Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Price of Style?

by Tom Bozzo

As I'm mulling Nina's post on The Substance of Style, MacNN directs me to Paul Kedrosky's flame bait in the (Canada) National Post:
You have to love Apple Computer. Not, however, for its products. Those are over-glossy fashion plates designed for the people who like to overpay for products and then brag about it...

While many people would never buy a BMW-style personal computer, the same way many people who can afford a BMW car would rather buy something cheaper and more functional for half the price [sic], there is no denying tastes, so there is undoubtedly a market for people who want to buy opalescent over-priced computers from Apple.
Kedrosky wields just about the dullest butter knife in the Mac-dissing arsenal, as elementary research reveals that the Apple brand premium over comparably-specified PCs is small and not always positive. But forget about that for a moment. Should a stylish product be presumed to be "over-priced" compared to its graceless kin? Should valuing style be dismissed as mere pretension?

Dr. Kedrosky, whose UCSD biosketch describes him as "trained in business theory and as an engineer" should know better than to suggest so on both counts. Qualities of style that are valued by some consumers should in fact end up with positive prices in the market, as he sort-of concedes.

I'm not obviously "overpaying" if I want — in the sense of the neoclassical utilitarian consumption model — to run my fingers over a cool, smooth titanium palmrest while I'm figuring out what to write. After all, I spend a lot of time with my PowerBook. Rather, it's the Miracle of the Market that Steve Jobs is in business to take my money and satisfy my preferences! Virginia Postrel and David Brooks (1) are smart enough to figure this out.

And, notwithstanding the fact that I was pulled into Jobs' "reality distortion field" by the original PowerBook G4 announcement, I cross-shopped the ThinkPad T-series before pulling the trigger on the Titanium and concluded that IBM was commanding a larger brand premium than Apple at the time.

P.S., I don't think there's a $20,000 car that's uniformly more functional than my 330Ci, either.

P.P.S., writing in near-real-time about a major Steve Jobs address turns out to be a way to draw a comparatively large volume of traffic to one's obscure blog. Site Meter tells me that roughly 75% of the visitors who arrived here on Tuesday via Technorati and other searches pertaining to the Mac mini (more than doubling typical daily traffic) were PC users.


(1) Cf. the discussion of "inconspicuous consumption" in Bobos in Paradise. Yes I do think that Brooks can be a [term for part of the male anatomy] and that his pop sociology shtick is wearing thin. Similar to Nina, I'm not going to deny that I enjoyed Bobos on account of that.

Brooks is too funny to pass by, even if he does have a "perspective" on the issues. Postrel (author of "...Style") is dead serious but still a pleasure to read. An anecdote: she mentions at one point that these days one no longer asks, as the popular commercial once asked, "does she [color her hair], or doesn't she?" since 75% of women do. On the other hand, men are still lagging behind. So one can, I suppose, ask -- hmmm, "does he [Tom], or doesn't he?" Readers of Marginal Utility -- should we place bets?
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