Let's Get This Straight: Judging computers by their covers

So iMacs have fun new colors. What's so revolutionary about tinted plastic?


Scott Rosenberg
January 9, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

At this week's Macworld conference, Apple unveiled a host of new products and technologies. But the announcement that bedazzled the media was the simplest and lowest-tech: the popular iMac will, like Lifesavers, now come in five different colors.

Under the leadership of "interim CEO" (or, as he now jokingly calls himself, "iCEO") Steve Jobs, the newly revitalized Apple is smart enough, and self-confident enough, to poke ironic fun at the superficiality of its latest innovation. "Collect them all," quipped the company's marketing materials. "What's your favorite flavor?" "iCandy." "Yum."

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On the Macworld floor, Apple had assembled phalanxes of the new rainbow iMacs along white platforms lined with fluorescent back-lighting that lent the translucent boxes a cool glow. Next to the computers stood plastic cups filled with jellybeans -- as if to break up the pristine atmosphere of the display with a wisecrack.

If Apple is keeping a tongue-in-cheek perspective on its new strategy, the press is going gaga. "PC style now as important as megahertz after iMacs," a Reuters story announced, and quoted Jobs: "Color is for most consumers more important than all the mumbo jumbo over megahertz and megabytes." Wired News was even giddier: "IMacs Spell Death to Beige Boxes," its headline declared. The story quoted industrial designers soberly intoning that Apple's styling was "a radical shift" and "a major step" that "breaks paradigms."

The iMac colors are fun, though they will no doubt provide enormous headaches to retailers and distributors trying to second-guess the demand for different hues ("Hey, Joe, I've got a warehouse full of strawberry and tangerine but everybody's ordering blueberry and grape! What's in stock at Paramus?"). But let's keep a little perspective here. By repackaging the iMac in multiple colors, Apple has pulled off a smart marketing trick, not changed the computing universe. Yet Jobs' notorious "reality distortion field" has apparently persuaded virtually the entire media that you can and should judge a computer by its cover.

More significant, certainly, is the new line of PowerMac G3s that Apple announced. They, too, have bright, bold new packages -- unorthodox, iMac-inspired casings with elaborately flared plastic handles on all four corners. More importantly, they've got a very intelligently designed side door that provides the easiest access to a computer motherboard that I've ever seen. Forget about "breaking paradigms"; at least you won't have to break your fingers to install a memory upgrade.

With these new boxes, Apple seems once and for all to have given up on
the corporate marketplace and accepted that the customers for its high-end
machines are going to remain in publishing and graphic design -- industries
where paradigm-demolishing in packaging is viewed as a plus. But these
are the very same Mac users who have invested fortunes in peripheral
devices -- like scanners and removable storage devices -- that hook up
using a standard called SCSI.

High-end Macs have always come with SCSI built-in -- that's been a
significant selling point for Apple. But the new PowerMac G3s leave SCSI
out in favor of new standards, Universal Serial Bus (USB) and Firewire.
Apple hasn't entirely abandoned SCSI users; it says a $50 add-on card will
soon be available for them to hook up their old devices. But as with the
mass-audience-targeted iMac's omission of a floppy disk drive -- the
least-common-denominator storage medium -- the G3s' abandonment of SCSI
seems like an act of rudeness to its primary customers.

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The G3 buyers are precisely those Mac users to whom such technical
details are not "mumbo jumbo" at all but rather vital information for their
daily work. But is Jobs right that, to the rest of the world, box colors
matter more than RAM and megahertz? It's certainly true that computer
retailers have always overstated the importance of processor speeds and confused novice buyers with unintelligible levels
of detail about arcana like cache RAM and video acceleration. But Jobs'
statements leave the impression that there's no sensible middle ground:
Either you're a geek obsessed with "mumbo jumbo" speed ratings or you're a
techno-illiterate who's simply concerned that the iMac not clash with the rug.

It's a false opposition. There is such a thing as intelligent
consumerism, as still practiced by the likes of Consumer
Reports.
And a Consumer Reports-style review of Apple's new product
lines would note the appeal of their lively new look -- and then return to
the basics. Mac users still pay a premium for their machines. There is
still, alas, much less software available for Macs than for Windows PCs.
And though the Mac operating system's interface remains more elegant and
easier to use than Windows, its guts are sorely in need of a modernization
-- to make it less crash-prone and give it more intelligent memory
management. Apple has finally begun that revamping, in small
increments, over the last year, but it awaits a final unveiling in the form
of the new OS X, promised before the year's end. (Reminder to Mac fans who
are about to send me angry e-mails: Yes, I use both Macintosh and Windows
every day; no, I do not own Microsoft stock; yes, I wish Apple well.)

Steve Jobs has overseen a restoration of Apple's profitability and a
colorful repackaging of its products. The brochure for the new PowerMacs
declares, "Another year, another revolution." But if there's going to be a
real revolution from Apple it will have to take a much deeper form.

The iMac is the shell of an "information appliance" -- an easy-to-use,
just-plug-it-in way to get online -- surrounding a traditional personal
computer. Consumers who buy the iMac thinking that it will be radically
easier to use than previous generations of computers because it looks cool
and requires fewer cables are not going to be happy the first time they
experience a hard-drive crash or a PPP-connect failure. The computer
industry desperately needs to provide the general public with a foolproof
on-ramp for the Internet that does not require a training course to operate.

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Today's Macintosh is still too complex for true novices. But Apple has
always surpassed its rivals in usability, and no other company is
better-placed to build the grail of the "plug-and-play" Internet box. If
Apple can design such a device -- and revamp the underlying Mac operating
system as well -- then it will have earned all the bragging rights to a
revolution that Steve Jobs could want.


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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