Achievement Unlocked: Fanboy
I recently passed a milestone in my life. If life was like a video game, I may have unlocked an achievement for it. It would be called “Fanboy”, no doubt. What did I do?
I spent ten hours in a shopping mall waiting in line to get a shiny new iPad 2.
Having done so, I have a pretty good feeling that among your first thoughts was “oh, you’re one of those.” Am I right?
I want to take a few moments to address this because I used to have a very narrow view of people who like Apple products, and it’s only in the wake of a series of small revelations culminating in my little adventure in the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto that my perspective has shifted to a more balanced—and, I think, fair—place. Bear with me.
In the spring of 2010, Apple was introducing their latest little hardware device. The fact that it would be a tablet was fairly well established ahead of time. People were making guesses about the name: iSlate? iTab? The unveiling of the iPad was a merry day for me for several reasons. It wasn’t because of the (rather cheap) jabs at the name for its parallels with feminine hygiene products, nor the YouTube parodies discussing the relative merits of this oversized iPod.
I was amused by the marketing. “Magical device”, eh? We’ll see about that, I thought. I felt a strange sense of glee, knowing that I would get to witness Apple finally reaching too far, trying to defend a stupid device that had no place in the market.
Having grown up as a pure-bred Windows boy, I had recently switched my studio over to a Mac Pro and discovered the wonderful world of OSX. Any skeptic will find it difficult to spend time with the operating system and not find it at the very least a competitive alternative. It taught me that it’s very easy to pick on Apple products without actually bothering to try them. I had been a very vocal anti-Apple advocate before. No delete key? One mouse button? It was almost too easy to make fun of those silly fanboys paying premium prices for half-functional, aesthetically-obsessed machinery.
Time passed. I became aware of a certain amount of carefree joy I felt using my new system. The time I saved with the smallest things made me realize that it’s specifically the attention to detail that makes OSX the robust system that it is. I am reminded of a scathing and revealing retort that I witnessed on a forum, launched against a Windows crusader by the Apple fanboy he had been belittling. “Thank you for your opinion,” he began, “now go install some mouse drivers or something.”
It certainly provoked a chuckle, but also an internal admission on my part (and, I expect, on the part of the people involved) that it had been fighting fire with fire. Just as OSX does recognize and make use of right-clicking, so too does Windows now bundle many standard drivers with its operating system. What made the comment incisive was precisely the fact that it made a point of showing the reciprocal biases.
Yet when the iPad release came around, I had apparently learned nothing at all. I reasoned that, despite its obvious advantage as the first mass-produced consumer-friendly tablet device, the iPad truly was nothing but an oversized iPod Touch. I maintained that view and refused to buy one. How could such a superfluous device be worthy of attention? It was clearly riding off the success and marketing clout of its creators and not on its own merits. I had not yet seen, let alone interacted with one.
Then it started selling millions. It broke records, it sold out everywhere. A scientist at heart, I felt my hypothesis eroding under the weight of mounting contrary evidence. Clearly, I would have to test my claim by going to a store and actually spending some time with this “magical” device—though I couldn’t imagine what effect that would possibly have on my opinion. Somewhere deep inside, a little voice was crying hypocrisy and deja-vu. I did not hear it.
It was a few weeks later that, on a whim, I dipped into an Apple Store to have a look at their new marvel. By some fluke, I had managed to walk in at a time when the store was relatively empty (most retailers would kill to have as much activity as Apple stores consider “relatively empty”). With a test unit all to myself and no pressure to relinquish it to the next curious person, I buckled down and began to use the iPad.
Half an hour passed before I knew it. There were no particularly fancy apps on it, just the stock ones and a few extras that the employees had put on to show off some of the potential. I looked at pictures, I scrolled through the mail client. I changed settings back and forth. I didn’t have any interest in what I was doing, I was simply fascinated by the interface’s responsiveness and invisibility. It reminded me of my iPhone.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that somewhere in this time, I acquired an iPhone 3GS to replace my aging cellphone from before. It was my first smartphone and I decided on it because it seemed to me like a no-brainer: the only phone with a huge selection of apps, native integration with my now-loved Mac system, and a sleek design. What cinched the deal was, yet again, going into the store and playing with several of my options. I found the Blackberry offerings (especially at that time) to be obtuse and unpleasant to navigate, despite my love of the physical keyboard. The iPhone felt responsive and intuitive, and I found myself fluent in minutes. The decision followed swiftly thereafter.
Back in the Apple Store, I had another moment of revelation. There might be something to this iPad thing after all. But it was something strangely elusive. I didn’t like it. I didn’t trust it. Advantages should be easily describable, quantifiable, otherwise aren’t they just the cult-like marketing brainwash at work? At the time, I did not understand it and the sour taste of confusion remained in my mind despite my change of heart: the iPad was, without a doubt, a truly impressive achievement and a fulcrum of change for media consumption. That much I understood. What I didn’t yet understand yet was why I wanted one so badly. So I avoided the issue, hoping that by the second generation I would have a better sense of things.
I will say this: it has been a very long year. As more and more unbelievably impressive apps have been developed, my patience has waned and crumbled to the point where I often contemplated just going to the store and getting myself an iPad. I resisted, and when the rumour mill began rumbling about the sequel, I took some time to re-assess my position and figure out what actually made the iPad worth having, if anything. What I learned came from examining my love for my iPhone.
The iPhone’s interface vanished beneath my fingers. It highlighted the content rather than pushing the device itself as the focal point of the interaction. It flexed to be what I needed it to be and didn’t make me feel like I was the one adapting. It was a flexible system, constantly growing and evolving as developers learn to make use of the hardware’s full potential—officially and unofficially in the jailbreak scene.
The iPad offered those same advantages, with the added argument of extra screen real-estate and horsepower. Not infrequently, I found myself wishing that my latest awesome iPhone app would be a little more spacious. My pianist fingers are spindly tendrils of touch-typing, but even so I found some buttons and interface elements hard to accurately and reliably hit.
This is all highly subjective, but I share my perspective to help illustrate my shift from anti-Apple to my current stance, which I’m in the process of describing. And now that the context for my adventure is clear, I will take you to Friday the 25 of March, 2011 at just about 7:00am, where yours truly was just settling into a lineup that I would spend the following ten hours inhabiting.
Several things happen when you spend that long in a line-up. The first hour goes by swiftly as you take in your surroundings. Comfort is important. I did not think to bring a folding lawn chair with me, as so many of my line-mates had, so I was at an immediate disadvantage. Stiffness sets in quickly and before long it makes any position feel awkward. There is a strange lack of appetite too. Everyone eats and continually gets up to fetch drinks and snacks, but it’s eating out of boredom, not hunger.
The most important thing that occurs is that you make friends. I arrived with Shannon, my girlfriend, but she was not planning on spending the whole day cooped up in a line with me (and who can blame her), so it wasn’t long before I was left to my own devices. If you’ve never been in a line-up for something, it’s very easy to imagine that everyone there is some manner of twitchy freak whose obsession with the Apple brand makes them little more than zombies of consumerism. At least I know that was my image of them going in.
My first surprise, then, was finding out that everyone around me in line was completely down-to-earth, affable, and—dare I say—normal. Where were the raving lunatics?
I met doctoral students, photographers, and engineers. I met people my own age, younger, and significantly older. I met girls and boys in equal proportion, and I met people from all sorts of cultures and financial denominations. I talked to several of them quite extensively and learned that their reasons for wanting an iPad 2 were as varied and sober as one could hope for.
If I’m being honest, the most unpleasant aspect of the entire day was dealing with everyone else in the mall. The folks I was wary of were not those beside me, but everywhere else. It’s more than a little off-putting to witness the arrogance, entitlement, and hostility with which passers-by treated us in line. I say arrogance with a sense of irony, since that was one of the many things we were accused of: feeling like we were making ourselves superior by getting the latest toy before everyone else. In ten hours, not a single person in line with me made any comments to that effect, nor did they imply it by their manner, nor—admirably—did they respond to the attacks with anything but good-natured diplomacy.
Respectable businessmen, kind old women, members of the press, all of them suddenly forgot their sense of politeness and unleashed against us a torrent of sarcastic belligerence. From them, I learned that I am crazy, that I have no life, that I am narrow-minded, stupid, obsessive, a freak. You may want to stop reading because I may very well cause cancer too if we take these otherwise perfectly normal people at their word.
What is it that provokes such vitriol, leveraged against a crowd that, in my best estimate, is guilty of nothing worse than being enthusiastic about technology? My guess is that it is, at heart, a misunderstanding of intent. The reasons that those people thought we were standing in line were not the actual reasons. Since I cannot speak for everyone in line, I will speak for myself and mention that these points were at least true of all those that I spoke to at any length.
I was not there to blindly support Apple, I was there to willfully give them my business for a device which I judged to be worth having. I was not ignorant of my role as a living billboard for the company—I was fully aware of the marketing assistance I was offering Apple by standing in line, and I enjoyed subverting it with my line-mates by answering the frequent “what are you in line for?” questions with quips of “Justin Bieber!” and the like. I was not in line ignorantly touting Apple’s products over all others and ignoring their flaws; not only did most of my line-mates also carry Blackberry phones and Windows laptops, there were plenty for whom the iPad 2 would be the first Apple product they’ve ever owned. And everyone was fully willing and able to call Apple out on its missteps and discuss its idiosyncrasies.
The iOS notification system, for instance? Could definitely use an overhaul. No custom SMS ringtones? I could do that in the 90s! The “Smart” case being too dumb to protect the back of the device as well? What a joke.
Why, then, was I bothering to actually wait in line to be among the first to get the iPad 2, rather than ordering online or waiting a couple of weeks like a civil person? The answer is simple: I had waited a year already, I love and am excited about technology, there was no longer a question of “if” I’d get the device or not, and I was willing to spend my day waiting—a day I would have spent waiting anyway, lest we forget, just doing other things. I felt that one day of dedicated waiting rather than two more weeks of indirect waiting was a worthy exchange.
And that is how, at 5pm on Friday the 25 of March, I walked home with an iPad 2 and a newfound perspective of those who lined up for it. Let me be clear and say that I do not claim that the crazed fanboy does not exist—the stereotype did not spring from nowhere, after all—but I have seen with my own rational eyes that it is a stereotype that applies rarely. It is the exception, not the rule, and in any event does not excuse the reprehensible behaviour that so much of the public permitted themselves against those of us who waited in line that day.
Would I do it again? If I felt the product was worth it and I was in a position to do so, sure. Would it have to be an Apple product? Of course not.
After only a few days, I am thrilled by the potential that the iPad represents for the media industry. The way it could revive magazines, gently replace aspects of the print world that are wasteful of our earth’s resources, and consolidate much of the information we are all increasingly forced to digest on a daily basis. Perhaps you will disagree with me, and I respect that entirely. All I ask is that you learn from my mistake: before you sit down to bash a device and insult its users, make an honest effort to interact with it yourself. Base your opinion on tangible effort, not hearsay and the prevailing attitudes of peers. And don’t be afraid to defend the result.
So am I an irrational, narrow-minded, obsessive idiot who can’t see over his own high brow? Am I, in other words, a fanboy?
You be the judge.
This entry was typed the following Monday morning. On my iPad 2.