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Wed

27

Jun

2007

iPhonies
Wednesday, 27 June 2007 13:05
by Stephen P. Pizzo

Here's your morning quiz question:

What do Paris Hilton and the new Apple iPhone have in common?

Answer:  One is already trash and the other will be the moment the next skinny gadget catches the public imagination. And, no one actually needs either of them.

First some disclosure. I am the last person on earth who should be suggesting that the latest wiz-bang gadget is an unnecessary waste. Since 1978 I was the guy scratching at the glass doors of Radio Shack  to snatch up the first PC, then every new peripherals or software release.

But somehow the iPhone seems different. Maybe the time has come for Americans – and especially innovative companies like Apple – to take a break to consider what they are expending their money, talents and the earth's rapidly dwindling natural resources on.

Like, do you – or anyone you know – really need a $500 iPhone? No. We can all get cell phones for next to nothing at any mall in America. Want it to have a camera? No problem, it comes free with the phone. Want you cell phone to play music and connect to the Internet? No problemo, dozens can do that already.

So what's the selling point for the iPhone? Well of course it will be able to do all that, but with style and panache.

So millions of Americans will chuck their perfectly good cell phones, sending them off to either a local landfill or shipped across the sea to some third world nation where peasants will retrieve the precious metals and chuck the unwanted toxic materials into their landfills or the sea.

Apple Computer Inc. — which makes superb products, also specializes in panache and image. The core of Apple's consumers view themselves as free-thinkers, socially responsible, sensitive, creative and, of course, ecologically responsible.

But just look what the good folks at Apple are about to unleash with it's latest don't-need-but-must-have product:. The iPhone's parts and pieces will be produced all over the globe. Those parts and pieces  then must be shipped to Asia for assembly. The final product will be packaged and shipped to US and European warehouses. From there they will be loaded on trains, planes and trucks and shipped to stores. (I'm sure some egghead out there can figure out how much energy that series of steps will end up consuming and how many tons of greenhouse gases will be produced as a result. But for the purposes of this article you can assume it's somewhere around plenty to the 10th power. )

If a product consuming and polluting that much filled an unfilled need and made life objectively better for mankind, I'd say, fine. But the iPhone – and products like it, are simply fashion enhancements on already existing technologies. Begging the question, is this sensible behavior considering the challenges that now and will face the human race? Challenges that could mean the difference between survival and mass extinction.

Products that actually enhance life and personal productivity don't need a lot marketing. I knew months before the first personal computer was going to be available at my local Radio Shack, and I was there the day it arrived, willing to pay way too much for a computer with just 16K of memory and a 9 megahertz processor.
But products like the iPhone, and it's predecessor, the iPod, require lots of buzz-creation, since they are not really needed by anyone. At best they are nothing but show-off enhancements on existing gadgets.

But of course, marketing buzz works. Just look at the cascade of spin-off iPod products that fill store shelves now. The iPod created entire industries around itself. Imagine the resources, the fuel, the human capital that goes into all that, then get ready for the tsunami of products that will feed off the iPhone.

Bitch, bitch, bitch. Right? “What's wrong with all that Pizzo? Are you a commie or something? Are you jealous because you're not getting a piece of all that action?”

No, and no. I'm just worried. I feel like a parent watching his grown children, once filled with talent, energy and promise, acting like that superficial little airhead, Paris Hilton. Oblivious to the real world around them. Self-indulgent, trivial twits, chasing trends and fads even as civilization and the earth itself, shift beneath their their feet.

It wasn't always so. Americans proved many times over the past couple of hundred years that we can do remarkable things when we want to – world-changing things. But not today. These days what we do best is consume things. We are herds of consumers and marketers are our modern-day cow punchers who herd us from green pasture to green pasture, to consume.

Our national mission today is to keep the thing-makers in business. Even after the worst attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor all our leaders asked of us was to “go shopping.” Otherwise the terrorists woud win. How? By crippling our thing-makers.

(Never mind that our thing-makers no longer make most of their things in the US, employing US workers. Those jobs have been shifted to places like China. So why is it so important that we keep our thing-makers in the chips? Because the Chinese workers who now produce those things pump money into Chinese government coffers, and the Chinese lend hundreds of billions of that money to borrow-and-spend Uncle Sam. Should the Chinese stop doing so Uncle Sam would need to raise taxes in order to keep the lights on.)

But I digress.

So what would I have thing-makers like Apple do instead of producing very nice, but very un-needed products like the iPhone? All that technical talent might instead be turned to develop things mankind really needs right now, and will need more of in the near future. Things that are more efficient, that put less of a stress on the physical environment, things that can scale to serve an exploding world population, without killing us all off in the process.

For example, imagine  Apple iSolar devices. Apple is famous for leveraging existing technologies and  making them more efficient and easier to operate. The Apple's marketing geniuses package them in ways that make them downright irresistible. Imagine what Steve Jobs could do if he turned his engineers loose on personal and residential solar power devices.

Another thing Americans have more than enough of are gasoline and diesel-consuming vehicles. What if General Motors – already in a world of hurt because it was late to the hybrid game — decided that, beginning next year, it would produce only hybrid and electric plug-in vehicles? They have the right name, “GM.” All they'd have to do is change what it stands for — from General Motors, to Green Machines. Imagine the impact of that! The scramble by other automakers to “out green” GM.

George W. Bush had the germ of an idea when he told us to “just go shopping.” He seemed to understand that there may be no more powerful force on earth than American consumerism. Of course, like most of George W. Bush's thoughts, that one was sorely mis-focused. What George meant was we should get out there and buy things. What things? Whatever. Just buy stuff.

But imagine if America could harness the innovation, the marketing and design talent and the competitive passion to win that once made American companies genuine world-changing, life changin, powerhouses.  If we harnessed that to produce and market things that really matter, things we don't already have, but so desperately need, like clean, renewable energy sources and the products that use them, imagine how fast we could change the world, and it's future.

But we're not there yet. I've seen Apple's ads for the iPhone, and even I found myself nodding in obedient agreement that it's way cool. But I'm not buying one. I have a cell phone, it rings, I listen and hear the person calling me. I talk and he hears me. I have a Sony digital camera should I want to take a picture. If I want to listen to music I have a stereo at home and a radio in my car. So you cold say that, iPhone-wise, I'm covered. Most of you are too.

Nevertheless, millions of American will soon chuck their perfectly good cell phones – even their iPods — in favor of Apples latests Paris Hiltonish cell phone upgrade. They don't need an iPhone, but they'll want one. And they'll want one bad enough to shell out $500 to $600 to get one.

Imagine if someone could make the same number of Americans want an high-speed trains, electric cars and solar roof panels (with a stylish Apple logo engraved on them) that much.
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