Oct 152008

Well, another Apple hardware update has come and gone, and with it the (depressingly traditional) musical chairs game with the standard features. This time the feature that was left standing when the music stopped was Firewire. I wonder what it’ll be next time…

Deja Vu all over again.

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The first time I remember scratching my head with wonder as a result of Apple’s choice (or lack thereof) of hardware features for a Mac, was in June of ’98, when Jobs unveiled the first iMac. That thing was moderately cheap, but it had virtually no way to connect to any peripheral then in existence. It had no SCSI at a time when SCSI for Macs was as prevalent as Firewire is today. It had no serial ports, which were then as common as USB is today.

It did have USB, but at that time no one -and I do mean no one– had used, seen, or even heard of, any USB device. There were no USB mice or keyboards available, except Apple’s. There were no USB printers, except for a single model by Epson. There were absolutely no external storage devices (HDs, Zips, DVD-Rs) available from any company. Even PCs did not start having USB ports as standard for a year or more after the introduction of the iMac.

Yet the iMac was a success. To this day I don’t understand why. (Which I suppose is why I am not as rich as Steve Jobs.)

Musical chairs through the years.

The iMac was the first, but not the last time I was really confounded -and even enraged- by Apple’s knack for ditching really useful features from its products. There were many minor casualties through the years, but the two that really annoyed me were the keyboard power button and the modem.

Most of you will not remember this, but there was a time when all Macs could be turned on directly from the keyboard. Back then you did not have to be a contortionist to reach your tower under the desk in order to turn it on. And if you wanted to reset your computer, you could do it like a gentleman, by pressing a key combo (Command-Option if I remember correctly) and the power button. Nowadays you have to crouch under the desk like a monkey with a hernia attack, hold the power button and wait for ages for the computer to shut down so you can start it up again. So uncivilized.

As for the lack of a modem in all new Macs, the less said the better. It’s still a sore point with me, but fortunately I still have an old PowerMac G4 which has a modem, and I use this for sending and receiving faxes. Granted, this is something that I do once a month on average, but still, why should I have to pay an extra €30 for an external modem (and lose a USB port in the process) when Apple could include it as standard for only a few cents?

The simplistic future.

Watching Jonathan Ive talking about the new MacBook/Pros in the Apple video, I head him say something that I think epitomizes Apple’s vision. It went along the lines of “we could not make [the MacBook design] any simpler [to use]”.

Simple. That’s what Apple wants both its products and its customers to be. Simple enough as to not compare hardware features between Macs and similar-priced PCs. Simple enough to be dazzled by any glitzy, glossy product as long as it’s Apple-branded. And if you don’t belong to that consumer category, well, then Apple is not interested in doing business with you.

In a way, it is a very successful strategy. Why listen to the needs of 10% of the population which actually understands and cares about hardware? There’s a sucker born every minute as the saying goes, and catering to the masses is much easier and more profitable. What does the average Joe understand or care about things like target disk mode? Is it shiny? check. Is it cool-looking? check. Is it simple enough that even a contestant of American Idol can (mostly) use? check.

Let’s face it. We (the readers of this blog) are a minority. Apple sells computers for the masses. There was a time when this was not so, and Apple’s motto was ‘Think Different’. It is no coincidence that then was also the time that Apple was nearly ruined financially.

So what can we expect from Apple’s future products? If the history of the iMac is any indication, in a year or so a new MacBook will come out which will have a new fast interface. Whether that will be Firewire 800, or USB 3.0, or eSATA or something completely new, I can’t say. But Firewire 400 will not return.

However, if Apple continues to make its products ‘simpler’ in every generation, maybe someday we’ll see Job’s and Ives dream product come true: a Mac that consists of a single shiny button, which makes a beautiful musical sound and sends $9.99 to Apple every time you press it.


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