Think Retro: When Apple packaging made the hard sell

Christopher Phin
26 November, 2014
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Retro, MessagePad, macworld australiaToday, every one of Apple’s products comes in a clean white box. They’re barely decorated, just a picture of the product that nestles inside and some apologetically light grey text tucked away in a corner detailing specs and mandatory regulatory information. It was not always thus; here’s the box one of my Newton MessagePads came in.

For a child of the ’80s like me, that style of photography – moody, low-lit, with shafts of light picking out form and texture – is still desperately exciting. And even as a kid, I was excited about the idea of working, of business, of being productive, so the kind of language and lifestyle you see in the pictures was terribly beguiling. (I’d like to blame the ’80s for this too, with its emphasis on self-improvement and free market economies, but maybe I was just a weird kid.)

Look, this dude is drawing a map giving directions and then, thrillingly, faxing it to Judy.

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Faxing is an all-but obsolete technology and yet that world still seems intoxicating. In fact, I bet if you showed a primary-schooler a fax machine today, they’d think it was pretty cool that you could send a ‘physical’ picture from one machine to another. Mind you, so would hipsters, so this proves nothing.

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All over it are marketing messages designed to make you want and then buy the MessagePad. This might seem unremarkable – and to be sure, it was, long before the MessagePad 120 came about – but historically using packaging to market a product was an unusual and innovative thing to do.

Before goods were packaged, you’d walk into a store to buy, say, oats and the shopkeeper would shovel as much as you wanted from a sack into a plain paper bag. A shift was coming, though, in which rather than shopping at a dozen specialist stores where you just got given whatever version of a product they happened to be selling from bulk, you’d instead walk around shelves and chose for yourself which oats to buy. Now, rather than a shopkeeper being on-hand to suggest these oats rather than those oats (possibly for self-serving rather than altruistic reasons), you made the decision for yourself, and the packaging had to convince you to buy this brand rather than that brand.

Even though a PDA is about as far as you can get, conceptually, from some oats, Apple is basically doing the same thing here with the MessagePad. Indeed, there isn’t enough space on the outside of the box for all the marketing it wants to shout at you, so you can lift up the front and see eight more reasons to buy, buy, buy.

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What’s remarkable about these marketing messages is how the problems Apple tells you the MessagePad is there to solve are basically the same problems tech is still trying to solve today.

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Ignoring the fact that 2 and 4MB cards sound preposterously quaint, the idea of working on spreadsheets on the go or using GPS is anything but antiquated. And here’s a panel on communicating, including the ability to send SMS messages by tethering a mobile phone – a feature that has only just been added back in Yosemite after making an appearance early in Mac OS X’s life.

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Of course, there’s also internet and email, powered by Apple’s eWorld service:

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There’s even a kind of proto-Siri functionality. Of course, it wasn’t based on voice recognition (even though Dragon Systems did demonstrate a kind of early voice commands system on the MessagePad 2000 in 1997) but you can ask it how to do things and it can even trigger actions for you.

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There might, however, be an irony in all of this. Look at the modern Apple packaging.

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The reason it’s so unadorned – so devoid of marketing messages – is that the product is usually ‘sold’ long before a customer ever sees the box it comes in. Whether because you’ve read reviews of a product on sites such as this one, because you’ve been trying it and talking to blue-shirts in an Apple Store, or just simply because you’ve ordered it online, a product’s packaging doesn’t really have to do the job of selling it any more. You don’t buy iPads like you buy oats.

And that sentiment was as true in the mid-’90s when the MessagePads appeared as it is today. When I asked my followers on Twitter if MessagePads were racked on shelves for you to peruse yourself, some of them could remember being able to pick up a box and read it, but for most they were kept behind the counter, with perhaps one demo unit you could try. It’s possible, therefore, that this glut of marketing and calls-to-action on my MessagePad box were ultimately pointless – perhaps done just because that was traditionally what you did with packaging– but if for no other reason than they fascinate and intrigue me today, I’m glad they’re there.

One last little detail from inside the box I wanted to show you. You know how these days we unthinkingly click the Accept button when presented with a wall of Terms & Conditions? I’d forgotten that there was a direct equivalent last century:

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