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Love rectangle

Apple’s iPhone, five years old next month, seduces us with the perpetual call of elsewhere. But do w

In the restaurant a young couple were staring downwards and apparently scratching the table with their right forefingers. You never saw people doing this before June 2007; now you see it all the time. Nor did you see people stopped in the street flicking at the small black (or sometimes white) rectangles held in their palms. And you certainly didn’t see anybody staring with something akin to love at a piece of glass.

“Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.” That was Steve Jobs on 9 January 2007. He was speaking to an adoring and whooping crowd in San Francisco. Six months later, exactly five years ago, the iPhone appeared in the shops and more whoopers queued for hours, finally to emerge, dopamine (the reward neurotransmitter) squirting out of their ears. They were as much as $599 poorer but, for the moment, infinitely happier.

They didn’t all stay happy. In the cold light of day it was clear that the iPhone was expensive – on top of the very high purchase price were very tough contracts with monopoly networks, AT&T in the US and O2 in the UK – and, oddly enough, it was a lousy phone. Calls were dropped, sound quality was poor and reception capricious. There must have been dozens of better phones on the market. But Apple had spent at least $150m developing
the phone and Apple, under Jobs, did not make mistakes. Phone function apart, the iPhone worked like a dream and now Apple sells around 35 million phones across the world every quarter.

Competitors were stunned. Previously, mobile telephony had been all about the network; handsets were just cheap, gimmicky bits of plastic that lured you in. So, when the hype hit, companies such as Motorola and Nokia were baffled. And the hype was like nothing anybody had ever seen.

“In the last six months,” wrote David Pogue in the New York Times in June 2007, “Apple’s iPhone has been the subject of 11,000 print articles, and it turns up about 69 million hits on Google. Cultists are camping out in front of Apple stores; bloggers call it the ‘Jesus phone’. All of this before a single consumer has even touched the thing.”

Having been stunned, many of the competitors were all but destroyed. John Gapper of the Financial Times listed some of the companies seriously damaged by Apple, primarily by the iPhone – Microsoft, Sony, Nokia, BlackBerry’s maker RIM, Motorola and so on. Only Samsung, with its classy Android phones, now represents a proper competitor.

Of course, not all today’s scratchers, flickers and starers have iPhones. Many, perhaps more, would have Samsungs; a few would have Sony Ericssons or BlackBerries. But the point is they all now look and work like iPhones. There’s a picture on the internet showing about 50 pre-iPhone phones next to 20 post-iPhone phones. The old phones look like wild variations on some mutant alien-robot foetus theme; the new ones all look the same – simple, rectangular monoliths dominated by a screen.

And they all do a bewildering number of things from plain, old, vanilla internet browsing to real exotica such as identifying any tune you happen to hear (Shazam), locating other gay people nearby (Grindr) or making it easier to text when you’re drunk (iDrunkTxt). Jobs was right, he had reinvented the phone – not as a phone, but as a near-universal machine.

The iPhone was, in effect, two inventions. The first was a smartphone that was easy to use – a revolution in itself, as all previous smartphones had been very user-hostile. Real ease of use was made possible by the capacitive touchscreen, a sheet of glass with an electrostatic field that is distorted by the touch of a finger. By fine-tuning this distortion, each touch becomes a fantastically precise control mechanism. There are only four mechanical controls on the iPhone. The machine is the screen.

The second invention was much more revolutionary. It was the “app”, short for application. When it was first launched, the iPhone was locked – it could not do any more than Apple intended. But, on 10 July 2008, Apple opened the App Store, which allowed users to download approved apps to their phones. To date there have been over 25 billion downloads of more than 700,000 apps.

The deflationary effect on software prices has been spectacular. When apps were known as applications, they were expensive and came on discs in boxes with fat and incomprehensible instruction manuals. Now they are either free or ludicrously cheap and they don’t need manuals. A wave of geek creativity has been unleashed and, largely thanks to the iPhone, people now expect their machines to do pretty much anything they want.

There is, however, a downside to this. Apple is not a cause – though, listening to the swivel-eyed whoopers, you might think so – it is a company, the most valuable in the world. It is worth $550bn and its share price just keeps on rising. Investors expect this rise to continue and Apple must oblige. It must also compete with Google, Microsoft, Samsung and unknowable threats from assorted geeks in garages who want to change the world (which is how Apple began). So, too, must it sustain its bewilderingly high profit margins. To do this, it needs to lock in its customers – and that is exactly what the iPhone does.

“You come for the product,” says one analyst, “you stay for the ecosystem.” Once you have bought your iPhone, the easiest thing to do – and certainly the most seductive, thanks to Apple design – is to synch it with an Apple computer, buy books, music and movies from iTunes and apps from the in-house App Store. And you are further cemented into this system by the prayer meetings of the faithful at your local high street Apple Store, a retail chain that makes more money per square foot than any other in the world.

In this context, the iPhone can be seen as Apple’s primary and most effective weapon in the war to seize cyber real estate. Google’s equivalent weapon is Android, its mobile operating system. This is an entirely different approach. Android is free and used on many different phones. But it also has a lock-in effect because it draws people into the Google system, which makes money more indirectly than Apple. Google’s database is a marketing and advertising goldmine, and the people on it – you and me – are its product, not the phones. Happily, it is inaccurate. Recently I discovered that Google thinks I am much older than I am, which is why I keep getting ads for alarming medical goods.

Looking beyond corporate strategies, the wider issue is the effect that mobile communications and permanent connectivity have on the world. Apple did not invent either of these but it made them work. I know utter computer klutzes who could operate an iPhone within minutes. Furthermore, it is like a living thing. Martin Lindstrom, a branding expert, claims to have detected excitation of the “love circuits” in the brain while scanning the brains of people handling iPhones. Babies, alarmingly, have been found to become addicted to iPhones, and there’s an app called iGo Potty, which promotes Huggies training pants by calling the toddler when it’s time to go to the loo.

There is apparently no limit to the “livingness” of the iPhone. The latest iteration, the 4S, has Siri, which understands your commands and questions and answers in natural(ish) speech. Siri has a sense of humour and, for reasons unknown, a male voice in the UK and a female one in the US. He/she doesn’t yet work very well but it (much better) soon will and, as widely predicted, will probably become the control system for Apple television. Very soon we will be wrapped in robot voices.

Having made all this work, the iPhone poses the biggest question in the world: do we want this? That couple scratching at the table weren’t looking at each other and the people stopped in the street are not interacting with real people or the real world. Mobile connectivity perpetually seduces us with the call of elsewhere.

It takes us out of the moment.  “Is this a good thing?” I ask Siri. “OK,” he says, “checking my sources.”


This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.