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Does Technology Need to Be a Luxury?

The unfortunate future is likely to be a consumer technology market that splits along class lines.
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(Photo: Pebble Time/Kickstarter)

(Photo: Pebble Time/Kickstarter)

At the time of writing, a Kickstarter campaign for the new Pebble Time smartwatch has blazed past the $6.8 million mark in a matter of hours—the fastest funded project on the crowdfunding platform ever. This new device is an improvement over the already popular original gadget (itself the beneficiary of a $10 million Kickstarter campaign that launched the company). It adds a color e-ink screen, like a rainbow version of Amazon’s Kindle, and a new chronological navigation system that’s being touted as a user-interaction revolution. But what sets the Pebble Time apart most might be its price point.

For a high-tech device pitched to become the next must-have round of consumer technology, the Pebble Time is cheap, selling for $159 for early Kickstarter contributors (the regular retail price will be $199). This is no lo-fi motion tracker: The new Pebble features a rich app ecosystem and syncs with our pre-existing networks of smartphones and computers. It does much of what Apple’s upcoming smartwatch promises to do, particularly now that its health-tracking capabilities have been unceremoniously axed. But the Apple Watch reportedly costs $349 for the basic model (which has little functionality without the aid of an iPhone to connect with) and may run up to as much as $20,000 for a gold luxury version—with the same capabilities but a nicer casing and band.

Technology has always been something of a luxury good. We don’t need a smartphone, laptop, or 90-inch HD television for survival, but they’re nice to have, and they bring us into digital consumer society, which is looking increasingly like one of the last communal spaces we have left. While we tend not to think of our phones in the same way we think of an extravagant name-brand leather jacket or handbag, they are still expensive, branded products.

The slick, almost Soviet sameness of Apple’s products, the universality of the platform that everyone’s on because everyone can be on it, promotes a utopian image that the new ultra-expensive leather and chain-metal bands of the Apple Watch seem to undercut.

But since cell phones became mainstream over the 1990s and then smartphones in the early 2000s, there also hasn’t been a huge gap between price points and capabilities for various levels of consumer products. Sure, each new round of iPhones is more expensive than the last, but they aren’t radically different. An antiquated iPhone 4 still works day-to-day much the same as an iPhone 6, and it even looks pretty much the same, unlike, say, a seasonal update of Hermes bags.

That general technological equality, however, is changing as large tech companies realize they can cater to the same markets that Louis Vuitton does—hence the theoretical $20,000 Apple Watch. “At the top end of both the watch and car markets, there’s very little price sensitivity,” writes Kevin Roose in Fusion. “A person who can afford a $10,000 watch can probably afford a $20,000 watch, and a buyer who is in the market for an $80,000 car won’t blanch at a $100,000 car with more bells and whistles.” While Apple easily sells millions of its devices at lower price points, it would take far fewer $20,000 watches to net the same profit. And if demand exists, why not supply it?

A recent New Yorker profile shows Apple designer Jony Ive’s desire to push into higher price points. “Jon’s always wanted to do luxury,” Clive Grinyer, a friend and former colleague of the designer, told Ian Parker. “Ive had already fulfilled one duty of industrial design: to design a perfect stapler, for everyone, in a world of lousy staplers,” Parker writes. The next move would be to create a truly exclusive product—pointedly oriented toward not serving everyone equally, though the core utility of the Apple Watch remains the same across luxury levels.

It’s as if Apple is realizing that it doesn’t have to make an effort to be democratic anymore. The slick, almost Soviet sameness of its products, the universality of the platform that everyone’s on because everyone can be on it, promotes a utopian image that the new ultra-expensive leather and chain-metal bands of the Apple Watch seem to undercut. Promoting that exclusivity moves Apple away from being the everyman’s aspirational technology buy into the more rarified air of baubles made for consumption solely by the wealthy.

Over the past few decades, we’ve gotten used to thinking about digital technology as a universal resource. And to an extent, that’s more true than it ever has been before. The Internet is accessible from anywhere. Smartphones are relatively affordable. We all buy the same apps. But what worries me about consumer technology’s march into the realm of extreme luxury goods is that this communality could easily disappear. Health trackers meant to improve our well-being could only be available for tens of thousands of dollars. Home genome processing might likewise stay similarly expensive. The phones that connect us could also split us apart. The unfortunate future is likely to be a consumer technology market that splits more along class lines.

Silicon Valley has never dropped its aspirations of overhauling society. Many businesses want to do good in the world, or at least brand themselves as such. But there are bifurcating paths for growth: cater to the largest possible market, or cater to the highest-paying one. The largest, most compelling companies will do both—think Uber’s pop-up helicopter services alongside its cars—but perhaps the most popular will be the most universal.

Such is the Pebble Time, an affordable smartwatch that works with no intimidation factor either in its design or its branding. By the time this article is published, it will doubtless net millions of dollars more in pre-orders. The accessibility, I think, the awareness that technology doesn’t have to be a luxury product, is just as compelling as the device itself.