Steve Jobs' unseen impact on the weed industry


Steve Jobs has impacted computers, telephones, music, television, animation, Ashton Kutcher and so much more. But you knew that. What you might not have known, however, is Jobs' impact on the weed industry, specifically with regard to vaporizer innovation.

"Obviously we are inspired by great designers and it's hard to think of a designer more important to our generation than Steve Jobs," Richard Mumby said in an interview. Mumby is the the CMO of Pax, whose vaporizers are considered by many to be the "Ferrari" of portable vaporizers.


With the recent releases The Firefly 2 and the QuickDraw 500 Class, as well as the Pax 3 coming in late November, it's becoming increasingly clear that the vaporizer industry is not only adopting Apple's popularized generational model — that of releasing new, updated devices annually — but doing it with keen attention to the timeliness with which Apple releases its products.

Sure, similar generational model upgrades predate Apple, specifically with gaming devices like Xbox and Nintendo, but it was Jobs who was able to successfully integrate and popularize that model with the masses when he introduced the iPhone's first generational upgrade, the iPhone 3G, in 2008. The slogan at the time: "Twice as fast at half the price."

But the updated model to the original iPhone also contained structural changes that would continue to evolve and be finessed throughout future models. For instance, the phone was slightly larger, the buttons were changed from plastic to metal and the edges of the phone were tapered for easier grip. It also offered the first color augmentations, allowing users to choose between a black model and a white model.

Such minor tweaks would become customary, as consumers happily splayed out hundreds of dollars in exchange for holding in their palm the latest in Apple technologies. A recent episode of Black Mirror highlighted society's normalized expectation of innovation. Bryce Dallas Howard's character Lacie is looking to rent a car. Upon being offered an I-Cruiser 2 her demeanor shifts to visible disdain: "They still have the 2?" she asks with disgust.


Adding intelligence

Vaporizers are undergoing similar augmentations as companies begin to roll-out second and third generation models. For instance, the Pax 3 not only works with flower-based materials but also with concentrates. In previous versions there was a single oven, and in the new model there are three. 

One challenge that distinguishes many Apple products from a vaporizer is the dual-use function. Whereas an iPhone is a telephone, a camera, a calendar and an automated personal assistant, a vaporizer has but one task — that of imbibing its user with herbs. The level to which it succeeds in that is really the only only indicator of its costliness outside of the appearance of the physical device.

But some companies are innovating the device's capabilities by innovating the device's capabilities. The Pax 3, for instance, is a connected device, meaning users can optimize temperature settings, vapor production and LED brightness, with plans to roll out additional features and firmware updates as well. Firefly, for instance, offers a free iOS or Android companion app that lets users select from six different pre-set temperatures.


Size matters

For Firefly, which just released its second generation model, it looked to the iPhone for inspiration, specifically when it came to sizing.

"You recall that Apple kept shrinking until they went bigger. When you make everything smaller, you're giving up functionality," Firefly co-founder Mark Williams explained in an interview. "We haven't seen feedback in the market that suggests everything should be smaller, smaller, smaller because then we're running in to physics. There is a certain size that is good enough."

There's also a pragmatic reason why some vaporizers are sized as they are, Williams, who was once a product developer at Apple, explained. "There needs to be a distinction between loose leaf cannabis vaporizers and ...a distinction between loose leaf cannabis vaporizers and vape pens. That is a whole different market and because it doesn't need to be loose leaf, it can be smaller, more portable. What you're sacrificing is quality of material itself. Because they can be smaller, they are more convenient, but they don't feel as good. It's like listening to a CD versus listening to a live show. It makes me think of Zoolander. If people only think of size, you wind up with a phone like in Zoolander that is teeny, tiny and comically useless."

Paramount Pictures

Prepare to say goodbye

But perhaps the biggest takeaway — and Jobs' longterm ace in the hole strategy: planned obsolescence. Whereas a used Sega Saturn today can run for $350 on eBay, thriving off of consumer nostalgia, the original iPhone model has disappeared. Why? As Apple creates new operating systems, its older iPhones stop being able to run them. Modern apps run on iOS 10, but the original iPhone can't support that operating system, deeming it essentially useless.

Could the original models of popular vaporizers adopt this same policy? It's looking that way, with first generation models of many vaporizers being quietly phased out.

"Absolutely," Ed Kilduff, co-founder of Pollen Design, best known for creating the Rabbit Corkscrew, said when asked about planned obsolescence as a means of bolstering revenue. However, he is just as quick to note customers' increasing appetite for newness. "Many of us run out, wait in line for hours for the latest iPhone so we can be the cool kid," he said. "If a later device is released with the same exact features, but the design is slimmer or sexier and fits in my pocket better, than I might purchase it. So whatever they are doing is working." 

That said, successful outliers remain. The Volcano by Storz & Bickel, one of the most popular devices on the market, has remained virtually unchanged since its introduction in 2000. "I've had a Volcano, the same exact Volcano, since 2003. 13 years old and still working like a champ," Kadey said in an interview, adding: "And it's had heavy use." That said, the Volcano is not portable and therefore is not as reliant on shrinking size demands.

Volcano by Storz & Bickel

Full speed ahead

So are vaporizer consumers as keen to pick up the latest offering as customers were to get their hands on the iPhone 7? It's too early to tell, according to Sasha Kadey, the CMO of VapeWorld, one of the largest online retailers for vaporizers. 

"Early signs indicate that if the new product has substantial feature enhancement that is easily observed, people will be compelled to upgrade and often gift their used vaporizer to a friend or family member, or keep it as a spare," he explained in an interview. "However, an annual refresh cycle on pace with Apple's is probably overly-ambitious and puts a lot of pressure on the manufacturers to come up with really compelling features to demonstrate the value proposition of the upgrade. And sometimes that results in grasping at straws and coming to market with a product that is only marginally different than the prior model. They don't have the benefits of Apple's deep bench of the world's best industrial designers, engineers, nor do they have the graphical user interface that allows the software side of the upgrade to be a compelling offering."

Still, companies like Pax, for instance, are doing their best to maintain Apple's velocity. As Tyler Goldman, Pax's CEO, explained in an interview: "Things should not take multiple years to improve upon," noting that there should be enough room for improvement that it warrants a new product. "I don't know if that's one year or eighteen months, but it's definitely less than two years."


Want versus need

And perhaps the biggest obstacle? The want for innovation versus the need. "People always think more about how new ground can be broken than they think about how existing institutions can be sustained or existing facilities can be maintained," Harvard economist and President Barack Obama's top economic adviser Larry Summers said on a recent episode of WNYC Studios' Freakonomics Radio podcast titled "In Praise of Maintenance."

He continued: "It leads to a constant trap where we underinvest in old things, then old things disappoint us, then we feel a need for new things, then to satisfy that need for new things, we underinvest more in old things, and the cycle goes on." 

Could this be the fate for vaporizers as they seek to continue to develop capabilities to warrant future models — and to accomplish that on an accelerated time cycle? Only time, of course, will tell.  

Ultimately, what vaporizers hope to borrow most from the Apple experience is usability. "Simple function that delivers the best and optimal experience. And the things that may not seem intuitive ultimately are the most intuitive when in their simplest form," Goldman said. "We view Apple as aspirational and in no way do we think we are at Apple's level today." Maybe not today, perhaps, but if sales projections — which predict the industry is headed toward a worth of $32 billion by 2021 — are any indicator: vaporizers are well on their way.