That awkward moment when Apple mocked good hardware and poor people

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Today’s Apple press event played out pretty much exactly like they always do. A few new products, a few promotional videos, and a lot of talk about changing the world. But amidst all that was an interesting and perhaps revealing moment.

At the beginning of Phil Schiller’s iPad presentation, Schiller mentions that a lot of users come to iPad from PCs. “This is an amazing statistic,” he says with a serious look before revealing that there are more than 600 million PCs in use that are over five years old. “This is really sad.” Schiller continues. The audience laughs. “It really is,” he says, and tries to continue before being interrupted by more laugher and applause. “These people could really benefit from an iPad Pro,” he finishes.

If you want to watch this for yourself, it starts around 46:17 into Apple’s event video.

The event audience finds it hilarious that some people have old PCs.

The event audience finds it hilarious that some people have old PCs.

To many people, it might seem like an innocuous comment about a market Apple is hoping to reach. But the more I think about it, the more it strikes me as offensively out-of-touch and stupid.

Let’s break this down

There are really only two reasons why people might have a computer that’s more than five years old:

  1. They can’t afford an upgrade.
  2. They don’t need an upgrade.

Unfortunately for Apple, Schiller’s comments and laugher look bad no matter which one of those you pick.

Door number one

For people who fall into category one, Apple’s iPad Pro definitely isn’t the answer. The cheapest, lowest-end model starts at US$600, and there are tons of PCs that boast better specs at lower price points. Even if you insist on a tablet, you could get Microsoft’s Surface 3, which boasts a slightly worse screen but offers double the storage capacity, for US$100 less.

If you can’t afford to upgrade to a new cheap laptop or a Surface, you sure as hell can’t afford to upgrade to an iPad Pro. So if you’re one of the hundreds of millions of people likely using an old computer because they can’t afford to upgrade at the moment, Schiller’s comments read like what The Wire character Ellis Carver once called “a casual curbside fuck you.” Can’t afford to upgrade your PC? That’s so sad! Apple is apparently willing to pity-laugh at you, but not willing to actually offer an affordable product that might help.

If you can't afford to upgrade to a new Windows PC, you sure as hell aren't finding anything you can afford in here. Photo by Chris

If you can’t afford to upgrade to a new Windows PC, you sure as hell aren’t finding anything you can afford in here. Photo credit: Chris

Door number two

What Schiller probably meant to suggest was that Apple’s targeting old PC users who simply haven’t felt compelled to update yet but could afford to. But even so, the way that Schiller phrased it was stupid, and makes it sound like Apple doesn’t respect hardware that does what it’s supposed to do rather than falling apart after a couple years.

I may not be without bias here, because I fall into that second category myself. I’m not on a Windows PC, but I’m typing this on an Apple laptop that’s just over five years old. Why haven’t I upgraded? Because I don’t need to. Aside from the fans and the battery, my 2011 machine is working about as well now as when I first got it.

I also own a desktop PC that’s five years old. I haven’t upgraded that either. Why? Because it’s a desktop PC: I can pull out parts and replace them with newer versions as they age. I don’t need a wholesale upgrade.

Maybe Apple really does find the idea of hardware that can function for five years sad.

In other words: I bought a well-built piece of hardware that does what I need it to do year after year. And I bought an easily moddable, upgradable piece of hardware that can adapt to new technologies in ways no Apple product could ever hope to. I want to ask Schiller: what, exactly, is “sad” about that? What’s funny about that?

Seriously, what is Apple saying here? Is it sad and funny that hardware might last and still function properly five years down the road? Or is it sad and funny that some people might be exposed to the perpetual cycle of yearly, so-called “revolutionary” updates to Apple’s product lines and still not buy into the hype?

Based on my experience with Apple hardware newer than my laptop, I’m guessing it’s the former. Since 2011, I’ve bought a couple of iPhones (both dead), numerous connectors and power cords (all dead; I’ve switched to knockoffs), and a replacement laptop battery (currently half-dead and in need of replacement).

Maybe Apple really does find the idea of hardware that can function for five years “sad” and funny these days. But as a consumer, I certainly don’t.

What about this is supposed to make me throw my working PC away again?

What about this is supposed to make me throw my working PC away again?

If you want old PC users to upgrade, give us a reason

I suppose part of the reason Schiller’s attitude and the audience in this moment bothered me so much is that Apple didn’t present any very compelling reason for old PC users to upgrade to an iPad Pro. It dismissed those 600 million people as “sad,” but failed to offer any compelling reasons why the iPad Pro would be an improvement, aside from the simple fact that it is newer.

Yes, the iPad Pro has a very fancy stylus. That’s great for artists, but the vast majority of people aren’t artists and don’t care. Yes, the iPad Pro has a very fancy, true-to-color screen. That’s great for artists, but the vast majority of people aren’t artists and don’t care. Yes, the iPad Pro now comes with Night Shift, which can help save your eyes at night. But f.lux has been free on PCs and Macs for seven years, and there are plenty of similar apps on Android and Windows Phone, too.

If that’s what you call ‘revolutionary,’ I’m not signing up.

If Apple’s really targeting those 600 million old PC users, it seems to have done a pretty poor job. It’s been more than five years since I saw the need to upgrade my primary computer, and nothing about today’s iPad Pro presentation made me rethink my position at all.

But of course, Apple isn’t really targeting those people. That was mostly just a cheap shot, a jibe at all of us poor fools who haven’t yet seen the light. That’s why the audience laughed knowingly, and even applauded. Using the same machine for five years? How barbaric! Thank god we live in civilized society, where everyone throws their gadgets out and buys new ones every two years.

Forgive me, Schiller and Co., but if that’s what you call “revolutionary,” I’m not signing up any time soon.

See also: Prices and launch dates for the iPhone SE and iPad Pro in Asia

About C.

A Tech in Asia editor focused primarily on China, with special interest in public service, environmental, and video game tech. Follow me on Twitter as @ChinaGeeks.

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Thanks for crystallizing my latent discontent. Of course it’s not just Apple that is willing to throw shit at the competition to make its offerings look good/better (although a company that’s offering a iPhone 6S in a 5S body and calling it a day should be way more careful about dissing people based on upgrade-cycle frequency).

Even more egregious was  how at odds this ‘slam’ was with the opening piece about environmental responsibility; what part of throwing away perfectly functional equipment after 2 years is good for the environment? 

Yes that’s a great point as well. The cycle of constant (unnecessary) updating is terrible for the environment.

And that is why Apple runs the largest recycling program of any consumer electronics manufacturer, and introduced LIAM at the beginning of their latest keynote. That atop their leadership in making sure their products are as much recyclable as possible – tell me, before Apple, which other consumer electronics manufacturer found it important enough to make that effort and highlight that fact? Their heavy use of aluminium and glass is exactly because these materials are highly recyclable. But I guess Mr. Editor is too busy creating hate and controversy to highlight these facts.

Those things are nice, but continued use of one product is still better for the environment than buying a new one and recycling some of the old one. Apple may be recycling more of their devices than other companies, but there’s still plenty of waste in that process, not to mention all the emissions caused by shipping the devices around to be recycled, shipping the new devices to the consumer, etc.

And let’s be honest here: Apple may have a fancy recycling program, but they also have an incredible marketing program that is constantly pushing people to upgrade to the latest devices even when that’s totally unnecessary from a functionality perspective. It’s great that they’re recycling, but it would still be better for the environment to not push upgrades so hard in the first place. 

Exactly my thoughts, and what others have pointed out as well. Millions of older, functioning PCs is a victory for environmentalism. I know Schiller was trying to make some sort of point about potential customers, but it came across as pretty tasteless.

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