Why Me?

As a borderline synaesthete with a debilitating sensitivity to vowels, I’ll admit I was knocked a bit off balance when Apple confirmed rumors and announced MobileMe as the next iteration and rebranding of its .mac suite of online services.

But because this is Apple, I can’t just join the negative nancies in the hoo-ha parade that has subsequently stormed the comment threads (to which I won’t link because these people are scum and should be ignored).  Instead, because this is Apple, I’ll invoke the words of the inimitable Fake Marshall McLuhan in his Twitter a few days back:

Stop asking ‘Is this a good or bad thing?’ and start asking ‘What’s going on?’

And because this is Apple, I’ll do the work of a true apologist and extrapolate the aphorism a step further:

Stop asking ‘Is this a good or bad thing?’ and start asking ‘Why is this awesome?’

Me.  Everything used to be ‘i’, remember?  After the 1998 intro of iMac, that adorably anthropomorphic little revolution in personal computing, the brand of 'i' took such a strong hold in digital culture it has since been reappropriated both inside Apple (iPod, iTunes, iTools, iDisk, iPhoto, iMovie, iWork, etc.) and endlessly imitated outside Apple [examples redacted under legal advisement].  Whereas prior to the era of ‘i’, the go-to digital prefix had been ‘e’ (as in eMail), which I suppose stood quaintly for ‘electronic’ [ugh], the ‘i’ brand fell into that magical space where it took on the dual meanings of ‘Internet’ (or the ever-buzzy ‘interactive’), as well as the very personal, non-technical and empowering first-person pronoun ‘I’.  As such, the cultural significance of ‘i’ cannot be understated.  You might even say it defined the digital culture in its apex, when the bubble seemed only ever to expand with IPOs and flying cars and robot sex.

However, it wasn’t simply ‘i’, the subject case of the first-person pronoun that made its way into the branding lexicon, it was the first-person pronoun in general that imposed itself on such brand names and products as MySpace, Windows Me (the Millennium Edition of Microsoft Windows), the Western Digital My Book hard drive, the paradigm-shifting Nintendo Wii game console, and the grammatically-questionable productivity tool Minesweeper.

As imitations, none of these applications of first-person branding made all that much of a mark and really served only as foils to the ‘i’ of the Apple product line.  ‘i’ has historically been so successful for Apple that the thought of ever abandoning it would appear misguided.  But it seems that the day of ‘i’ may have come and gone.  Even last year’s release of iPhone (following a battle with Cisco over rights to the trademark) showed that the ‘i’ was perhaps beginning to feel a little stale, its usage conceivably due more than anything to legacy and brand recognition in a risky and brand-unfamiliar market.

With the MobileMe unveiling (and that of its complementary domain me.com), it’s looking like a shift is afoot for Apple—a shift that may be every bit as significant as the shift from PowerPC to the Intel processor, but a shift in ideology whose signs may be found in the simple grammatical switch from subject (I) to object (me).

I offer evidence only in my strictly unacademic impressions of the differences between ‘I’ and ‘me’.  For instance, ‘I’ implies activity, a doing and a being of something.  Ideologically, this meshes well with Apple’s provenance as the tool of the artist and its aim to imbue the user with the identity of Unique Creator of Digitial Artifact, of curator and distributor and master of his or her digital hub.  In this model, I am the center of my digital lifestyle, from which springs endless evidence of my unique and lovable existence and expendable income.

By contrast, ‘me’ implies passivity, an identity of self-evident existence without the burden of activity.  In the ‘me’ model, I exist by the token of my relation to my Contacts and Calendar.  In the ‘I’ model, I exist by the token of my photos, which I sync from my camera in iPhoto and upload to my iDisk.

On a practical level, MobileMe is a subscription service which allows my data to exist simultaneously in all places.  In its marketing materials as well as its MobileMe logo, Apple is employing the “cloud” as metaphor for the omnipresence of my digital identity.  That they equate the cloud with the term “mobile” I have yet to rationalize, as “mobile” has always been applied more to the mobility of the devices we use than the omnipresence of the data across those devices.  But such a redefinition is standard fare for Apple, who is in the business of redirecting commonly-understood concepts among consumers, and redefining markets in the process.  So I’ll suspend my judgement on that one.

Signs do, however, point clearly to Apple steering away from consumer as creator of data and toward consumer as data itself.  I no longer create the data I sync, the data is me and it syncs on its own.

"Exchange for the rest of us" is a common refrain of the MobileMe pitch.  The reference, of course, is to Microsoft Exchange, a product marketed toward consumers for whom identity through creation of data is not a high priority.  Connectivity is the Holy Grail of the Exchange market, and connectivity is what MobileMe puports to offer this untapped segment of the mobile market.  To this end, unkind comparisons to Microsoft have been made of MobileMe’s branding, but also to this end, they are not completely unfounded.  Could it be that in attempting to reach the coveted "enterprise" segment of the market, Apple has intentionally taken on characteristics of Microsoft’s branding?

Of course, to Apple users, this is a hateful suggestion.  Common among Apple users is an elitism which we will not only admit to, but wear as a badge of honor.  Common brand perception of Microsoft applies the terms ‘corporate’, ‘boring’ and ‘status quo’.  Microsoft holds a much more populist position in the tech market, as evidenced by the market share of its operating system.  My assertion is that in forgoing the ‘i’ and evoking the ‘me’, Apple is making a conscious effort to finally appeal less to the elite segment of the market and more to the vast numbers of Microsoft users.

Let’s look back at the lineage of MobileMe.  In 2000, it appeared as a free suite of web-based services collectively known as iTools.  In 2002 it changed to a subscription-based model and was renamed (dropping the first-person pronoun and the ambiguous utility motif) to “.mac”, which, with its domain-like brand name was meant to conjure the extension of the Mac desktop experience to the Internet environment.  This phase of the evolution can now be clearly seen as remedial, its purpose to indoctrinate users to the idea of migrating their data offsite.  But due to lack of infrastructure, its execution has been largely unsuccessful.

Now, six years and many perplexed customers later, and with the crucial element of mobility finally in place with the iPhone, MobileMe is shaping up to be an idea whose time has come.  And within its story can be found the perfect illustration of Apple’s plan: first Apple got us on the Internet.  Once we were there, it gave us “tools” to play with.  This included a place to put our email, a way to make a “HomePage” and a little bit of storage.  Then it got us to start paying for these tools, and it got us used to the idea of using a few of the Applications we use on the Mac (i.e., Mail, Address Book, Calendar), but through the browser instead of the desktop.

Now, in its third and most important phase, Apple has literally removed the “Mac” from its online counterpart in an effort to make the Apple user experience a platform-agnostic one.  Take a look at the MobileMe Guided Tour video on Apple’s site.  You may notice that every bit of the demo of MobileMe’s browser-based application is shown from the Safari browser on the Windows Vista platform.  The video shows you navigation through a hierarchical file structure in the new iDisk with fluid graphics and beautiful buttons that look unlike the Aqua buttons of the Mac OS and it takes a moment to realize that the demo you’re watching is not being done on a Mac.  Think about this for a second.  Apple is removing the Mac from the Apple computer experience and laying the foundation for a browser-based OS, the thing that Google has been threatening all this time.  Of course, it’s not a new idea; for a while, everyone has assumed that this is where the trend is taking us.  But it’s never been clearer how we’re getting there.

In branding, floaty, ambiguous concepts that appeal to the ego like ‘I’ and ‘me’ are typically put into play haphazardly by marketeers trying to sell you stuff.  But in the case of a company as ideologically solid as Apple, the concepts used in marketing the products we wait for and lust after can often be the clearest signs of what is to come.