Can Innovation Become Business As Usual?
In last week’s Macworld Expo keynote, Steve Jobs walked on stage and, wasting no time on reviewing Apple’s corporate position, launched into a long keynote address that was almost entirely full of new hardware announcements. The releases started with the new Apple Pro Mouse and Apple Pro Keyboard, continued with new iMacs and multi-processor Power Mac G4s, and finished with the elegantly designed Power Mac G4 Cube and a trio of new monitors. Sprinkled in the middle were a quick address by Adobe’s president, a demo from Microsoft’s Kevin Browne of Office 2001’s Macintosh-only features (due in October), confirmation from Alex Seropian that Microsoft’s recently acquired Bungie Division will release Halo for the Macintosh, and a brief announcement that Apple and Microsoft are working together to bring all of Microsoft’s games to the Mac. Jobs also lingered over his demo of iMovie 2, showing proficiency with the software, and breezed through some minor updates to the HomePage part of iTools (though he passed over the much improved and expanded iReview, which now includes a review of TidBITS – if you have a moment, we’d appreciate additional reader reviews).
Apple Continues to Execute — Apple’s barrage of new product announcements set the tone for the rest of Macworld Expo, which can be best summed up with a single word: businesslike. Since Jobs took the helm at Apple, he has led the company through a recovery spearheaded by the release of the iMac and a solidification marked by the completion of the four-box product matrix plus 11 consecutive quarterly profits. It’s clear that Apple is once again healthy, but when you’re Apple Computer, corporate health means continuing to push the envelope at all times. Although Apple’s product announcements weren’t revolutionary on a superficial level, some of them stack up better when viewed in more depth. For instance, the inclusion of the new optical mouse with all Mac models, putting gigabit Ethernet onto the motherboard of the Power Mac G4s by default, and dropping a second PowerPC G4 processor onto the motherboards of the top two Power Mac G4 models (without increasing prices) all raise the bar as to what is generally considered standard equipment. Apple isn’t interested in entering a futile price war with PC manufacturers, but by beefing up the standard Macintosh, Apple can significantly close the gap with comparably outfitted PCs.
Innovate with Elegance — Also worth a closer look are the Power Mac G4 Cube and, to a lesser extent, the new monitors. The monitors are interesting mainly for their new cable, which reduces desktop clutter by combining video, USB, and power. It’s easy to dismiss this cable as yet another of Apple’s wacky custom cables, but I think we’ll see this cable remain standardized across all desktop Macs that connect to monitors for one simple reason: elegance. Cable nests are one of the most inelegant physical aspects of computers, and under Jobs Apple has pushed to reduce and eliminate cabling with the AirPort wireless networking, by switching to flexible technologies like USB and FireWire that support daisy chaining of different device types, and now with this combination monitor cable. If you’re trying to set new industrial design standards with your hardware, it only makes sense to address cabling at the same time.
Viewed in terms of specs and price, the Power Mac G4 Cube is by no means revolutionary and isn’t even all that interesting, since it costs more than comparable Power Mac G4s and lacks expansion slots (those who want multiple monitors may have to try to justify buying a $4,000 22-inch Cinema Display to compensate). But Jobs’s stroke of genius two years ago was to rephrase the computer buying decision in terms of design and color in favor of specs and price. The G4 Cube takes this design aesthetic to new levels, reducing the size of the computer to the point where it can easily fit on a desk, eliminating the fan to reduce noise. It also builds in slick features: for instance, according to an Apple rep on the show floor, the top-mounted power switch is a proximity sensor that replaces the physical relay generally used to turn on the computer.
Apple didn’t sacrifice functionality for form either, making it easy to access the parts of the G4 Cube that are expandable merely by removing it from its convection tower. And though Apple clearly meant the unit to sit in full view, Chris Kilbourn of Mac-centric Web hosting provider digital.forest (a TidBITS sponsor) said that he wanted to see how the G4 Cubes would fit into a server rack mount, since they pack such power into a small space. I could imagine a fan-cooled "pegboard" into which you could place multiple G4 Cubes, with the pegboard providing USB and monitor switching to a shared keyboard, mouse, and display.
When Jobs showed the new product matrix, the G4 Cube took its place between the iMac and the Power Mac G4. The position is accurate in multiple ways, since there are numerous iMac buyers who would have wanted a larger screen or smaller unit, and some people who went for the full Power Mac G4 dislike its size and consider the PCI slots a waste of space. The G4 Cube may be more expensive now because of all the work necessary to reduce its size, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple readjust pricing over time to slot the G4 Cube more squarely between the iMac and Power Mac G4 lines. I expect the G4 Cube to be a success.
Future Product Speculation — In adding the G4 Cube to the product matrix, Jobs cleverly opened up a slot between the iBook and PowerBook G3 in the portable arena. He glossed over it quickly in the keynote, but the fact that he didn’t just expand the desktop part of the matrix was a sneaky way to fuel speculation and anticipation for the machine to occupy that box. Although it’s hard to separate desire from logic, my bet is that we’re looking at some sort of a subnotebook for that part of the product line. Apple has clearly been emphasizing miniaturization, and both the iBook and PowerBook G3 lines are heavy and clunky in comparison with the current generation of PC subnotebooks as epitomized by the Sony Vaio. Some suggested the empty slot could be filled by a Palm OS-based PDA, but that seems less likely since it’s not clear to me how Apple could add significant value to the Palm OS.
Along with a revised PowerBook design informed by the iBook (likely powered by a PowerPC G4 chip), I strongly suspect we’ll see a subnotebook in the near future, perhaps at January’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco, since Apple will want to make a splashy announcement and there’s no chance Mac OS X will be shipping then, what with the public beta being pushed back to September and the release date advertised as early in 2001.
Technology Imitating Art — Steve Jobs said during his keynote, "We want Apple to stand at the intersection of art and technology." Although it’s compelling to see Jobs’s intersection as one that you encounter on a journey, it’s important to think of it not as a crossroads, but instead as the place where two roads meet at a fork and continue on together. Apple may never be the choice of the masses, but speaking for those of us for whom it’s important to integrate technology into our lives in a humanistic fashion, we should continue to look to a Steve Jobs-led Apple not to just stand at the intersection of art and technology, but to accompany us along the path of integration.
There will be missteps, such as the abbreviated keyboard and much-reviled puck mouse that put form over function, but no other technology company puts as much effort into humanizing technology through art as Apple. The day before the show, I toured the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s Triennial Design Exposition and saw (along with the iMac and iBook) an Aztec pyramid-like "Simple PC" commissioned by Intel. Apple has no monopoly on great design – this machine was visually arresting and appeared functionally complete. But did Intel have the guts to ship it? No. Sure, it might have been expensive to build or have suffered other problems that weren’t obvious, but where Intel allowed its heavily designed PC to be purely an academic exercise, Apple has pushed hard to make its designs available to anyone.
An Industry Challenged — I’ve intentionally said nothing about the rest of the show, because, despite the businesslike tone, there was no single overriding theme that stood out this year. (However, we will be publishing our traditional Macworld Expo Superlatives article, highlighting some of the noteworthy products and events at the show.) It wasn’t until the very end of the three days that I realized that the lack of a theme was in fact emblematic of what was going on – the revitalized Macintosh industry is growing and maturing. Colored plastic no longer attracts attention: it’s simply assumed (although with Apple’s change in iMac colors, I’d warn vendors against trying to match the hues and instead aim for a complementary approach). FireWire was everywhere at the show, but as cool as FireWire is, it’s just a connection technology used primarily for storage devices and camcorders, with the occasional scanner or printer thrown in. Many booths had little or nothing to do with the Macintosh specifically, focusing instead on services or technologies that would be of interest to the Macintosh user. Thanks to the increase in size and importance of the Mac, companies like Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Brother, and Canon featured vast arrays of printers, cameras, and other peripherals that are only now becoming compatible with the Mac.
In short, what I took away from the show was that many companies now believe that the Mac industry is real, worthwhile, and here to stay. That’s great, and it’s an important step, but it’s not enough. Look at how Apple has innovated in the design space while maintaining the functionality we all expect. Innovation isn’t easy, but that’s how Apple has chosen to differentiate itself from other computer manufacturers. In the past, the reasons to buy a Macintosh came as often from outside Apple as within, but Apple’s hardware has taken some emphasis away from the solutions provided by other companies in the industry.
Here then is my challenge to everyone who produces hardware or software for the Macintosh: impress me! Knock my socks off, break through my hype-hardened shell and show me something that on its own can be a reason to be a Macintosh user. Show me – and show the world – that Apple isn’t alone in offering products so compelling that we change our ways of thinking. It won’t be easy, since we’re all too immersed in our lives to acknowledge mediocre solutions to tough problems. But if you can innovate then execute, I personally promise to recognize your efforts to the extent they deserve.