Let's Get This Straight: The iMac debate rages on

Apple's legions weigh in, prompting second thoughts on iMac pros and cons.

Published September 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Whatever else you might think about it, the iMac sparks sharp opinions. When a debate on Apple's new, sleek, blue-plastic Mac erupted at one of our editorial meetings last month, we decided to carry that argument over into the pages of Salon 21st -- hoping to sustain the spirit of lively give-and-take. In "iMac -- iLove it/iHate it," Janelle Brown took up the cudgels on the iMac's behalf, and I cast a more skeptical gaze on the popular machine.

If success can be measured by generating responses from readers and sparking a dialogue, then we hit on all cylinders. Of course, quality matters as much as quantity, and e-mails that read "yOU SUCK! iMAC RULES! THAT'S ALL" may not constitute the zenith of civilized exchange. Still, despite the occasional yelps from the junior wing of the Mac-enthusiast camp ("You are a total thick-headed, ignorant retard"; "Burn in Microsoft-dominated hell!"), the great majority of letters we received -- in a ratio of roughly 3-to-1 supporting the iMac and questioning my criticisms of it -- were friendly and thoughtful.

Many of you had a hard time with my comment about the apparent fragility of the iMac's plastic case, which, I wrote, "looks flimsy and feels cheap -- like it wouldn't survive a drop off a desk." What's with me, anyway -- who goes around dropping computers off desks? Have I ever had a computer fall off a desk?

Maybe I'm just clumsier than the average 21st reader, but in truth, during 15 years of owning computers I have twice seen them plummet floorward (once during an earthquake, once during a move -- both survived their falls), so my concern didn't seem so outlandish to me. In any case, my argument was more about the iMac's appearance of flimsiness, which is admittedly an in-the-eye-of-the-beholder kind of thing. I prefer my consumer-fetish objects to appear sturdy, tough, built to last, even if I don't actually intend to pummel them with mallets. To my eyes, the iMac -- bulletproof polycarbonate or no -- looks excessively fragile.

Many correspondents also pointed out one major oversight on my part: In wondering why Apple chose to rig its new consumer machine with a high-speed ethernet port when few home computer users have much use for it, I failed to realize that the ethernet connection is of great use to two groups: students at colleges with (increasingly common) wired dorms and home users with cable modems. Cable modems remain a wonderful luxury few of us have access to, thanks to the sluggish roll-out of cable Net services around the United States. But for students, ethernet indeed rules. I guess I've simply been out of school too long.

My complaint that the iMac's round mouse is hard to orient provoked derisive jeers along the lines of "Hey, stupid, if you want to know which way the mouse points, just find the cord!" Uh, sure; but I don't especially want to keep looking at my mouse -- I'd rather sense its direction by feel and keep my eyes on the screen. To me this is less a matter of taste than of common sense. Similarly, my objection to the iMac's omission of a floppy disk drive evoked a torrent of suggestions -- some kind, some dripping with condescension -- that I get hip to e-mail for my file transfer needs. Dear readers, I live by e-mail, and my in box overfloweth. But there are times, especially at home, when it is simply faster to pop a floppy in than to dial up the modem and wait for a Net connection just to move a little file from one computer to another.

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Behind much of the negative mail I received lay an assumption that I was
a PC user or "Wintel guy" who had obstinately and irrationally decided to
bash Apple despite all the enlightening evidence out there against me. One
reader even suggested that I must own Microsoft stock. (I don't.) Another
told me, "22 million people use Macintosh computers every day ... and you
have just made close to 22 million enemies." So let me repeat: I own three
Macs at home. I am typing this on a Mac at my office. I use Windows PCs
too, but I firmly believe that the Mac is, overall, a more elegantly
designed and easy-to-use system. I recommend Macs to my friends and

But I also refuse to believe that holding these opinions obligates me,
as a Mac lover, to applaud every move Apple makes or to withhold criticism
of Apple when I think the company has goofed. Apple's more extreme
followers have adopted a bizarre corporate loyalty program under which they
not only maintain that the company can do no wrong but also believe that
Apple is locked in a Manichaean struggle with Microsoft in which only one
company can survive.

I tried to address these fanatics at the end of our iMac debate,
when I wrote, "I fear that a lot of Mac lovers are engaging in an orgy of
wishful thinking as they imagine the iMac winning over droves of Windows
users. As a survival move, the iMac may be savvy, but it's not going to
turn the world upside down."

This passage elicited dozens of rational arguments from reasonable Mac
fans who believe that Apple is no longer at war and doesn't need to
"conquer Wintel" to thrive as its own segment of the computer marketplace.
One reader reminded me that it was Steve Jobs, after all, who told the
crowds at MacWorld last year that "we have to lose the idea that for Apple
to win, Microsoft has to lose." To these readers, let me say: I agree with
you. You're right.

But there's another contingent out there that's still fighting the last
decade's war. "iMacs and G3 have completely killed the WinTel platform,"
wrote one overexcitable correspondent. "Apple is in control of the entire
industry once again." These members of the Apple corps are determined to
twist every argument in Apple's favor: Thus, Apple's omission of a floppy
disk becomes a praiseworthy move that "gives people the choice of whether
to have a floppy"-- and choice is what Apple is all about! -- whereas
Apple's one-piece iMac design, which limits users' monitor choice to the
built-in 15-inch screen, is praised for its "convenience."

It is this group that needs to learn the basic lesson that Apple is not
a religion or a cause -- it is a corporation looking to make a buck.
Corporations sometimes create wonderful products (and Apple has
historically produced more than its share); sometimes they make mistakes.
More often they muddle through. My view remains that the iMac is a
muddle-through kind of product that, thanks to relentless marketing,
happens to have captured the public fancy for the moment.

This view received some support from a former Apple employee who wrote
in to explain the history behind the iMac's lack of a floppy drive: The
iMac began life as Apple's "network computer" (NC) project. NCs are
designed for corporate networks and expected to store everything across
such networks, and so the proto-iMac didn't even have its own hard disk,
let alone a floppy drive. Since the iMac is an NC repurposed late in
development as a consumer machine, the former Apple engineer wrote, "It's
no surprise that it's a bit of a mismatch."

Now, there's nothing awful about this -- technology companies change
plans all the time, and if Apple was nimble enough to do so successfully,
it's a sign that the company has grown more flexible. But it's hard to hang
on to an "Apple can do no wrong" attitude once you accept that Apple, like
all companies, must make imperfect choices in an imperfect world.

Cheering on Apple as an alternative to Microsoft has always made a lot
of sense to me. But I'll never understand what motivates the people who
feel that any criticism of their favorite computer company is an act of
treason. Where's the "Think Different" spirit in that?

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

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