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An irrational affection for Apple products. Often characterized by intense defensiveness at any criticism of Apple or their products. Often accompanied by a slavish attentiveness to any pearls of wisdom that drip from the elevated snouts of Steve Jobs (for ordinary users) or Bruce Tognazzini (for designers and wannabe UI experts). [See "Googlism"]

iPhone as Thin Client

The iPhone is the partial realization of the web-based thin client dream. In typical Apple fashion, though, they've gone just far enough to make money, and not so far that it might actually enable people to communicate more freely. They could have done that, but it would have meant leaving consumers' money on the table.

Apple's recent commercial makes this abundantly clear. In it, a user watches a clip of the Kraken from Pirates II, has a craving for calamari, and rotates his iPhone 90 degrees to search out seafood restaurants in his area.

Aside from the gee-whiz UI tricks that his iPhone enables, he's basically doing a Google Maps search. In fact it looks a lot like screenshots I've seen of Zimbra Zimlets for geo-locating addresses in the Zimbra web client. Nifty stuff. But there's no particular reason that it couldn't (or won't) be done on other phones. Hell, it's probably done on other phones now, if you want to pay for the service.

Which brings me to the Palm Foleo. I hadn't heard of the Foleo before Charlie Stross wrote an analysis explaining just why he didn't think it was such a terrible idea. Basically, after looking at the fact that it's really completely independent of phones in every important way, and can connect to WiFi networks all on its own, he thinks that it was intended to be a Web 2.0 terminal. A thin client, as we used to say back when everybody who thought things through thought that was a bad idea for a business plan. Things have changed, now, though: Broadband really is ubiquitous, if you're willing to pay for the access, and good quality high-resolution displays and mass storage are cheap, and battery technology is improving radically, so that the phone and its proprietary network have to do less and less that's customized.

So the iPhone (and any other post-Blackberry phone that wants to be successful) is really a Web 2.0 Terminal. Sometimes they'll have cached data, but by and large they'll do everything they can through the airwaves. The differentiator will be in the user interface.

Apple understands that, of course. They have a late-mover advantage in this field, in that Nokia, Samsung, Symbian, MS, et al. have been so focused on solving the UI problem under now-outmoded constraints that they're having a hard time getting used to the freedom of new user interaction hardware.

It still comes down to paying for service, of course -- unless you're on WiFi, and can attach to the myriad of free nodes that are finally becoming common in our urban landscape. Like you can with the Foleo, or any one of a half dozen (non-Verizon) smart-phones I looked at earlier this week.

But not on an iPhone. You need the extra service to do that on an iPhone.

If there's one thing Apple never forgets to design in, it's making you pay.

Triumph of the Mundane

I have seen the infamous "Hilary 1984" video, and I am profoundly unimpressed. Presumably the creator thought he was doing something profound, or clever, or both, but he's not really saying anything to anybody who hasn't already swallowed the "Hilary is the Anti-Christ" koolaid. Are we supposed to see Hilary Clinton as as "Big Sister"? Are we supposed to hear her words as Newspeak, just because we seem them juxtaposed with elements from Ridley Scott's bombastic vision-for-hire?

To cut to the chase: Does something become profound as soon as you mash it up with sacred (or at least iconic) (commercial) content? Ridley Scott rubbing off on Phil De Vellis, just by virtue of De Vellis getting his grubby mitts on Scott's footage?

My first feeling on viewing the mashup was disgust. I'm not quite the farthest thing from a Hilary Clinton supporter, but I'm not far off from that. She's more or less unelectable, as far as I'm concerned, and I do strongly suspect that she's got some control issues, as the therapists like to put it.

But this is just sophomoric. If I were Barack Obama, I'd be embarrassed to have supporters like that. Good thing I'm not Barack Obama, of course, because to get elected he's going to need a lot of supporters like that, and he can't afford to let them know they embarrass him...

My second thought was that you could pretty effectively cut the legs out from under Phil De Vellis's juvenile pseudo-intellectualism by just taking the same bombastic content and splicing in somebody else. Like, oh, I don't know, maybe...Barack Obama?

And so now I see that I'm not the only person who finds the whole thing kind of silly and puerile. Though honestly, I had something more like Everybody Loves Raymond in mind. That might actually border on profound.

The Megalomaniacal Mac

When you start certain Apple applications (such as iTunes and Safari), they check to see if they have a shortcut in the Dock. If they don't, they automatically make one. If Microsoft did that, it would be regarded as incredibly rude; if Apple does it, it's "friendly."

Similarly, the Finder comes configured by default to favor Apple applications, like iLife, iTunes, and FinalCut, by virtue of the fact that it defaults to creating "libraries" of media types that are tailored to those applications.

In case the rationale isn't clear: iTunes makes Apple money. Wherever there is a way to "monetize" the uses to which a personal computer is put, Apple will take every opportunity to put themselves in the front of the queue. iPhoto has hooks to pay services; FinalCut is an expensive piece of software that Apple hopes to sell as an upgrade to home-videographers; and iTunes, of course, is making millions of dollars for Apple by linking Mac users directly to the Apple music store.

So why is it again that people see Microsoft as megalomaniacal, but don't see Apple that way?

The Masonic Mac

Some design-geek at Frog Design thinks that iPods are "universally" described as "clean" because the iPod "references bathroom materials." It's kind of a silly little think-piece, not least in that it makes a point and then throws out a lot of unrelated arguement in an attempt to hide the fact that it doesn't really make much of a case for what might otherwise be an interesting assertion. But that's not what I'm writing about.

A comment in-thread lead me to this insight: Being a "Mac Person" is a little like being a mason.

Which is to say, to be a "Mac Person" is to feel that you belong to something, while at the same time feeling yourself to be different from other (lesser) people. If you belong to a secret society of some kind, you feel both privileged to belong, and empowered by your connection to that society.

Membership in the secret society comes with a cost: Dues, expenses for robes or other paraphernalia (as Stetson Kennedy wrote in his book about infiltrating the Klan), and any opportunity cost associated with providing expected assistance to other members. Any extra costs are obviously assumed to be at least offset by benefits, by "believers" in the secret society. Those costs are their "dues"; they're what they pay for the privilege of being made special by the organization.

Committing to the Apple Way has similar costs: Software is more expensive and less plentiful; hardware is often proprietary (as with iPod peripherals), or hardware options more limited (if you don't believe it, try to buy a webcam off the shelf at a mainstream store); software conventions are different, and require retraining. Apple users (rationally) presume there to be offsetting benefits, typically cast in terms of usability. My own experience using and supporting Macs tells me that those benefits are illusory, but that's beside the point: Mac users assume them to exist, and act on that assumption.

But they also gain a sense of superiority from it, and they get that reinforced every time they pay more for something, every time they have a document interchange problem with a Windows-using compatriot, every time have a problem figuring out what to do when they sit down at a non-Mac microcomputer.

The extra cost is understood as an investment. They are paying dues. Being a Mac Person is, in that way, a little like being a Mason. Or at least, a little like what we might imagine it's like to be a Mason, since most of us have never actually met one.

The Not-So-Hidden Truth About The iPod Shuffle

I'm not sure what's radical about the iPod Shuffle. OK, I'm lying, I know what's "radical" about it, and that's nothing: It has exactly two things that haven't appeared in previous flash-based players, and lacks a lot of things that have. Even in those two things, it breaks no new ground, since they're both attributes of the leading high-capcity product: It comes from Apple, and it integrates with iTunes. ("The Future Is Random"?!)

Those two little non-revolutionary things (Being Apple and Being [Of] iTunes) are pretty important. And the impact of the Shuffle doesn't lie within whether it's actually new or not, or even whether it's actually any good. The impact lies in how it serves to expand the iPod halo.

The random shuffle feature is nothing new -- I can do that on my iRiver. Neither is the integrated USB A-plug (I own a Virgin player, currently on permanent loan to a friend, that has a better-designed implementation of that). Recharging off the USB bus? It's been done. And though I don't troll the flash-player market, I'd be surprised to find it hadn't already all been done in the same player.

Even the "radical" step of "eliminat[ing] the user interface altogether" [sic] has been done before: There have been plenty of flash-based players that eschewed a song title display. Though usually, players that do that are actually cheaper than their competitors, instead of more expensive. But I digress.

As for what it lacks: An FM tuner, and a display. FM tuners have become big differentiators in the flash-player market in recent years; it happened because the circuitry to make them suddenly became really cheap, and not as such because of demand -- a matter of capacity converging with sub-rasa desire, as it were. But I digress, again: Apple apparently doesn't think that matters, and I think I know why. They're planning to horn in on the ground floor with Satellite Radio integration into the Digital Media Center. (Mark this, that's their real next target. The micro-workstation market will expand under its own steam for a while; the next strategic play is getting XM Radio into the iPod Halo.) How they accomplish this is yet to be determined; as iTunes grows, they're increasingly integrated into the DRM fold, and it's a mistake to think that "Rip, Mix, Burn" was any more than a marketing strategy.

I can virtually guarantee that I will never own an iPod Shuffle. But it's important. And by all the accouts I've read so far, it was done contrary to Jobs's better judgement. But again, I digress....

[sic]: Memo to David Pogue at the NYT: Buttons are a user interface.

Convergence through Desire, Redux

How can I remark on digital convergence without remarking on the forthcoming "headless iMac"?

More to the point, what the hell does a "headless Mac" have to do with digital convergence?

I'll explain. Gizmodo facilitated leaking a bunch of really convincing (to me) product unpacking shots of a device called "iHome", which has a buttload of ports on the back and a CD-ROM slot on the front. Alas, there's lots of smoke and steam on the Apple rumor forums to the effect that these must be fake, because the box is just so ugly. Apple's legendary industrial design staff surely couldn't have produced something so "fugly". (Um...right. Something about this presentation really offends Mac-heads, as is clear from the Engadget comments, but I'm not sure what.) But consider that any box unveiled now is most likely not a production version, and might well be camoflaged the way Detroit camoflages their long-range test models.

Be that as it may, and leaving aside the authenticity of the photos, the name would tell us volumes about how Apple sees the market-positioning of this device, and I belive they do not see it the way that 'Bob Cringely' sees it:

.... The price for that box is supposed to be $499, which would give customers a box with processor, disk, memory, and OS into which you plug your current display, keyboard, and mouse. Given that this sounds a lot like AMD's new Personal Internet Communicator, which will sell for $185, there is probably plenty of profit left for Apple in a $499 price. But what if they priced it at $399 or even $349? Now make it $249, where I calculate they'd be losing $100 per unit. At $100 per unit, how many little Macs could they sell if Jobs is willing to spend $1 billion? TEN MILLION and Apple suddenly becomes the world's number one PC company. Think of it as a non-mobile iPod with computing capability. Think of the music sales it could spawn. Think of the iPod sales it would hurt (zero, because of the lack of mobility). Think of the more expensive Mac sales it would hurt (zero, because a Mac loyalist would only be interested in using this box as an EXTRA computer they would otherwise not have bought). Think of the extra application sales it would generate and especially the OS upgrade sales, which alone could pay back that $100. Think of the impact it would have on Windows sales (minus 10 million units). And if it doesn't work, Steve will still have $5 billion in cash with no measurable negative impact on the company. I think he'll do it.

I see it different[ly].

Nobody's talking yet about what the iHome actually does have. Rumors abound, and they mostly assume it's basically an iBook without a display. I don't buy it.

The very name of the device indicates to me that iHome is not intended to be used as a general purpose computer in any really sophisticated way. It's intended as a media hub, and any other functions it fulfills are incidental, and what's more, Apple won't be enthusiastic about helping it fulfill those other uses: It will most likely be a mediocre platform for applications work. It will be somewhat more than a set-top box, only because it would cost more to dumb it down. (If I'm proven wrong, I'll certainly be taking a look at iHomes for my own use, but I don't think I'm wrong here. We'll see in a few days.)

I think it will be somehow substantially crippled, and I think I know how: It will have limited display capability, ouputting by S-Video and composite only (and the latter through an extra-cost converter from S-Video); and it will not have expandable RAM. Both decisions will be defended on the basis of price, but they'll really have been taken to prevent cannibalizing iBook, iMac and eMac sales. By the way, I essentially agree with Cringely's analysis of the market impact of a fully-capable and cheap iHome, but I think he's applying a much too rational (and charitable) thought process to Apple's senior management.

I think Jobs doesn't know what to do with iTunes. It's a juggernaut he doesn't know how to stop; it's prompting people at his company to actually think about ideas that could shake up the personal computing marketplace, like, say, a genuinely cheap computer with a powerful OS and operating environment. Baseline Macs are built with remarkably inexpensive electronic components: Many still use relatively slow and old versions of the PowerPC chip (the "G4" generation), which by virtue of their vintage are dirt cheap; the "G5" models mostly use relatively slow versions of that chip, and below the most expensive levels, they all use graphics subsystems that are last year's news on PCs. Macs are cheap, cheap, cheap to build. And yet, they're hideously expensive on a bang:buck basis.

If Jobs wanted to really go big, he could have done it years ago. Opportunities like the one that Cringely describes are always there for Apple, all the time. And they never take them. Why? The only answer that's compelling to me is that Steve Jobs does not want Apple to be successful, because that would mean that Apple was no longer about him. Sure, the cult of personality would flourish for a while, but I think he understands that part of his bizarre public loveability is the fact that his exposure is limited. He'll never be as much of a self-charicature as Steve Ballmer or Larry Ellison, but the tarnish would settle pretty quickly and Apple would quickly become beset by the woes of any company that moves beyond a customer base comprised primarily of true believers.

So Cringely's right, I think, about the opportunity, and he's right about what iHome is, but I think he's wrong about what Apple will do with it. And though I predict that Jobs will be accused of not taking these steps out of greed, I think his motivation will be darker: Ego. Though I suppose the Dark Steve's flavor of ego could be cast as a kind of greed....

Apple's DNA Is Mystique

Why does anyone still trust Apple? I suppose it could just be that they don't pay attention. Maybe it's that they love a bully, especially when the bully speaks and looks so fair. Apple is one of the great counter-arguments to the wisdom of the Cluetrain: They keep their customers in the dark and feed them nothing but cheap wine and communal wafers, and yet they're worshipped for it.

Last week, ThinkSecret fronted a rumor that Apple would be announcing a sub-$500 "headless" Macintosh at Macworld Expo on 1/11. They also slipped in a mention, which I somehow missed, that Apple was working on an office suite to compete with MS-Office for OS X.

So, naturally, Apple is sueing them [via Gizmodo]. Said ThinkSecret was revealing "trade secrets". Seem to think that the stuff ThinkSecret is putting up on their website might somehow cause Apple harm. For example, maybe Microsoft doesn't already suspect that Apple is canoodling with KDE to produce an OS X customized fork of KOffice. (KDE are already got the whole suite working natively under Aqua.) Maybe now that Microsoft knows, they'll conjure some nefarious plot to destroy Apple once and for all. Or not.

And as though suing ThinkSecret didn't just confirm at least one of the rumors.

Now, if the Cluetrain Manifesto told the whole story, Apple would be toast thanks to hijinks like these. Their hardware is expensive and slow, the software is more expensive and there's less of it. And on top of that, they treat their customers like marks to be manipulated and jerked around. On the other hand, Apple products come in whatever color you want. As long as it's white.

Friends and acquaintences know that I've considered buying a Mac for a while now, so I can move away from Windows while still having access to high-quality design and graphics tools like PageMaker and Flash. Much as I love the idea of scoring a slightly used PowerBook, a $599 desktop Mac would be a nearly ideal solution. But the Dark Steve just keeps making it hard for me to switch. At least Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer don't pass themselves off as nice guys.

Whence this mania for secrecy stems, I could only speculate. It's apparently new since Jobs rejoined in the late 90s, and since Apple more or less exists for the sole purpose of making Steve Jobs feel like a big man, my first guess would be that it sources back to him. In any case, it's a brilliant piece of crazy-making. They have to grok very deeply that their true believers will love them even more for this, and that once a convert has drunk their koolaid, going over to Windows is unthinkable. (Why, that would mean feeling uncool....)

The Tao of Steve

Apple has really "invented" very little. The original insight of locking the menu bar to the top of the screen was pretty clever (for a 9-inch screen, that is). Beyond that, their insights are mostly matters of culture and marketing. The concept of a toolbox wasn't new, nor were most aspects of their GUI. The user-interaction models they deployed (badly, some have argued) were based on years of academic research.

Often, they simply borrowed, though it's hard to know where ideas came from in a millieu where memes were traded freely across the Mac-Unix barrier. But their best, most successful ideas were successful because they were deployed in just the right way and in just the right place.

Steve Jobs is not an innovator. Much like Bill Gates, he is a close follower. He is better than Gates at looking cool, and better at moving quickly (probably a result of actually having worked for more than one company in his life). And through Pixar and his "rescue" of Apple from the demon Scully, he has gained financial credibility. Now his ideas are taken seriously; had Rob Glaser tried to launch the iPod, with exactly the same price points and functionality, it would have failed.

Apple is driven by the cult of personality. It exists, at a certain level, to make Steve Jobs feel good about himself. That's why he resisted releasing a Windows version of iTunes. That's why he's resisted moves that could take Apple "mainstream", such as releasing an Intel version of OS X. As long as the pond stays small, he can look bigger in it.

For whatever reason, The Jobs-cult never intoxicated the herd of cats at Pixar; but the minions of Apple, already indoctrinated to the twin virtues of denial, were open to the effects of his reality distortion field. I think this is illustrative: Pixar is driven by creative vision, and like most true creatives, its own visionaries have a healthy distrust for "suits".

And ultimately, Jobs is a suit. A well-dressed suit with cool toys, yes; but a suit nonetheless.

Look for him to sabotage Apple's new-found dominance. Look especially for him to sabotage his latest foster-child, the iPod. (Sure, the world doesn't know he didn't invent it. But he does.) My quess is that it will be sacrified to smaller, cooler devices whose capabilities are expanded only with great reluctance, and behind the curve of other devices. Let someone else break the ground.

Sometimes "Creativity" is Knowing What to Steal

Forrest Gump's fruit company has gained a soaring reputation for creativity and innovation in design -- despite gripes over the years from usability experts and a series of industrial-design failures. Their reputation has always seemed to me to be driven by two maxims:

  1. Never admit you didn't invent something. (Unless it fails.)
  2. Never admit you made a mistake.

As examples of the latter, Apple clings stubbornly to the "top-menu" UI design that they originally deployed to accommodate the 9-inch screen on the original Lisa, despite the fact that it's demonstrably awful for large screens and rich multi-tasking environments. Similarly, they insist on the elegance and simplicity of the single-button mouse, ignoring the clumsy workarounds (delayed-reaction onClick, keyboard combinations to emulate scroll-wheels) required for a Mac user to accomplish what two-button and scroll-wheel mouse users on Windows/*nix have been able to accomplish for years.

But it's the former that really interests me today, as I run across a Wired "Cult of Mac blog" article unmasking the long lost father of the iPod. Fadell is said to have come to Apple with the core idea -- a ground-up, risk-managed, high-design hard-drive based MP3 player that could integrate with an online music service. But then, maybe not: "One source who talked but asked not to be named, cautioned that Fadell's story should be treated with skepticism. The source noted that the hard part of the iPod -- the device's interface and integration with iTunes -- was done by Apple's engineers."

But then, the slap-down could be an Apple source, sticking steadfastly to the vision of the Dark Steve: "Since Mr. Jobs returned to Apple, he has increasingly insisted that the company speak with just the voices of top executives, so Mr. Fadell was not permitted to comment for this article." Of course, that's another story...

Or it could be that old developers inferiority complex rearing its ugly head. Saturated as most skilled developers are in the mistique of the "hacker ethos", they respond to the fact that they depend on the grace of inferiors for their paychecks with subversive ideations: They do all the really hard work; marketing and business wonks are leeches, sucking their life essence in pursuit of outrageous personal profit and corporate mediocrity; if the developers had their way, the products would all make sense and work better. (Which is just about never true, despite superficially contradictory examples.)

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