Photography: Steve Wampler
When it comes to listing a product’s unique sales points, there’s always one point that’s sharper than all the others. It doesn’t matter how many features the product has, how many problems it solves or how much it will change the user’s life, if the market believes the product is “cool” it will fly off the shelves. So what makes a product cool, can coolness be created and what can a developer do to add that all-important ingredient to its offerings?
Design certainly helps. Apple wasn’t the first company to place digital music on portable players but Jonathan Ive’s clean design, with its plain white face and silver back, made the company’s music player as much a fashion accessory as an electronic gadget. Being seen with an iPod in the device’s early days marked a user as someone who was up with the latest fashions. Even if you couldn’t hear the tunes they were listening to — beyond the irritating thump of a bass delivered second-hand — you knew that an iPod user’s white earphones marked them out as someone who was serious about their music.
It wasn’t just color that made the iPod cool though. Its user interface was different too. The clickwheel, a mixture of mechanical buttons and a touch sensitive ring, made users wonder why no one had thought of that before. It made the device simple to use; a flick of the thumb was enough to change volume or move to the next song without looking at the screen or searching for the right button. The iPod was cool to use as well as look at.
It’s that simplicity that helped to mark the iPod’s coolness. Early MP3 players, such as Saehan’s MPMan and Diamond Multimedia’s Rio, seemed to owe their main design influence to Sony’s Walkman. Or perhaps a brick. The Rio, in particular, was packed with more buttons and switches than you can find on a typical flight deck. By doing away with all of that complexity, Apple showed that it was forward-looking, current and different. It marked a break with the past – and revolutionaries are always young, cool and trendy. Just ask the estate of Che Guevara.
Google Was Cool… Once
Disruptive technologies then can be cool too. For a long time, Google was the coolest company in Silicon Valley, the place where every geek wanted to work (and a place that could make most workers wish they were geeks.) It acquired that image by producing a product that looked as simple and frill-free as Apple’s iPod but which did an equally good job at flattening the competition. At a time when AOL and Netscape were ruling the Web, watching those then-giants take a sock to the jaw from a company that was then the little guy on the block was cool. And it did it the right way too: it produced a product that was unique, effective and which did a much better job than anything available at the time. Better still, Google became almost as well known for the degree to which it pampered its staff as for the reliability of its service. Google epitomized the coolness of the underdog. When a small company suddenly starts wiping the floor with big, heavy opposition, individuals cheer — especially when the company is seen to support the individuals who made it happen.
The downside though is that that sort of coolness does come with a time limit. Google isn’t as cool as it used to be. It’s now a big company too, and while the Googleplex might still be a nice place to work, the firm’s “Do no evil” slogan has taken a battering from its involvement in China, its forays into markets as far-flung as mobile phones and office software, and its attempts to build a digital library, regardless of what authors (another kind of underdog) think. Coolness is powerful but it’s also fragile. Pick it up for being small but extraordinarily good, and you might find that it starts to disappear when you’re big and merely as good as everyone expects you to be.
Unless you’re also a master of hype. This is a very different kind of coolness – a manufactured kind, created in advertising offices and nurtured through public relations, image-building and careful branding. Again, it’s no surprise that Apple, today’s ultra-cool manufacturer, is the master of this technique too. Very few of Apple’s products are actually as innovative as they look. Capacitive sensing, the technology behind the clickwheel, has been known since 1919, and the clickwheel itself was first designed by touchpad manufacturer Synaptics. Quantum Research, a UK technology company, also sued Apple for copyright infringement. The iPad, despite months of anticipation, has delivered nothing that didn’t exist already. While it might not have been possible to buy an outsized iPod Touch before, it has been possible to buy tablet computers, even with touch screens.
Apple’s genius isn’t just to create attractive products but to make cool new versions of the kinds of products already on the market.
Coolness isn’t something tangible. It’s not something you can measure in the same way that you can count screen size or memory capacity. It’s more powerful than that. It can come from a design that speaks to the market and turns buyers into members of an elite club (in the iPod’s case, a club of devoted music fans). That can happen even if the club is enormous, non-selective and open to anyone willing to open their wallets wide enough.
It can come from being sharp enough to change your industry even when you’re so small the industry has barely noticed you. That’s a coolness connected to your competence – the fairest kind – but it’s also a coolness that can disappear once you become established.
And it can also come from careful marketing. That’s the hardest kind of coolness to create and maintain. In fact, one of the things that makes Apple so cool is its ability to still be cool despite being a big company that produces proprietary software, distributes copy-protected content and runs a capricious monopoly over the applications created by independent developers.
It is possible then to create coolness, but you have to be cool enough to know how to do it.