Apple’s rumored acquisition talks with Beats Electronics got the tech snobs talking.
Beats is best known for headphones widely acknowledged as “mediocre” and “overpriced.” That opinion is backed up by numbers: A pair of Beats Studio Headphones costs $299 at BestBuy. Yet experts widely acknowledged that the cost for the electronics and parts necessary to make each pair is under $20.
Typical Apple, snipes the anti-Apple faction: A seller of mediocre and overpriced hardware buying another company that sells the same thing. Apple and Beats products, the thinking goes, are primarily about being pretty and trendy and fashionable.
And in fact, such markups are commonplace in the world of fashion.
This Gucci purse costs $2,350. This Rolex watch costs $22,670 on one site. These prices are not a function of the cost of materials, labor and shipping, but merely the price of admission to authentic and prestigious fashion brands.
The high price is a necessary part of the branding for these images, but high price isn’t necessary for brand loyalty in fashion. Luxury fashion is just one tiny (albeit pricey) niche in a much broader world of fashion.
Sneakers or jeans can be arguably moderately priced objects of fashion that still command some market because of the reputation or prestige of the brand and the “look” they provide.
Why am I talking about fashion in a technology publication? Because the worlds of consumer electronics and fashion are about to collide, and even to some extent become a single cultural category.
Why Fashion Matters If you look at the world of fashion and throw up in your mouth a little (because the whole idea of paying extra for superficial appearances and the prestige of a brand) it can be helpful to look in the mirror instead.
OK, do you wear glasses? Did you pick your frames exclusively for durability, function and comfort? Or did you try on many different frames to see how they looked on you?
How about your clothes? Do you choose your clothes without regard to how they look, or how they make you look? Or do you just buy the cheapest clothes you can find because you don’t want to waste money?
Do you have a tattoo? If so, did you choose it randomly, or did you choose it carefully?
The truth is that caring about appearance is human nature. And it isn’t always about vanity.
I like to imagine an invisible bubble around each of us. Things inside the bubble are part of us. Things outside the bubble are separate from us.
So, for example, a tattoo is not something we “own.” It’s part of us. So are glasses, shoes, clothes, contact lenses, prosthetic limbs, hearing aids, pacemakers, earrings and other jewelry. We “buy” them, but they become part of who we are.
This is what fashion is. It’s the non-medical stuff we buy that’s worn on, carried on, attached to or combined with our physical bodies. Even unfashionable fashion — say, old jeans and ragged t-shirts, or used, cheap wristwatches — perform exactly the same function as the expensive stuff — they just convey a different identity.
People wear sports jerseys, cowboy hats, low-slung pants, saris — you name it — and all for the same reason: because “fashion” is an expression of self, and is identified as self.
Which brings us back to technology.
Those of us who have been technology professionals or enthusiasts for awhile tend to lump all technology into the “possessions” category, outside the self bubble. Technology is something we have, not part of what we are.
Most of us became oriented toward technology with PCs, which of course don’t need to be fashionable. A good PC is purely about power and features and functions, for most users. We came to view laptops as small PCs — and each new generation of technology is merely a smaller computer, an object we don’t associate with fashion.
While smartphones exist at the barrier or nexus, if you will, between the “self” and the “not self” bubble, wearable computers are way inside the bubble. They are part of us.
Wearable computers that fail on the fashion front will fail in the market. And for the same reasons that all fashion succeeds or fails.
In other words, unlike all previous categories of computer products, wearables won’t be judged primarily on RAM, storage, resolution, functionality or other metrics, but on how good they look on us.
Let’s consider Google Glass, which just went on sale to the general public for the first time this week.
I’ve been a Google-glass wearing Glasshole for about ten months now, and I’ve seen and heard and read every reaction to the product. The biggest reason as to why people want it or don’t want it is identity.
Glass is a dorky, clunky looking piece of advanced technology. It looks cyborgish. For those whose personal identities are associated with technology — i.e. geeks like me — Glass is a desirable thing to wear. For those whose personal identities are associated with looking good, or looking natural, or looking traditional or looking friendly or any number of other self-identities, Google Glass is an abomination.
The point is that the desirability of Google Glass is more strongly associated with the psychology of fashion, rather than utility.
And so it is with all wearable computing devices. Just look at the press around all the smartwatches that have been thus far shipped, proposed or rumored. Nearly all the conversation is about fashion. The Motorola Moto 360 smartwatch is one of the most popular designs so far. Why? Because it’s round, and looks like a traditional and beautiful watch more than a little computer lashed to a wrist.
But all bets are off until the rumored Apple iWatch comes out. The iWatch is expected to dominate the market not because anyone expects more powerful features, but because Apple enjoys a reputation as a company that understands elegance, design and fashion. In fact, Apple even went so far as to hire Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve back in July.
The reality is that wearable computing is fashion, and fashion is becoming computerized.
It’s time for the technology-loving world and the fashion-loving world to come to grips with the coming merger of our two worlds. From this point forward, there is no separating wearable computing from fashion.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.