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What the Muses Deign: Peeling Apples

by Porruka, porruka@macedition.com, October 19, 2001

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Sites such as Think Secret and CNet are abuzz in speculation about what Apple is set to announce on October 23rd, its first “not a Mac” in several years. According to Think Secret, the device will be related to music. Other folks have speculated on an Apple PDA or QuickTime video device. The reality, though, is that while many people will be looking at the specific device, the announcement will be much more important than that.

Not a Mac

So what is Apple but a computer company? That is certainly the point that Steve Jobs reminded the employees and the world of soon after his return. The elimination of almost all peripheral device development (printers, cameras, monitors, Newton, etc.) proved that Apple was a company that was going to focus on its core competency: the personal computer called Macintosh and its operating system, the Mac OS.

On October 23rd, that is supposedly going to change. For the company to claim it is going to release a “not a Mac” means that the corner has finally turned. The financial perils of the past are supposedly gone. There are now stores opening across the country that promote Apple the way Apple wants to be promoted. There are now Apple employees in CompUSA stores as well, in an effort to combat poor sales. And now there’s this new “not a Mac”. Apple, it seems, is preparing to change once again. But into what is the question.

Butterfly or bird-food?

The last few years have seen Apple in a chrysalis of sorts, with Mr. Jobs closing off the company from the rest of the world and setting Apple Legal after anything that moved in the direction of Cupertino. There have been tantalizing occasions where things such as MacOS X, new interface and all; new hardware that performs well, if not as well as might be expected; and new sales approaches all spill from the cocoon. Some are good, some not so, but all show an company becoming something other than what it was. With the release of the new device, we observers may finally get a chance to comment on the real story.

Music. Movies. Who cares?

There are many reasons why most people will care about the specifics of what Apple announces. “Will I buy one?” “Will I have to buy a new machine to work with it?” “Will I be forced to use Mac OS X in order to be spiffy?” These are all valid concerns. The bigger picture, though, is so much bigger than that. Apple has stated that it wants to be the center of the future “digital hub”, it wants to make the experience of this digital world (music, video, news, etc.) a better experience for Mac users. The implication, it seems, is that Apple is once again rebuilding mousetraps. Easier to use. Spiffy design. Cool features. Premium price.

What will be the true, telling story of the announcement will be whether it is a device aimed at making the lives of Mac users better or if it is a ground-breaking, necessary device whether you’re a Mac user or not. Apple, for all its design and engineering prowess, still is a niche player in a market that's stumbling along with the global economy right now. If Apple’s plan is to continue to milk money out of the installed base, I’m certain that will prop up the corporate coffers for a while; they might even get some of my money, depending. If its Apple’s plan to sell more Macintoshes by making cool devices that only work with Mac OS, that may indeed cause some converts. Enough? Maybe for the short term, since as Apple itself proclaimed in advertisements, if it changes the minds of only five more people in one hundred, that would double the company’s market share (and have a rather pleasant result on revenue and profit, too). At 10 percent of the computer market, and a much smaller slice of the consumer electronics pie, one would hope that the plan is to do more than just double a miniscule percentage.

The PC is dead! Long live the PC!

Personally, I think Steve Jobs doth protest too much when he claims the PC isn’t dead. It really is, it has become a commodity, at least at the hardware level, and the operating systems are heading that way rapidly. Of course, Mr. Jobs can’t actually admit that right now or there would be great difficulty moving into the next phase of using all this computing power to actually do something. The reality, though, is that “the computer" is dead, transformed into an information appliance, albeit a difficult-to-use one most of the time. The only question is what comes next, both for the computer and for Apple.

That’s the real question, and the first attempt at an answer comes October 23rd. We’ll be watching the cocoon and so will the birds.

—porruka
Editor-in-Chief, MacEdition

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