Has Apple Abandoned Egalitarianism?

The company has always marketed to the middle class. Does its new gold watch represent a foray into the luxury sector?

Stephen Lam/Reuters

Watching the Apple Watch announcement event a few weeks ago, I kept thinking of my favorite Andy Warhol quote.

No, not the “15 minutes of fame” one—Apple, trying to parlay its success with the iPod and iPhone into still another product category, has already shaped culture far more than a quarter-hour would allow. Rather, his thought about the power of midcentury mass-production came to mind:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Here’s why: Apple will issue three different editions of its new Watch. There will be an Apple Watch, made of stainless steel; an Apple Watch Sport, made of rubber and aluminum; and an Apple Watch “Edition”—made of solid gold.

John Gruber also thought of this Warhol quote. Gruber writes the Apple-focused blog Daring Fireball, and has served as chief chronicler of the company’s 21st-century rise.

To my mind (and his), the iPod and iPhone epitomize a kind of Warhol-inspired egalitarianism. They represent an aspiration to bring powerful, well-designed tools to the masses. And while the price of the iPhone slides up as its storage capacity increases, there’s no real luxury iPhone to purchase. There’s no better Coke. Until last year, in fact, when the cheaper iPhone 5C was introduced, there was only one new iPhone at a time.

That’s not the case with the Apple Watch. We know its starting price will be $349, but after that we’ll likely have no idea until early next year. Gruber guesses that the highest-tier Watch—the 18-karat Edition—will be expensive:

  • Apple Watch Sport (aluminum/glass): $349 (not a guess)
  • Apple Watch (stainless steel/sapphire): $999
  • Apple Watch Edition (18-karat gold/sapphire): $4,999

In other words, the company’s most expensive watch will cost more than most of its laptops. And the Watch, unlike the iPhone, won’t stand as a sort of pricey if accessible tool—instead it will just be a conspicuous luxury purchase.

If the gold Apple Watch really does cost thousands of dollars—and it’s hard to see how it won’t—it could represent a change of direction for Apple, beyond even the turn to fashion epitomized by the new wearable. So far, Apple has been a company focused on the mainstream, on the mass consumer, in an era where the most reliable profits could be found in the luxury market. Apple has catered to, if not the poorest quartile of American society, then the thing we used to call a middle class.

It has found enormous success there, enough to make it the largest company in the world. And that’s been reassuring, I think: In an era where it feels like culture itself is fracturing between the wealthy and the precarious, Apple always aimed to be that Coke. The iPhone has always hoped to be the best smartphone for Beyoncé, the best smartphone for the President, and the best smartphone for you.

So if Apple’s abandoning its especially American brand of egalitarianism, it’s a big deal. It’s might even be read as a sort of loss of faith in the U.S. middle class. Which makes us ask: Is it?

“I think not,” writes Gruber:

The iPhone and iPad are egalitarian devices. All you can buy with more money is additional storage. But the Mac has long offered widely varying pricing tiers with widely varying performance. If you can afford it, a maxed-out MacBook Pro is a far more impressive laptop than an $899 MacBook Air. Or consider a maxed out Mac Pro — 12 cores, maximum RAM and storage, the best graphics card — which costs just under $10,000. That’s better-tasting Coke than you get with an iMac or Mac Mini.

I think the steel and gold Apple Watches are not better-tasting Cokes. They’re the same Coke that everyone can get with the $349 Apple Watch Sport, but served in expensive goblets.

I don’t know if I agree yet. Apple is certainly entering the fashion sector, but it’s unclear to me if it’s entering the luxury sector as well, that mystical world where whiskeys cost more than minivans. And if Apple is becoming a luxury company, it’s as much a response to the state of the laggard, hollowed-out American economy, I think, as to the inevitable progression of technology.

Regardless, Gruber’s essay on the Apple Watch is the best one I’ve read on the subject so far. If you’re interested in the device, it’s worth your time.