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Apple Fritters

This is a paper I wrote on Tuesday, January 8, 2002. It describes some thoughts that are the result of things presented particularly in Steve Jobs' keynote speech at MacWorld Expo 2002.

Apple Fritters MacWorlds are much hyped events. They also produce a wide variance in response, with Apple loyalists and sales people often in the throes of ecstasy, while others respond with a giant `huh?'
A Funny Thing Happened ... A Funny Thing Happened ...... on the way to MacWorld Expo 2002. Apple invented the Unportable.
Watching TV: 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.
A 40 hr week: 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.
Summary This is a little less true than it was when it was written. It looks to me like `Pyramid' uses Sony Vaios, and Dells have shown up a little more frequently as well. There's even a major network show that uses SGI machines. Whatever the case, most machines are still Apples. It is also interesting to note that iMacs haven't shown up much, even given their `innovative' design. The Macs which do show up are Apple Cinema Screens and Titanium Notebooks, although one still sees occasional
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?
A Few Billion: 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.
Old Stores: 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.
It Hertz: 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.
It's the Money: 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.
Benchmark: 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.
Plenty of Room at the Inn: 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.
The Software: 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.
Rumors vs. Facts: 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?
Summary This remains an inconsistency. Apple apologists always talk about the crowds that appear at the stores. Yet every time I visit a store it is nearly empty. Something just doesn't square. I've visited about a dozen stores, scattered all across the country, and all with pretty consistent results, so it can't be a difference in location. I have visited stores at what I would expect to be high volume periods, so that shouldn't be it either. I am suspicious that it is just hype on the part of the Apple PR machine, but that may be overly unkind.
Beating the Queue: 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 MacWorld, 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.
The Hype: 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.
I'm Ready: 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'.
Still ...: And then I watched.
Ouch: Ouch.
The State of the Apple First, Jobs reviewed the current state of Apple's world.
iPods: 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.
Stores: 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.
OS-X: 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'.
Maine: 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.
Summary The Times ran an article claiming success for the Maine experiment, but this was quickly challenged by several web postings that suggested the data that formed the basis for the article was unbleievably thin. These responses again make one worry about the PR-hype that may be involved. In any case, until some good hard data shows up it would probably be best not to jump to a conclusion in either direction.
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.
Following Windows: 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?

iPhoto: 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.
iBooks: Maybe it's in the next part of the announcement. iBooks.
iMAC: 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.
Summary After early adopters bought their Macs, interest in the iMac seems to have declined precipitously. By the time we get to MacWorld 2003, not much is being made of how innovative and clever the design is. And iMacs are more than just available. They are actually cluttering some stores, while production of new machines has dramatically declined. All-in-all it seems to be a design that failed.
No There, there: 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. Bust 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?: 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?: 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 ae CD/DVDs?: 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.
Summary Rather remarkably little has been done with `The Hub' over the time since the MacWorld 2002. There doesn't seem to be any particularly new genre of equipment, and nothing new and/or interesting has developed along this line.
What I need: 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.
Back on the Shelf So any notions I had of getting an Apple are going back on the shelf. at least for another cycle.
Cable?: 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.
Summary The various inconsistencies and stories all cumulate to a concern that what Apple principally has to offer is good PR. This would seem to be the simplest explanation for the apparent discrepancies betwseen what has been observed and what Apple seems to claim.
Summary And now we've passed through MacWorld 2003. And it's been a disappointing year for Apple. Their much hyped `Switch' advertising campaign has apparently been abandoned in favor of a much funnier---but content free---campaign that involves a basketball player taking a plane flight.

New machines ananounced at this year's MacWorld were startlingly boring. The iMac was virtually unmentioned, and except for some price cuts in some of the flat panels, the only announcement of note was some different sized Titanium portables. I found, over time, that the size of my portable screen ended up being determined by my willingness to carry them, not by their availability. I used to carry a 15.5inch portable, but now am happier with a 12.5inch, as it is much easier and lighter. For portability purposes, I woundn't want a 17inch screen, so it is unclear to me how well this will sell. But time will tell.

The Joke And you remember the old one about the easiest way to create a `Billion Dollar Computer Company'?
Answer [Ans: Start with an Eight Billion Dollar Computer Company].
Summary Today it's a $5.3 Billion Dollar Company, so about $3b has disappeared somewhere. It's been an expensive year.

© Copyright 2003 David Ness.
Last update: 2003-03-16 01:13:58 EST