The iPhone as Polo shirt

An iPhone 4S cover shows the iPhone as Polo shirt. Rob Walker writes that you don't even need the cover to drive the comparison home. (

by Rob Walker | @YahooTech

So it’s been about a month since I betrayed Apple, one of my longtime favorite brands — as mentioned here earlier — by buying an HTC One smartphone instead of an iPhone. How’s that working out?

Pretty great, actually. I’m feeling no pangs of regret. Every app I really use works as well as the iOS versions, and I positively love some of the HTC One’s features. But best of all, it’s made it easier for me to recognize that the iPhone is, in fact, a totally bourgeois device: The iPhone has become, in its six short years, the technological equivalent of a Polo shirt.

Toting a non-Apple device around the world, for the first time in ages, has made me see the Apple-toters with new eyes. If you’ll allow me to be totally and arbitrarily judgmental for a moment: It struck me just how common the iPhone has become. And I mean that in the sense of “not distinguished; not of superior excellence; ordinary,” per definition 4 in my Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary: Deluxe Second Edition. (I’ll stop short of citing definition 7: “not refined; low; coarse.”)

Before everyone gets upset, I would actually draw a distinction between Apple in general and the iPhone in particular. The latter has become a brand unto itself, one that has long since crossed over from “cool” (meaning something embraced by a minority that thinks of itself as having elite taste) to “acceptable,” meaning it’s a sort of cultural default, like a Polo shirt or Nike sneakers — or, for that matter, Windows (in its heyday at least).

It’s the brand for people who don’t want to think all that hard about what brand they are buying, and just want whatever everybody else will accept without question. It’s bourgeois.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Nike sneakers and Polo shirts are acceptable for a reason: They are perfectly fine. And to state the obvious, producing an acceptable default product is an excellent position for a business to occupy. (This is why trendmongers yammering about what a disaster it is for a brand to lose its “cool” so often miss the point.)

But what I'm getting at isn't business. It's personal. Personally, I don't go for Polo ponies and Nike swooshes. I'm not interested in mindlessly signaling that I have bought in to whatever the market has decided is "acceptable." Maybe you've had the same feeling: It's precisely the fact that the iPhone has attained this status in popular culture that made me curious about alternatives.

By now the (perhaps justifiably) offended iPhone loyalists among you would surely like to point out to me that the HTC One, despite plenty of nice reviews, is not exactly setting the world on fire. The product is a minor sideshow in press coverage of the Apple-Samsung battle; the company seems to be flailing; and its marketing has been a disaster. I wouldn’t be surprised if most iPhone owners don’t even know what an HTC One is.

This doesn’t bother me in the least. First, I like an underdog. Second, any time a brand emerges as a default, I get suspicious: Surely I can do better than whatever the majority thinks is “acceptable.” I think with my HTC One I’ve done exactly that. And this is not dissimilar from my insistence on sticking with Apple’s computers when their market share compared to Windows alternatives had shrunk to practically nothing. As long as I could identify what made my choice better, I had to. And that, as you know, worked out just fine.

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