Innovate my azz. They do the same thing just wrapped in prettier paper. I’ve been using Mac/Apple as long as IBM/PC. I only use it when forced to. Apple is more expensive, less flexible and normally has less bang for the buck.

    They got lucky and marketed some new flashy toys well. That will fade, they will fall back behind the bell curve again and then we can read articles about real tech instead of these apple vs the world pieces of crap. Jobs is a tool, always has and will be. The only people that will blow the fanboy trumpets always have been and will be those that don’t have the know how or desire to use equipment that requires some level of skill/knowledge.

    To each his own. LIck my apples.

  19. It’s simple. Because Apple makes beautiful products that are easy to use. Usually before others, but that’s not a requirement.

  20. Why does Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field work?

    P.T. Barnum said it best: “There’s a SUCKER born every minute”.

    Technologically, the average consumer is basically stupid. Those who learn beyond the basics of pushing the power button & opening a browser window, will use something else.

    Apple’s products are dumbed down for the basic ignorant. If you want something more than what Steve tells you you can have, you’ll find & use Windows 7, Firefox, Internet Explorer, & Chrome browsers, Microsoft Office, Adobe’s suite of products, etc.

    If you need hand holding & a kindergarten interface, stick w/ Apple products. Those who don’t need training wheels, don’t need Apple.

    1. Silly. Computers shouldn’t be difficult to use. If they are, then they have not reached their full potential.

      The promise of computers is to make life easier. Apple simplifies technology by removing unnecessary complexity.

    2. LOL training wheels. Your funny. The average consumer is stupid. So is your post. Office… hilarious. IE even funnier.

  21. Take something like Airplay. It, at least in theory, differs little from the DLNA wireless standard, but many blogs are calling it a gamechanger.

    AirPlay is running on mobile device and wifi has a sense more on mobile devices than on TVsets. So AirPlay is a gamechanger. DNLA is not.

    Plain and simple.

    1. dlna is on mobile devices also in fact I us it on my Nokia N95 to watch videos and listen to music all the time. It would be nice if apple zealots would at least try and research the competition before trying to defend their scared cow but I guess that would take away from the time using the idevices

  22. The comments here are a good field study of these days’ Apple foo. Apple as one of few companies masters the art of creating not clients, but believers. It does not produce just products, but believes which are consumed.

    The other side of the medal: There is the growing group of active disbelievers, who are fed up with the omni-present “We’re always right” message by Apple, who feel something’s wrong with just following a company’s claims.

    And there we are today, believers and disbelievers 🙂

  23. Consumer Reports and others rank companies and computers on reliability, support and other yardsticks.
    Apple is number one is a large percentage of these rankings.
    They must be doing something correctly.

  24. This is the most biased article ever. Apple is symbolic and will remain forever? Where are you getting your stats you apple fan-boy piece of shit.

    My $400 laptop can do more then your macbook, air, pro, mac, iphone, ipad, itouch, iShit combined. Your missing a whole side of technology: The shit we want vs the shit apple gives you.

    You honestly think apple is the future? go look at the sales stats.

    For your information, Microsoft and Google are still more known, advertised and respect then Apple. They are what people feel ‘comfortable’ with, Apple is just for dumb **** that like shiny objects.

    1. This is exactly why normal people hate nerds. Your comments are just as one sided if not more so. There is also a huge NERD distortion field that people like this “Tesla” person project as well. I doubt you even have any deep experience with any Apple product, or combination thereof. Advertisements if anything indicate that you need more sales, not that you’re more well known.

      Honestly though, calling people pieces of shit just for having a different and possibly more reality based perspective, or opinion is entirely uncalled for. Fact is an Apple computers can do just as much as any other computer, the hardware-platform is largely the same. The software is just as capable as any linux box out there as far as nerd use goes, but definitely more useable to NORMAL people. The user interface is certainly more basic, but that really appeals to a LARGE group. That doesn’t mean it’s not capable of more, you just have to be a bigger nerd I guess to understand that. Compared to Windows it is just as capable, It can do all the same stuff, except sometimes where Microsofts proprietary software comes into play.

      Overall I don’t think he’s missing anything, the subject of his article is in relation to the perception of Apple. Just because he wasn’t focusing on a fray of other subjects doesn’t mean he’s missing it, it simply means he’s focused on this subject. Which when it comes to writing is important. Readers don’t like a bunch of tangents and side-bars when they read. He touches on a few items directly related to the subject without going into TOO MUCH detail. Which to non-nerd readers who aren’t looking to read a whole technical document, is desirable. Overall I would say to you, GROW UP!

  25. Over hyped, feature-wise cut down piece of dated hardware that looks nice – overpriced at the same time, just enough to be affordable and become an icon of wealth – making people feel above others = good business, for sure. Win? Not to the sheep end-users that cannot think for themselves.

  26. I am perfectly aware of that the hardware used in most of the apple devices is either outdated or too pricey(even in that cases not that high-end). But we also know that the good experience is brought not only by the hardware but by well thought software (i am pc user btw) . And i can say no other devices but the apple ones have brought to me greater experience(speed, smoothness, diversity of applications, ease of use etc. etc.). It’s nice when a device blends into the lifestyle and become a part without noticing it so much.

  27. it’s kind of a funny thing when two argument, presenting two diametric points of view, can be both totally right.

  28. Airplay has been around for a long time, it just wasn’t called Airplay, and may not have been quite so easy to use. If anything all they did was add some features to an already existing thing. Whereas DLNA is relatively new compared.

  29. Apple may not be the first, but they are the best. If they weren’t around, all you Phandroids trying to find something wrong with this article wouldn’t exist. All your precious ‘Droids and Tabs wouldn’t be based off of Apple’s design.

    Apple is a trend setter and all the major companies are following suit.

  30. I agree with this article and many of its comments. The fact of the matter is that apple is winning the battle , because there products work, and work well. No flaws ,they work quite fast, and have an easy learning curve. This is the biggest advantage because it improves our way of life and doesn’t cause problems.

    It is much like nintendo against sony and microsoft, and how they have aimed there market towards everyone and not just us techies =D.I am quite an obvious tech geek, and would say i can see why people like apple products and why people like android. I use an android phone atm because i love to use the widget system, but the android apps aren’t as polished as apple’s, that is why Steve can have a go at them. So both have there traits and android is currently gaining support so we shall have to see how it goes =D

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