Steve Jobs, Apple’s $1-a-year CEO (not including the 10 million shares and
$90 million corporate jet that the grateful board gave him for turning the company
around) excelled himself in showmanship yesterday. He was giving his annual
keynote address, which everybody expected to be pretty boring, and after an
hour and a half the most exciting announcement was that Apple had developed
a new web browser.
Safari, for that’s what it’s called,
isn’t, it turns out, all that exciting after all: once the übergeeks at
Mac OS Rumors got their hands on it,
they rapidly decided they were going to stick with Chimera.
Personally, I hate the "user-friendly" bookmarks system. And the name’s
silly, too: surely Jaguar should run in Safari, rather than the other way around?
But then, just when everybody thought Jobs was running out of time, he announced
the arrival of his new baby: the 17"
PowerBook. Immediately, every Mac lover in the world wanted one. It’s bigger
and faster and thinner and sexier than anything else in the world, and Jobs
kept on piling on the added extras. FireWire 800, Airport Extreme (with a vastly
improved base station retailing at $100 less than the old cost), Bluetooth,
even a glow-in-the-dark keyboard – the Apple faithful were lapping it
It’s the sort of announcement which makes you immediately forget all the sensible
advice along the lines of "if all you’re going to do is X, then you don’t
need Y, you only really need Z". Just before Christmas, for instance, Walter
Mossberg wrote a column
While tweaking every last bit of speed out of a PC may matter for techies
and heavy game players and people doing things like professional video or
audio production, it doesn’t make sense for average consumers doing typical
tasks. You won’t be able to type, or print or surf the Web any faster with
a bunch of technically faster components in your PC.
The biggest jargon scam involves the speed of the processor chips that drive
PCs — Intel’s Pentium 4 and its competitors. The most prominent number in
many computer ads is the processor clock speed — 2.0 Gigahertz, or 2.53 or
whatever. But this doesn’t really translate into improved performance for
the user, especially for mainstream users whose typical PC tasks wouldn’t
tax the capabilities of far slower processors. If you’re doing e-mail, Web
surfing, digital-music playback, simple photo work, word processing and other
office-type tasks, a 2.53 GHz processor won’t make those things noticeably
better or faster than, say, a 1.5 GHz processor.
What Mossberg wrote about PCs goes for Apples as well, although Apple’s architecture
means that a 2GHz Intel processor could be slower than a 1Ghz Apple chip.
But Apples have always been luxuries, rather than necessities: it’s always
been possible to get a Wintel machine which basically has the same functionality
(but with less beauty and less user-friendliness) for less money. And given
how much time most of us spend at our computers, these particular luxuries are,
in my opinion, well worth it. It’s a bit like the way in which even relatively
low-paid people will shell out quite a lot for their spectacles: they wear them
every day, they create the face they present to the rest of the world, and so
it’s important to get it right. Similarly, people feel better when
they’re sitting using OS X than they do in front of Windows.
And what the 17" PowerBook offers is something even frugal PC users have
been wanting for a long time now: a huge, flat screen. Even when you look at
desktop computers, consumers in general have been pushing hard for flat screens
in general and large flat screens specifically. While the ratio of laptops to
desktops remains about 1:2, flat-screen systems in general (including laptops)
have already overtaken systems with big and clunky old-fashioned monitors. And
with its 1440×900 screen, the new Apple screen shows almost three times as much
information as an old-fashioned 800×600 screen.
With a nice wide screen like that, you can set up a whole new way of working
in side-by-side windows, rather than having to switch back and forth the whole
time. And there are obvious advantages for anybody who ever does desktop publishing
or any kind of video editing, where you want to be able to see two TV-shaped
screens next to each other, or a whole magazine spread.
So I think that Paul Boutin, in Slate, was being a bit rude when he called
Apple’s new beauty an iSUV, "half computer and half Cadillac Escalade".
He’s right that gigabit data jacks are a little bit on the over-specced side
for the vast majority of users, at least for the time being. But the first rule
of computers is that they always go out of date, and anybody who’s still dealing
with an external USB hard drive knows what it’s like to feel that it just takes
far too long to transfer large amounts of information.
Boutin says that "Among the rows of jaded industry journalists at Jobs’
feet, two things were obvious: Nobody, but nobody, really needs this computer.
And everybody wants one." The second thing is certainly true. But I’m not
sure about the first. This computer could be the first laptop which is good
enough to replace a desktop machine at, say, video or magazine production companies.
It has the new Airport Extreme built in, which means that a single $199 base
station could service a whole office, with people being able to move around
to wherever they’re needed, without being stuck at a desk. And the distinction
between a desktop at work and a laptop for travelling would be lost: you’d just
use the same machine for everything. And any time you needed a truly
ultra-fabulous screen, you’d just plug it in. (With those screens costing
$3500 a pop, going laptop could actually save money: rather than buying a screen
for everyone who ever needs one, you only need as many screens as will be needed
at any given time.)
It’s important to remember that $3300 is not much money in a corporate context,
where the annual cost of supporting computers nearly always exceeds the sticker
price on the machines themselves. You’d need to buy 30 of the new PowerBooks
just to reach the $100,000 that a single tech-support person easily costs.
The computer which genuinely "nobody, but nobody, really needs" is
not the new 17" PowerBook but its little brother, the 12"
PowerBook. This bizarre little computer is basically a slimmed-down 12"
iBook with an imperceptibly faster
chip, a shiny metal casing, and a slightly bigger hard drive. The screen is
exactly the same, 1024×768.
I can see why the PowerBook is better than the iBook, but I can’t see why it’s
80% better: the price of the new, small, PowerBook, is $1800, compared to $1000
for the iBook. (OK, the iBook costs $1300 if you want the same CD-burning drive
that’s in the PowerBook, but that’s still a $500 savings.) The natty gadgets
in the 17" PowerBook are mostly absent: there’s no Airport Extreme card,
no FireWire 800, no backlit keyboard. And in terms of weight, the newer model
saves a whopping 100 grammes: it’s 2.1kg, compared to 2.2kg for the 12"
And for the sake of being able to launch this utterly pointless computer, Apple
wasted acres of space on its lovely new 17" PowerBook. Believe it or not,
the keyboard on the two machines is exactly the same size: Apple’s gone and
put huge stereo speakers on the 17" model where it could have had a desktop-style
extended keyboard, complete with number pad, forward-delete key, and all the
other things those of us who used to have desktops miss when we move to a laptop.
But I’m sure that Apple’s not counting on the 12" PowerBook to drive its
sales of notebooks in 2003. It’s the big one which everyone wants, and I have
a feeling that a lot of people will somehow be able to persuade themselves to
buy it. Hell, it’s only 6% of the price of that Cadillac Escalade.