Apple’s new objects of desire

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

saying that

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.

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2 Responses to Apple’s new objects of desire

  1. Stefan says:

    Much as I’d like a number pad on my 17 inch PowerBook, i prefer to have the space bar in the middle rather than left of center.

  2. Charles says:

    Great review on the new powerbooks. The tiny keyboard is an obvious dissapointment, but it’s the quality of that big 17″ screen that prevents me from rushing out to buy.

    It has the same specs as the 17″ iMac display which, at 1440×900 is very weak. There’s a Sony 16″ display laptop with 1600×1200 resolution, which is way way better. Given that the 17″ screen powerbook will appeal most to creative types used to working on much larger desktop monitors, why has Apple compromised so much on the display quality?

    I was initially very excited about the new 17″ powerbook, but now I wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to wait for the updated version, and hope they get it right.

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