Lots of commentators, most notably John Gruber, have remarked that Apple launching a credit card feels un-Apple-like to them in a way that betrays what Apple once was. While we’ve established that this isn’t true in a historical sense — an Apple credit card was Steve Jobs’ idea in 2004 — that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it as a spiritual claim.
One of the key psychological conditions of Apple fandom is feeling like the company is on our side, and when Apple betrays that, it hurts. Generally, the only times Apple betrays that feeling without apologizing and fixing it have to do with money. That usually comes in the form of increasing prices or expensive new dongles we didn’t need before, but certainly interest-bearing credit card debt would be a new way for Apple to be at odds with us.
Our relationship with Apple has been mediated through our credit cards for a long time, though. Of course, buying into its ecosystem frequently involves a credit card. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t bring stacks of twenties to the store to buy computers. And those are the infrequent credit card interactions. For 15 years, Apple has touted the hundreds of millions of credit cards its users attached to the iTunes Store as one of the world’s most valuable sources of digital payments. Apple Pay may not have taken over the world yet, but it’s doing a billion transactions per month already, and that was in the quarter before the launch of Apple Card, which financially incentivizes customers to use Apple Pay. Credit cards already play a huge role in Apple customers’ lives, they just haven’t been Apple’s credit card thus far.
Sure, this whole conversation is evocative of the criticism that Apple is for rich people, but is that really true in a way that’s particular to Apple and not the rest of the four billion people who own a smartphone, of which iPhones are about one quarter? Okay, you might say, one seventh of the world’s population leaves out a lot of people, but that might just be a matter of time; there are a lot of cheap gray-market iPhones out there. People look at the price tag of an iPhone XS Max and say iPhones are for the elite of the elite, but you can buy a refurbished, unlocked iPhone SE on Amazon for $123.72 right now, and that phone can run Apple Card. In the U.S. specifically, there’s a rising trend of people who only use smartphones to go online, and that includes 26% of people who earn less than $30,000 per year.
Now, I don’t know how many of those folks will qualify for Apple Card, but Apple has insisted on applicants with less-than-stellar credit getting approved. Citigroup bailed on the project because they were concerned it wouldn’t extract enough money. Credit cards are for extracting money from people, so if Apple Card won’t extract enough for Citigroup, that means Apple didn’t design it to do so. Apple wants as many of its users as possible to benefit from participation in the credit market — which does, unfortunately, have its benefits in our society — and to do so, it’s making its own products cheaper for them in exchange for their loyalty. Of course, credit cards being credit cards, if Apple Card users don’t pay off their balance, Apple (and Goldman Sachs) will extract money from them, but the Wallet app and Apple’s marketing encourage customers to pay off the card. If they do, Apple Card saves them money.
Obviously, Apple makes money from Apple Card, so it’s not some deep mystery as to why being in this business is worth it to Apple. It’s fair to say that making money is Apple-like. The question is, was it Apple-like for Apple to enter the credit card market in the first place, given its thousand-nos-for-every-yes approach to entering markets?
If you ask me, hell yes.
I don’t know why I was so excited to get Apple Card, but it probably had something to do with awareness of how much of my relationship with Apple was mediated through credit cards — and that those credit cards required relationships with other companies that were much more annoying to deal with than Apple. It was kinda spoiling my relationship with Apple; I had this tidy, convenient digital life, but in order to fund it, I had to deal with, you know, Chase’s website. One critical element of my Apple experience — the credit card — was defined by terribly designed, slow, unreliable software and long, winding phone labyrinths to get to customer service.
So I signed up for the early invitation queue for Apple Card, and I spent all last week mashing that + button in Wallet until, one day, it showed up. I started using it right away, and in short, I already knew how, because Apple designed it.
I did have one hiccup, when an annual subscription for a news app came due for over $100, and Goldman flagged the transaction as fraud, even though it came from iTunes. That’s what I get for being an early adopter, though; Apple and Goldman hit a real-world snag in the first days of operation, they got their wires crossed, and you know what? I was able to get it resolved talking to both companies on one single iMessage thread in minutes. That was a damn sight better than customer service for my Chase card, and their service is supposed to be relatively good.
When my card got re-blocked again, presumably automatically, I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll try that button to completely regenerate my credit card number.” I hit that button, it loaded for maybe five seconds, and suddenly, I had a new credit card. I added it to my Apple ID again, and it worked fine. I didn’t have to change any credit card info anywhere. It was the most Apple-like software interaction I’ve had with Apple’s own services in years, maybe second to activating the physical card.
It probably goes without saying that the physical card is magnificent. No questions about Apple-like-ness here. Seeing my name laser-engraved in titanium in Apple’s San Francisco typeface makes me feel… proud? It doesn’t remind me of any other credit card so much as the Long Now Foundation’s steel membership card.
I guess this is the Apple membership card.
Everything about Apple Card feels like something Apple — and I mean the fantasy Apple of our hopes and dreams — absolutely would do. It’s Apple breaking into an awful fact-of-life industry and making it meaningfully better to deal with. To me it’s most reminiscent of its entry into the mobile phone business, or music sales before that. It’s not a huge leap to imagine bank accounts and debit cards from here, and it’s enough to make one wonder if they’ll do the same to health care and transportation in the future. Forcibly breaking a mediocre design status quo we’ve all accepted for some chunk of our lives is the quintessential Apple thing to do, we all know that.