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Barack Obama: the iPhone of politicians

I don't know why it took me so long to make the connection. Even for a political figure, Barack Obama generates an extraordinary level of attention, and probably hundreds of news articles a day.

He represents (for many people, at least), hope for an enormous change, almost a transformative revolution. And, like Apple's most famous product, you won't find him in Canada.

Pundits and everyday voters in the US are doing the same thing the IT industry was doing when the iPhone was first launched more than a year ago: trying to anticipate what everyday life will be like with Senator Obama, and how they should prepare themselves for that change. Obama and the iPhone have rejuvenated interest in areas once thought stagnant (politics and mobile communications respectively), and seem to followed a similar trajectory of crazed anticipation and premature backlash.

Obama's attempt to win the Democratic nomination was presaged by the publication of his second book, The Audacity of Hope, which almost sounds like an Apple marketing slogan, just as "Think Different," could be easily associated with his brand of political discourse. The iPhone is sleek, stylish and sophisticated, appealing to an upper-class elite. Obama is sleek, stylish and sophisticated, appealing to an upper-class elite. Has Steve Jobs sent him a free handset yet or what?

Even the criticisms Obama receives - that he's all surface, no substance, that he lacks a track record, that he won't mesh well with the established groups and processes that keep America running - sound a lot like the worries around the iPhone in the enterprise. Obama's success has been attributed, in part, to his strategy of approaching the Democratic nomination as an outsider who can bring fresh improvements. Apple's entrance to mobile telephony was similarly brazen, risky and somehow terribly compelling. As I write these words, Obama has been working the House floor, described by some reporters as doing a victory lap. Didn't Apple's launch - despite the lack of details around pricing plans, software compatibility and security - seem a little self-assured too?

Of course, no one had to hold a vote (apart from Apple's board of directors, perhaps) to get the iPhone to the market, and even if Obama wins the nomination he'll still have John McCain and the Republican Party to fight in a federal election. The iPhone is probably here to stay, although consumers will constantly voting with their wallets. That's the difference between a politician and a product. What really matters is whether the great speaker and the tool for speaking can create a real dialogue - whether, after the mania has died down, we can use them to our best advantage.

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