With Its $10,000 Watch, Apple Has Lost Its Soul

Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels—the ones who can drop 10 grand on a timepiece.

Tim Cook, Apple CEO, describes the new Apple Watch at Monday's press event. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

In 1997, Steve Jobs returned to the struggling computer company he founded. It was not in good shape.

Apple, which had pioneered the category of the personal computer, was barely staving off bankruptcy. In August of that year, Jobs would accept $150 million from Bill Gates’s Microsoft, money which kept Apple alive but made Microsoft look like less of a monopolist. A month later, the company would release a now-famous series of ads. With end-of-history assuredness, the ads show a black-and-white montage of Albert Einstein, Jim Henson, and Amelia Earhart, as an unseen narrator intones:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo.

Jobs strove to bring the old spirit of Apple to the laggard corporation. He even held an internal meeting to showcase the new marketing. “I don’t think there’s another company on Earth that could’ve done this campaign,” he said.

Apple is the most famous company in American business for good reason. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary American reader not knowing in broad strokes the incredible arc of Apple. It is the organization that invented the personal computer, lost its way, and nearly went bankrupt, before reclaiming its mantle through a product revolutionary in its quality (the iPod) before becoming the largest company in the world by disrupting (with the iPhone) the market it created.

Over its nearly 40 years of existence, Apple has addressed itself to many audiences: nerds, teenagers, parents, students, writers, photographers. So it’s interesting in 2015 to consider “Think different,” nearly two decades out. This requires some delicacy, because “Think different” is an ad, and ads are just propaganda with a profit motive and rarely to be taken at their word.

And yet. With “Think different,” Apple was at the very least addressing itself to people who were not incumbent. (That status quo, unnamed in the ads, was of course Microsoft—which made serious machines preferred by people of business.) Apple made technology for people who wanted to change the world, not the people who ran it.

Which was always a little rich, because Apple devices weren’t cheap. The Apple pitch was one of exceptionalism: Apple alone combined pre-existing technology with incremental advances and holistic, humane design. Buy an Apple phone/laptop/music player, and you didn’t get an amalgam of specifications, software, and capacity. You got an experience.

And even as Apple has expanded, even as it has sold more than 700 million iPhones, this has remained to some degree its pitch. Apple products are expensive but they’re within reach of a middle-class American, and they were loved as quality machines. The Apple developer Alexei Baboulevitch makes this point well, I think:

We loved our iPods and iPhones for their sleek design and smooth [user interface], even when people dismissed them as “expensive toys.” We knew our $2000 laptops were incredible for the price, even while people mocked us for not buying cheap, creaky Windows machines. When Android and Windows users poked fun at our platforms for lacking in free tools, we lauded the benefits of carefully crafted, paid-up-front software. We let our Apple logos shine bright because we were proud to be affiliated with one of the few companies that seemed philosophically bent on setting a new standard for mass-market products.

High quality for the mass-market: This was Apple.

Today’s messaging was a little different.

The company announced new laptops: They will be available in gold. It showed us an example Apple Watch user: She was Christy Turlington Burns, a supermodel who Apple’s video shows taking time off from philanthropic work in Tanzania to run a half-marathon around Kilimanjaro.

And even the less-obviously luxe marketing seemed tailored to an aloof elite: You can call an Uber with your watch now! If you forget to stand up every so often (perhaps because your trans-Pacific first-class Emirates seat is just so comfortable), your watch will remind you to walk around a little!

But these are details. Most will correctly fixate on the price of the most expensive watch, the 18-karat-gold Apple Watch Edition. Apple hasn’t released an upper price window for these watches, but Tim Cook mentioned on-stage Monday they started at $10,000.

The tech press has known for some time that prices these high were coming. The Apple blogger John Gruber thought the priciest Apple Watch model's starting prices would be more expensive. And at Fusion, Kevin Roose has argued that Apple is planning its future for a world with enormous wealth inequality. He highlighted an excerpt from the recent, novella-length New Yorker profile of Apple’s lead designer Jony Ive in which an engineer loses an argument by saying “Apple products are for everyone.”

But now that they’re here and confirmed: The prices grate. And they grate not because they’re so expensive, but because they’re gratuitously expensive. The Apple Watch Sport (which starts at $350) and the high-end Apple Watch Edition have the same innards. Their internal computer is the same; they will have the same effect on a user’s life. The only difference is that Apple is manufacturing a status symbol with the Edition. Instead of telling users to pay up because they’ll get a better quality experience, it’s telling them to pay up because they can, and because a more expensive watch is inherently preferable.

To many commentators, this is unsurprising. It’s good business sense, really. Apple has made its world-devouring profits by ratcheting up profit margins on iPhones. There is no better target for these massive margins than the super-rich.

But high margins do not a luxury brand make. It’s a mockable commonplace in tech criticism that “Apple wouldn’t do this if Jobs were still CEO.”

I don’t know if that’s true and I’m not interested in the question. But I do know Apple has been chameleonic over its lifetime, and it stopped being dwarfed by Evil Empire Microsoft long ago. I know it’s now a big, mainstream American company. I know that it has always had a profit motive, and that making high-quality, mass-market products was just a strategy.

But I know too which kind of consumer pays $10,000 just to have a nice watch which will be obsolete in a year. They are not a misfit or a rebel.