A Gold iPhone: Both Ridiculous and Totally Sensible

Phones have become like cars; it's inevitable that manufacturers would experiment with luxury models.

In 1906, Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, cast a warning about the new technology of the day: automobiles. "To the countryman," he said, "they are a picture of arrogance of wealth with all its independence and carelessness." Nothing, Wilson declared, would spread socialism more quickly than cars' adoption by the wealthy.

The opposite, of course, proved true: Cars, perhaps more than any other technology, helped to democratize the country. What Wilson got right, though, is that cars were not simply, even in their earliest days, about transportation or convenience. They were, and have always been, status symbols. And that fact has been a significant, er, driver of cars' technological evolution. As Michael Berger notes in his The Automobile in American History and Culture, "At first, just owning a motor vehicle was sufficient to elevate one's station in life." But "as car ownership became more broadly based and car manufacturers began to produce individual makes and models aimed at members of specific socio-economic classes, social status came to be associated with a particular vehicle than ownership of a car per se." Enter the luxury car.

I mention all that not because of a new car, but because of a new phone. The next model of the iPhone is, apparently, set to launch in mid-September. And, according to rumors, the phone will be, at least in one of its versions ... gold. Not figuratively, mind you, but physically: GOLD. "Champagne gold," to be precise. With a case that is metallic and shiny and bringing a crazy new meaning to a "brick phone." Apple, if the rumors are to be believed, is going full Midas on us.

Again, this is all a rumor. So caveat, salt-grain, etc., etc. But it's worth considering why it might make sense for Apple to make a design decision that would seem to be, on the surface, so Ruplestiltskintastically ridiculous. And one reason could have to do with the version of the phone that is the opposite of gold: the version of the phone that is plastic.

In September, if (other) rumors are to be believed, Apple will launch a "cheap iPhone": a phone whose plastic case, ostensibly, will make it cheaper for the company to manufacture -- and thus to sell -- than earlier models. This is good news for consumers for whom iPhones have been financially out of reach -- and for consumers who may already own iPhones, but for whom upgrades have been inaccessible. It is, overall, a good thing.

For Apple, though, it also creates a problem. A problem of the same strain that car manufacturers faced in the early 20th century. Apple's stock in trade, after all, is not just well-designed consumer electronics, but also the cultural cachet that comes along with those consumer electronics. People don't wait in crazy-long lines or flock to blonde-wooded stores simply to buy good products; they do it because owning an iPhone -- and, now, owning the latest model of iPhone -- says something. About them, and about their lot in the life. The iPhone, basically, has become the personal-tech equivalent of a BMW or a Louis Vuitton handbag or a KitchenAid stand mixer: It's a status symbol that is as close to a universally recognizable as status symbols get.

That branding -- that veneer of privilege and luxury -- is a crucial component of the product's value to consumers. You know those iPhone covers that offer holes in their backs in order to keep the Apple logo visible? Those say a lot.


In that context, the problem with the "cheap iPhone" is obvious: If your brand is associated with luxury, you're creating a challenge for yourself when you associate one of your products with the word "cheap." (Or, as Apple will likely frame it, "affordable.") It's not an insurmountable challenge, of course -- whether they're selling fashion or automobiles or kitchen appliances, purveyors of luxury goods have long found success in creating down-market offshoots of their brands -- but it is tricky terrain to navigate, marketing-wise. How do you make your product less exclusive -- how do you expand its market share -- while maintaining its semblance of exclusivity?

Compounding the challenge, for Apple, is another problem: Phones, in their physical compactness, offer fewer and less obvious opportunities for design differentiation than, say, cars or clothes. Mercedes and Ralph Lauren and their counterparts simply have more physical space to experiment with when it comes to the visual signals that differentiate among the levels of luxury they offer. iPhones, on the other hand, look pretty much the same. Once Apple abandoned the curved corners of the first three generations of the iPhone in favor of the sharp angles of the next two, the most obviously distinguishing visual cues disappeared.

Which has left Apple with one obvious place where it could visually differentiate among the levels of its iPhone models: the case. And it's made use of that interface. The white iPhone 4 was marketed as a standalone product, with Apple likely banking on the fact that people in the know would know that white = latest model. The iPhone 5 offered "slate" and "silver" options in addition to black and white, I'd suspect, because those options offer unique visual representation for the model: The phones say, right on their covers, "This is an iPhone 5."

And these next phones -- again, if the rumors prove true -- will say, right on their covers, "This is the latest, best iPhone."

Which is the opposite tack of, say, the Moto X, which, with its almost endless customizability, claims to be selling individuality and self-expression. Or of other Android models, whose marketing tends to focus on operability over aesthetics. Apple, instead, will keep doing what it's been doing since the iPhone's launch: selling, in a very visually branded way, the conformity of privilege. Gold, if the rumors prove true, will be appropriate. It will represent the iPhone as what it is: the luxury car of smartphone technology. And if history offers any lesson, we can probably expect that a platinum iPhone won't be too far behind.