Deja vu: the Tesla Model 3 and the iPhone

I’m clearly not the only one to have a feeling of deja vu when reading the coverage of, and commentary about, Elon Musk’s launch of his Model 3.

Here, for example, is Tim Stevens:

I didn’t live-blog last night’s Model 3 event at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, California, mostly because there wasn’t anywhere to sit and type. I did my best to do the same effect via Twitter and the reaction was…well, it was pretty amazing. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced this side of an iPhone launch. (A real iPhone launch, that is, not down-sized rehash.)

I don’t need to iterate the parallels between an iPhone launch and the Model 3 launch, but I will anyway.

First there was the endless speculation and anticipation, the frantic forum debates arguing the veracity of various dubious sources. Then came the supposed leak which, of course, proved completely bogus. There were the lines, the self-perpetuating wave of preorder hysteria and, finally, the exclusive event with throngs of cheering attendees — plus a gaggle of mostly bitter journalists eyeing each other suspiciously in fear of a missed exclusive.

To call it deja vu would be an overstatement, but Thursday night’s Model 3 unveiling was unlike anything I’ve felt since the last time I heard the phrase “one more thing” uttered on the stage at a certain campus in Cupertino, California. Actually, I found last night’s Model 3 unveiling far more engaging.

The commentary about the car has also been eerily evocative of the commentary that followed Steve Jobs’s launch of the first iPhone in 2007. Here, for example, is the venerable Financial Times, pointing out the problems and challenges that lie ahead:

Yet annual sales of pure electric cars still total a mere 550,000, a fraction of a per cent of the global fleet. There are still big barriers to overcome before they can become mainstream: battery technology has not improved as quickly as hoped; charging takes time; and other issues such as cars’ resale value would become more pressing if they become more popular.

If he succeeds in creating a buzz around electric vehicles and bringing them into the mainstream, he will be performing a public service.

Scaling up production will already be a test of Tesla’s business model and its finances. It is alone in making almost all its own components and selling direct to consumers, a strategy that soaks up cash. The affluent enthusiasts that bought its earlier high-end models were tolerant of delays, but those who purchase the Model 3 may be less able to wait if there are similar hitches — especially since any significant delay could mean they were unable to take advantage of US government subsidies that are due to be phased out.

All true, of course. But what I remember most about 2007 was how dubious many people (including yours truly) were about the Apple device. I mean to say: the mobile phone industry was a mature global industry, dominated by one huge company (Nokia) and a few sizeable ones (Motorola, Blackberry, et al); Apple had no experience in that market — a market that was dominated by the carriers, not the manufacturers; battery life was poor and you couldn’t even replace the battery, for God’s sake; there was no real keyboard; the screen was too small to give a satisfactory browsing experience; etc., etc.

All true too. And yet, all wrong, or at any rate irrelevant — because it turned out that none of that mattered once you realised that you could SSH into the damn thing.