David Ness
Mind / Matter

Apple Fritters

By David Ness
Tuesday, January 8, 2002

A Funny Thing Happened ...

... on the way to MacWorld Expo 2002. Apple invented the Unportable.

It all started as I was doing my duty watching five or six hours of primetime television most days during the fall of 2001. My Sony VCRs with SmartFile had reawakened my capability to actually use a VCR, and a television schedule where there were often two or more shows that interested me airing at the same time let me generate five or six hours of good solid viewing most days.

As I was processing this nearly 40-hour week, one thing became clear. Just about every computer ever seen on television was an Apple. If a portable computer was called for, it was a Titanium. If a desktop was needed, there would be an Apple Cinema Screen. Once or twice during the season, a Dell logo flashed by, but that was a great rarity. For the most part, everyone, everywhere (including some extra-terrestrial users) worked on their Apples.

Then Came the Stores

Then, Apple Stores began to spring up. At first none of them were in any place that was easy for me to go for a visit. And, of course, I thought This is a stupid idea. Haven't we been there and done that? Didn't there used to be a Computer Store on every corner? Didn't I visit each one of them for the `Going out of Business' wake that was the dominant theme of the computer retail marketplace a couple of years ago?

But, you never know. And Steve Jobs did have a few billion dollars in cash, so the half dozen sites grew to a dozen and then to two dozen. And some of them showed up in places that I would visit from time to time.

And as the few regular computer stores in my area started to become increasingly seedy places, with the bruised corners and tattered shrink wrap that often indicates `re-stocking', one of the few bright spots was the cluster of Apple Studio Displays, sometimes coupled with a full-blown Cinema Display among them. Beautiful. Particularly when viewed next to an increasing collection of gray `grow-your-own' chassis. Of course the Cinema Display alone cost about twice what a full scale system made out of one of those chassis would, but no matter, it sure was nice to look at.

The Dilemmas

Of course, there were at least a couple of dilemmas. The first was that I am addicted to the scroll button on my mouse. I read a lot of text, and I like being able to roll the button as I read. I am also addicted to right-clicks, and to be able to both single- and double-click. Could I live with a mouse that had only one button? I'm not too sure.

And there was performance. My Mac friends assured me that Hz weren't Hz, at least as far as comparing Apples with Intels is concerned. I was used to machines with 600Mhz ratings being regarded as slow. Normal speeds were in the 1.5GHz range, and the avant guarde were pushing things to the 2GHz barrier and beyond. The fastest Macs were in the 700-800 GHz range, and these carried premium prices.

Speaking of prices, that posed a problem too. My flat-panel desktop came with a 1280x960 pixel flat screen that I love. It had 512Mb of RAM, and ran at 800GHz with a 40Gb disk. And it cost about $1,500 when I bought it a year or so ago. And my 650MHz laptop with its brilliant screen and 384 Mb of RAM cost less than $1,400 back when I bought it some time ago. Apples seemed to be a lot more expensive per unit of bang. But then, bang is hard to measure. And I'm not very likely to go buy an Apple version of something just to compare. So I still don't really know how to match Apple Hz with Intel Hz.

However, I have now had a chance to at least do some preliminary benchmarking by installing a copy of J Software's J interpreter on an Apple Titanium 500Mhz machine. I have used this to run a very simple benchmarking calculation that involves some simple mathematical functions. This simple benchmark suggests that an 800Mhz Pentium runs the calulation in less than 1/3 the time of a 500Mhz Apple. This indicates that Apples are somewhat slower, on a Mhz for Mhz basis than the PCs.

Visiting a Store

During the week before Christmas, I was in Tampa. So I was in the International Mall in a last minute attempt to find at least one or two gifts, and I knew there was an Apple Store there. I decided to visit, if I could stand the crowd.

I needn't have worried. The only crowd in evidence was the crowd of store personnel that gathered around both the other customer and me. They wanted to help but there was no one there who needed them. One fellow was seated at what seemed to be the Guru Bar, sipping a Latte from the nearby coffee shop and idly reading, no answer-seekers anywhere in sight or on site. A group of three sub-teenagers were engaged in an active conversation with one another while sitting in front of a large movie screen that was playing some promo. They seemed to be arguing about strategy in some computer game. At least, I assumed it was a computer game. I don't play them much, so I don't know. The Store was clearly serving a valuable function as a bridge for these sub-teenage boys, far too old for the kiddie playpen, and yet still much too young to be out in the food court, wadding straw wrappers into spitballs in the usual misguided notion that this is somehow attractive to girls their age. But whatever they were doing, they weren't buying much.

But I could at least look at software. There was a nice program that seemed to deal with managing running footage in a better way than anything I had seen available for free on my PC. So I wandered over to the shelf of software titles and spotted it. $9.99 I read. Great, I thought. Then I noticed that there wasn't a decimal point. The software cost more than I paid for my last computer. More than I've explicitly paid for software (i.e. not counting software that came bundled in machines that I have purchased) in the last five years. Added together. Well, strike that idea.

So the Apple stores were supposed to be going great guns. All I had heard suggested long lines of people waiting patiently to get into the stores. And yet here we were, a few days before Christmas and there was plenty of room at the Inn. At least at this Inn. But then, maybe it was just that we were in Florida. Who would want to be in Florida anyway when there's all that nice cold weather up North?

Apparently I didn't need to rush my order in to beat the queue. I could at least wait until MacWorld to see what was coming. And Apple kept telling me just how wonderful it was going to be. And if I could only wait until Apple World, I'd be able to find out.

And Then Came Jobs

The Net is great for some things. In an earlier age, I wouldn't probably have ever been able to hear the Keynote to MacWorld Expo 2002, much less see it, even if by seeing it I only mean seeing Steve Jobs as an unfunny version of Charlie Chaplin's early cartoon jerkiness, but in color---thus confusing the image.

First, we had the hype. Let's start by looking at Apple's own web site, and its countdown day-by-day to the event. Here's what they said:

  • Full Speed ahead. Lust factor ten.
  • To go where no PC has gone before.
  • It's the backstage pass to the future.
  • Beyond the rumor sites. Way Beyond.
  • Count the days. Count the minutes. Count on being blown away.

So, this makes me ready. Particularly `to go where no PC has gone before'. That's something I really want to see. And I had been reading the rumor sites, and some of the rumors were tantalizing. I really did want some of the things that were being rumored. It almost sounded like fun to be `blown away'.

And then I watched.


The State of the Apple

First, Jobs reviewed the current state of Apple's world.

iPods sold 100k-200k providing something like $50m contribution to Apple's sales. Whether this is good news or not isn't yet clear to me. Rumors on the street put Apple's 4Q sales as pretty much flat. But given that they are rumors, it is hard to know if they are adjusting for iPod sales or not. In the most likely case, if sales are flat and iPods accounted for $50m-$60m of revenue, then that's $50m or so less of computer sales. So while $50m of iPod sales are nice, and a good thing in and of themselves, they may be masking a worsening of Apple's position in their basic marketplace.

Then there are the stores. Jobs is ecstatic about their performance. And I've only been in a couple of them. But the ones I've been in seemed, from a crowd standpoint, eerily reminiscent of the old Computer City stores and all of Texas Instruments' retail `innovations' that always looked like they had many more sales personnel in the store than customers after the first few weeks. And we haven't had time for the chain stores that surround the Apple stores to effect decisions about cutting space devoted to Apples yet. But, Jobs sees the data, and is (presumably) reporting it. I can only see tiny snippets of the history. However, the history I see doesn't square with the reports that come from One Infinite Loop, and this raises some questions. And lowers my confidence in the reported data.

I remain unconvinced that there is much of a role for the retail store in selling undifferentiated computer equipment. So far the tide of history has been flowing in the direction that has swept most of those stores into oblivion. We'll have to get a little history to be sure, but I remain pessimistic.

Then there's OS-X. Is OS-X Unix or isn't it? I am reminded of the pitches I used to get when Unix salesmen were trying to sell my clients on Unix back in the 1970s and 1980s. One would say: Unix is great because there's so much general purpose stuff that you can use available for free. When I'd reply with Well then why should I buy your Unix as opposed to (the equivalent of Debian, SuSE, Mandrake, ... whatever flavor was vogue at that time)? I'd always get: Well our Unix is different, And better. It was always simultaneously `the same' and `different'.

I keep reading apparently knowledgeable Mac folks who claim that OS-X is a giant step backwards, but I don't know enough to evaluate their claims. All I can say is that listening to Jobs keep telling me How good it will be is that I have heard that before in other times and other places. And it was only true a small proportion of the time. So on this one I'll have to wait for the current users to vote with their feet. Hearing it from Jobs neither surprises me nor makes me believe it.

And then there was Remember the Maine. Apparently in a move to make sure that Maine retains its status as largely independent of the rest of the states, Maine will be giving iBooks to all 7th and 8th graders. Somehow this makes me smile. But I'm not quite sure at what. Having spent a major portion of my life in Boston I have always had high regard for the independence of the folks from Maine. I've spent wonderful times in Owls Head, and on Sebago Lake. And Maine has proven, sufficiently to me at least, that you do not need to be on the frontier of technological developments to provide a decent humane life. When I think of Maine, innovation is not the first word that comes to my mind.

In retrospect, I guess Jobs' announcement actually fits well into that picture.

As President Bartlet is fond of saying on "West Wing," What's next?

From the Same Universe?

I must admit. as the rest of the presentation unfolded I began, first, to wonder why the Apple PR mavens could possibly have wanted to be hyping this event. Surely they couldn't have actually wanted any of us who are not part of the Apple-Cult to watch this kind of a presentation.

It all started with some long mostly boring pitches which seemed to me to be saying Windows folks have been doing this for years, now we can do it too! We hear about PhotoShop. We hear about Palm synchronization. Mostly this is surely stuff that has been done, and done pretty well at that, on Windows based systems for years. Is this `going where no PC has gone before?'. I don't think so. Rather it's `going where every PC has already gone'. At best. And mostly a long time ago.

What's next?

Maybe it's iPhoto. Impressive. And free. But I have a few thousand pictures on my PC that I can play around with putting into displays. I send them to my daughter with some regularity. And I've never paid a nickel for any software to fuss with them either. On rare occasions I will roll out something like GIMP---which was also free---to see if I want to get involved in the cropping and correction business, but usually my interest wanes, or some real world problem comes along, and so mostly I content myself with some simple cropping and arrangement. I can't say I feel it leaves me with any terrible problems.

So whatever iPhoto is, and however nice, it doesn't qualify, to me at least, as going where no PC has ever gone before.

What's next?

Maybe it's in the next part of the announcement. iBooks.

What do we have here? As far as I can see, we have some price cuts and a larger screen that finally makes the iBook broadly comparable to Windows notebooks that have been available for the last couple of years. The iBooks are still more limited, with many less options and capabilities and a high price, but now at least they're closer in most dimensions. But, going where no PC has gone before? Not Yet.

What's next?

Maybe we're getting there. Perhaps the new iMac will go where no PC has gone before. I love flat panel screens. How do I know? I've been using one on my PC for the last year or so. Came on the $1,500 system that I mentioned above that I bought a good while ago. So that can't be where no PC has gone before, as I have pretty good evidence that I'm typing on right now that at least my PC has been there and done that.

Maybe it's the arm that connects the PC to the base. That seems to be the focus of lots of the attention of the press. But surely that isn't very different from a couple of lamps that I used to have. I say `used to have' because after one of the arms failed and crashed its lamp into one of my PCs, I retired all of those lamps from my collection. I suppose that doesn't happen to Apple screens. Particularly not if you have a staff of engineers wandering around the office making sure everything is in fine order. However, since I can't afford to have any electronics maintenance staff wandering around my site here in the kitchen, I sure don't want to put my flat panel screen out at the end of a cantilevered arm---if for no other reason than my housekeeper would be almost sure to knock it into something even if it never crashed of its own accord.

So now we're down to the last possible explanation about how this is where no PC has gone before. What Apple's much touted incredibly clever design staff manages to have invented is the non-portable portable. They have taken the portable computer and managed to nail it to the desktop. They've produced a portable, and apparently buried it in a hemispheric glob of cement to make it unportable. Innovation, yes. Good innovation, no. But it makes clear that the PR hype going where no PC has gone before was just a simple misunderstanding. What they meant to say was that this computer can't go where lots of PCs have been going, everyday. Apple has created a portable that isn't portable. And that truly is a first. But not a first that is likely to win any design Oscars. Perhaps it belongs on the shelf next to equivalently clever innovations such as the non-portable suitcase and the iced-tea warmer.

Can these be the guys that designed the Titanium and the Cinema Display? If so someone ought to tell them to get back to their roots. If not, hire them back.

What's next?

Sadly nothing. I couldn't believe it. All of the hype boiled down to:

  • Things are swell in Apple land;
  • The digital hub is complete, at least in Apple's view;
  • Real soon now you'll be able to get some software Windows folks have had for years;
  • The price of iBooks dropped $200 or so, and a passe 14 incher was added to the line;
  • OS-X is swell, just ask the author; and
  • Apple presents the iMac: the Portable with everything except mobility.

I think they could have passed on the hype.

What is the Digital Hub Missing?

Jobs likes to talk about the digital hub. He assures us that somehow iPhoto means that the digital hub is now complete. But is it? Instead of covering the whole digital hub, Apple has managed to create a digital hub with holes. At least for many of the things that are most important to me.

Where is TV? I don't see much mention of it. I got here because I watch a lot of it. It's the digital media that I am most interested in. And digital cable is now pretty much available in most large cities. And TiVo does this already and Microsoft---if you are willing to believe Bill Gates---is well on its way. But we don't hear a word about it from Apple. Masters of the digital universe? Not likely.

Where are CDs? CDs are the most important part of my digital (non-text) store. What about the ability to manage these. At least my Windows machines can talk to my Sony CD Carousel.

Where are CD/DVD Players? I have my favorite few hundred CDs easily playable on a carousel, by computer, through my Windows machines, but I still can't play them as data. I can't pipe them to my Ethernet. Until I can do this, my digital hub is woefully incomplete, and I haven't heard word one from Apple about trying. Or that they even understand this dimension of the problem.

And what I've really wanted to do, for a good long time now, is to use some of my high powered computational capability to do real simple everyday things: talk to my VCR in an even smarter way than TiVo, for example. Imagine, having a log of what's on all of my TV tapes without my needing to enter it all by hand. This isn't really rocket science, and I can do some significant parts of this task using Windows to talk to my Sony Hi-Fi equipment through an S-Link or an A-Link. But apparently this isn't a part of Jobs' view of the `digital hub'. Perhaps he's thinking more of the digital pimple than the digital hub.

So Jobs' digital hub may be complete, but mine isn't. And, if his presentation is any indication, he still doesn't really have a clue about what it is. Maybe some day he'll listen to some member of his staff long enough to finally understand how limited his vision is in this domain. 

But, given his history, I doubt it. Jobs may be good at lots of things. But I haven't heard any claims that `good listener' is among them

Back on the Shelf

So any notions I had of getting an Apple are going back on the shelf. at least for another cycle.

I had hoped that Apple might be tackling the problem of all of the cable that I have wandering around my house tying all of my Windows machines to one another. And that they might want to help me deal with my real digital world of CDs, digital TV, phones, photos,  MP3s. I had hoped that they would focus on my digital world. You know, the one that combines my home and my workplace and all the travel in between. The one that combines my work and my pleasure. That recognizes that my schedules, logs, pictures, notes, documents, papers, songs, gps, movies, ,,, that are all a part of my digital universe. Every day, my Windows systems get better at doing more and more part of these things. I hoped Apple, given the beauty of its former designs, might recognize that.

But they're not doing this yet. And will they still be around in time enough to do so? I guess they will, but at the moment it seems to me that every day they are worse off with respect to the rest of the computational world, not better off.

I finally `Get It'

Apple eaters are aliens, educated by George Orwell. After listening to Jobs, and reading countless ecstatic reports by Apple eaters about how wonderful his keynote was, I know that they aren't from my universe. Clearly they have borrowed post-presciently from 1984 in concluding that:

  • A portable that's made non-portable is a design triumph.
  • Dropping prices from bizarre down to merely substantially more expensive than a Windows or Linux machine is an economic innovation.
  • The arrival of software that has been on Windows for years is a great step forward.

You figure it.

I can't.

And you remember the old one about the easiest way to create a `Billion Dollar Computer Company'?

[Ans: Start with an Eight Billion Dollar Computer Company].


David Ness' summary of work can be found at http://mywebpages.comcast.net/dness