The Annotated Apple

David Leventi

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about shopping for Apple

Twenty-eight inches long, half a millimeter around. In other words: nothing, really. But for a while this one little white strand, sprouting from the upper-right corner of my keyboard, drove me to madness. How could I let the aesthetic purity of my then-new iMac be sullied by this curly cable? Even if I did need it to connect the mouse. Then the good people at Apple did what they always do. They came up with something better—a new wireless mouse that promised to cut the unsightly umbilical and declutter my desk and, by extension, my mind.

I went to the Apple Store, but the magical mouse wasn’t in stock yet. I returned the next day, but again no mouse. I started going a lot. Maybe every day. After a week or two, one finally came for me. I brought it home, synced the Bluetooth, and…it was a mouse. A mouse with no wire— a strange, slightly sad object of fantasy.

Stranger still, I found myself back in the Apple Store all the time, even when there was nothing I could pretend to need. The air-conditioning was nice. Pretty Spanish and French girls could be depended on to be checking their e-mail or IM’ing friends back home. But there was something more.

In the past decade Apple has made the transition from a boutique computermaker that many, pre-iPod, predicted would fail to a hugely successful mainstream lifestyle company. Much of Apple’s success is due to the smart, seductive design of its products, which has been carried over to its stores. Considered a long shot when first launched, the stores now contribute significantly to the company’s bottom line.

But I wanted to know: What exactly accounted for the hypnotic allure of the place? In the end there aren’t that many different core products. And we all know what an iPod looks like. How many times do we need to see it for ourselves? I decided to investigate, clue by clue, the mysteries of the Apple Store. 

What’s with the cube?

Whether you find the 32-foot-high glass cube crowning Apple’s subterranean Fifth Avenue store more reminiscent of I. M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre or the company’s own design for the translucent, short-lived Power Mac G4 Cube depends on your level of Mac geekery. The structure bears no sign, just a white apple suspended like a milky moon in a sky of glass. Here all the frictions and hard-sell schlock of a traditional consumer-electronics retail environment have been buffed and engineered away. What remains is pure desire. Or at least the impossible-to-shake impression that it’s long past time to upgrade your iPod.

And the glass stairway?

It’s a visual trademark of the company’s stores, as familiar as the endless tables of iPods poised invitingly on their little stands. Apple is surely the only company whose CEO holds a design patent for a “glass support member.” Steve Jobs “et al” were awarded U.S. Patent 7,165,362 for their ingenious plan that makes the staircases look as if they were floating on air. The stores’ interiors are as lovely and impressive as anything created by Apple’s industrial design guru, Jonathan Ive.

Why would a computer store need to be open at 4 A.M.?

In fact, the Fifth Avenue location is the only one of the 200-plus stores worldwide that’s open 24 hours, every day of the year. An Apple spokesman called the open-door policy appropriate, citing the highly trafficked location as an international destination, with folks arriving from JFK at odd hours. Students, that nocturnal species, also come to service their laptops, buy Nike-cobranded gear, or just hang out.

What is everyone doing here?

The first thing you notice as you descend the stairs is the sheer amount of human commotion. On a busy weekend afternoon, every computer is in use. Someone is checking an Italian blog while someone else reads a Web site in Russian; a woman in a burqa hunches over a BBC.com story while a teenage girl watches clips from My Super Sweet 16; and someone else fills out an online job application for the Container Store. If the underlying message of Apple’s entire product line is that you can do everything and enjoy doing it, this is a place where that philosophy becomes a reality.

Can I just sit and do nothing?

Bring us your tired of shopping, your too poor to upgrade to a new Mac, your huddled masses yearning for free WiFi. At the Fifth Avenue store, there’s a big stone bench at the foot of the glass stairway beckoning customers to take a load off and rest a while. And look at the two blond-wood benches: Don’t they look just like those in any art museum? Like museums, this is a place to come to admire human achievement—except here there’s no distinction between gallery and gift shop.

Are Apple stores transforming the way we shop?

“Apple has changed the game for other retailers,” says Jane Buckingham, president of the Intelligence Group, a market research company. “They’ve upped the ante by making the in-store experience so enjoyable that consumers want to go even if they aren’t going to buy. It’s an activity, not just a transaction.”

DeeDee Gordon, cofounder of the trend consulting firm Look-Look, agrees. “Every big-box retailer is trying to step up its game now,” she says. “But a lot of these brands are not willing to blow it up and start over. They look for the cheapest possible way to do business, and consumers are over it.”

What about actually buying stuff?

Apple Store staff carry handheld wireless credit-card readers and can check you out anywhere in the shop. Your receipt can simply be e-mailed to you. For a consumer base that’s accustomed to the immediate gratifications of the Internet, such tactics are a great way to stand out in a crowded retail environment and move people through a bustling store. As has been pointed out, the handhelds from Motorola’s Symbol Technologies seem to be the only devices in the place running Windows.

How important are the stores to Apple’s bottom line?

Once written off as an arrogant folly— a 2001 BusinessWeek headline read sorry, steve: here’s why apple stores won’t work—Apple’s growing stable of locations (next stop: China) accounts for more than 20 percent of company earnings. And it’s not just the sales that matter: A lot of people walking through the doors are new to the product line and some, presumably, will be back for more. In the first three months of this year, nearly 34 million people went into Apple stores.

Who are the people in color-coded shirts?

One of the reasons the shopping experience here is so different is the staff-to-customer ratio. At the Fifth Avenue store, at least 50 employees are identifiable by the color of their T-shirts and the designation on their sleeves: Concierge, Specialist, Trainer, or Genius. These people are into this stuff and you get the feeling they might work here even if Apple stopped paying them. That the staff is passionate and cool, Jane Buckingham notes, “rubs off. People want to be part of it— however they can. Consumers of all ages tell us that the Apple Store is a cool place to hang out. They’d love to work there but don’t think they’d be qualified.”

What does it take to be a genius?

The guy behind the Genius Bar has a T-shirt that reads not all heroes wear capes. This one wears a gray-black fedora and a look of patient optimism. He’s a Genius, Applespeak for the guy who can take a look at your problem and tell you if fixing your computer is going to cost a little or a lot. Apple declined to disclose exactly what it takes to become a Genius, only that they are highly trained by the company. Mac|Life magazine has reported that Geniuses-in-training are flown to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, for two weeks of classes followed up by yearly recertifications.

Why are there so many different iPods?

Which iPod are you? asks a prominently displayed sign near the bottom of the stairs. Not might we interest you...? or do you need…? Just which one? The confidence is justified; iPod is the world’s dominant MP3 player. The focus on the iPod is important not only for the “halo effect” (you walk in looking to buy a Nano for your grandkid and you walk out an iMac convert) but also because it gives the stores a kind of one-stop shopping coherence. You have your choice of the full range of iPods, and you can also learn how to use iTunes, download videos on AppleTV, buy headphones, pick out a protective case. Analysts call this a solutions boutique, and it is a concept that Apple has truly excelled at, turning the electronics store into a vertically integrated multimedia fun house.

How much of this stuff is made by Apple?

Every Apple Store sells the company’s entire line of consumer goods—except for the big servers most of us will never need. At the Fifth Avenue shop there are more than 75 Macs on the floor to be poked at and played with, plus around 150 iPods. But by itself Apple can only put out so many products, which is why many shelves are filled with accessories and software developed by other companies that are capitalizing on the popularity of all things Apple. One unintended side effect: Seeing what passes for good design at some of these other places reinforces just how great Apple is.

Should I buy an iPhone?

The initial launch excitement brought a lot of attention and traffic to Apple stores, with thousands of people waiting overnight to buy the gadgets. And though some new users are now complaining about dropped calls and spotty connections with the 3G network, that drawback hasn’t hurt sales. Gaming when to buy an Apple product is tricky: The company isn’t going to stop delivering updates and new products that make last year’s next great thing seem outdated. As I write this, rumors of an iPhone Nano launch in early 2009 abound.

How is Apple able to inspire such devotion to its products?

Yes, it’s mainly about great design. But again the staff also plays a huge role. “Everyone who works there eats, drinks, and sleeps Apple,” says DeeDee Gordon, “and that enthusiasm is infectious. It is the number one brand for young people across the board. They will say things like ‘If Apple made toilet paper, I would buy it.’ ”

Are all its products sexy?

When the Fifth Avenue store opened in May 2006, folks like Kevin Spacey, Tina Fey, and Kanye West turned out for the party. But after the Champagne has run out and the A-list guests have been shuttled home, there remains the simple fact that this place is also in the business of selling some unsexy but necessary items like wireless routers and adapter cables. So give some thought to the humble hard drive, humming away in the background with the memory (and often the bulk) of an elephant. Which is exactly what Apple did: The Time Capsule is a WiFi-enabled network hard drive, but it is also one seriously sexy slab. I’ve got one now, sitting to the left of the keyboard I’m typing on. It’s lovely to look at and almost—almost—draws my attention away from my new fixation, that cord connecting the keyboard to the monitor.

Buying into the Apple cult: What it takes

By Frank Vizard

Apple products inspire fierce loyalty among buyers, who tend to sport their various gadgets like badges of honor. Devotion, of course, has its price, but fortunately there are a number of possible entry points.

For $200, what can I get?

The iPod is the product that launched a thousand (plus) Apple fans. Since its original release in 2001, more than 100 million have been sold. Of the many sizes and shapes, perhaps the most attractive and efficient is the 16GB Nano ($200). Only a quarter inch thick, this curvy new model has a liquid-crystal video screen and space for 4,000 songs.

For $500

The 16GB iPhone 3G ($300) has twice the memory of the first-generation model, plus built-in GPS navigation software and the ability to operate on 3G cellular networks, which increase Internet browsing and download speeds by 240 percent. And since introducing the phone in July, Apple has allowed third-party developers to sell programs for it through its online App Store. Many are free, but for an extra $100, pick up references like the American Heritage ($30) and Spanish-English Translation ($20) dictionaries; VoiceDial ($15), which allows for hands-free calling; organizers such as OmniFocus ($20); and games like Super Monkey Ball ($10) and Texas Hold’em ($5). For another $100, add a year of MobileMe, a service that syncs your contacts, calendar, and e-mail across all your computers and portable devices.

$1,000

Much as you’d like to, you can’t walk around with headphones on your ears all day. Marry the 32GB iPod Touch ($400), which shares the iPhone’s cool finger-stroking inter-face, with the Zeppelin ($600) speaker for a rocking home stereo setup. Produced by top-notch British company Bowers & Wilkins, the Zeppelin has enough inputs to connect multiple devices at once, so, for example, you can show iPod photos on your TV.

$2,000

The 1.6-GHz MacBook Air ($1,800) is not even an inch thick and weighs just three pounds. But its small size doesn’t translate into a lack of features: The keyboard is standard size, the screen measures 13.3 inches, and the hard drive has a capacity of 80GB. Wireless connectivity and a camera come built-in. To match, pick up a pair of Bang & Olufsen’s discreet A8 earphones ($160). Apple’s iconic, omnipresent earbuds don’t fit every ear; the equally stylish A8s are ergonomically designed and offer a distinct improvement in sound quality.

$5,000

Combine Apple’s top-of-the-line computer, the Mac Pro ($2,800), with the high-definition Cinema Display ($1,800) that features a 30-inch screen and multiple USB and FireWire slots. Then connect it all to the Internet with an AirPort Express Base Station ($100) and use a 500GB Time Capsule ($300) to back up your files.