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Chips and Chingarerras

By Don Granberry, 3 July 2000

“Huh? What’s a chingarerra?” It is colloquial Spanish for “unidentified thing” – rather like the English “whatchamacallit.” Big Blue’s new family of G3s, with their low power requirements, promises to give rise to any number of new chingarerras. One or two of them might even have an apple imprinted upon their cases.

For instance, Apple has not made anything for the subnotebook market since the very popular PowerBook 2400. It was a smash hit in Japan and has an almost cult-like following here in the United States. There is clearly a large market for little chingarerras here and abroad. Now, I am not part of that market – I am the sort of guy that would drive a Caterpillar 966 to work if the law would allow it. If I take a notion to move something, data for instance, I like to move lots of it. Despite these preferences, I do understand why a great many people are fond of little chingarreras – they become personal objects.

Take a look at your dresser or examine the contents of your purse when you get up tomorrow morning, then consider how you feel about all the things you carry around with you all day. They have become part of you, have they not? They are part of what you are. They have become the touchstones of your personality. From what I’ve seen, this is even more true for chingarerras of the silicon persuasion. People become very fond of them, much like a pet.

Having made these observations, I do not believe it would be wise for Apple to jump back into the PDA market, the most obvious computer chingarerra. Apple has enough to do getting OS X out the door while designing new hardware. The last thing they need to be doing is writing a secondary operating system. Licensing the Palm OS and producing hardware for an Apple-branded PDA is unlikely to be all that profitable, given that there are already two vendors of Palm OS-based devices going great guns and drying up components. Reviving the Newton presents many of the same difficulties, so I am neither surprised nor disappointed that Apple has steered clear of the PDA game since discontinuing the Newton.

Subnotebooks are another matter altogether. I do believe Apple should produce a subnotebook, even if it were nothing more than a smaller version of Apple’s other offerings. A machine suitable for both executives and their secretaries, or for anyone that must travel a great deal and spends significant periods of time on airplanes. The latest PowerBook G3, Pismo, is a very nice machine, but I’ve heard more than one complaint from Pismo users regularly flying coach – namely, that it is a little too big. With little effort, Apple could dominate this part of the laptop market using Big Blue’s new chips. Why? They will be faster and consume less power than anything Intel can offer. That translates into better performance and better battery life. There is lots of profit margin in this space, even if Apple elected to indulge in some kind of “fleet sales” effort.

This kind of product, however, strikes me as being just a bit too mundane for Apple. A laptop in this class is basically just a laptop. Such an offering would not be in keeping with Apple’s penchant for innovation and mind-boggling design. Why limit our input devices to just the keyboard and mouse on this kind of device? Why not let us write on the screen, as we must with the PDA? How about bundling software that translates Gregg Shorthand into clear text for us on the fly? Better yet, if our hands are tired, why not just let us talk to it? Handwriting recognition and voice recognition software is already available. Why not use them to their fullest advantage?

My original thoughts were that such a device should be sized somewhere between a stenographer’s pad and a VHS cassette, as these sizes are still handy while leaving us plenty of screen real estate. But I have also run into folks that say they would like to have one about the size of a regular sheet of notebook paper – 8.5" x 11.5". This size gives us even more screen real estate. Why is screen area important? Because it offers us the chance to have a full OS with an intuitive interface on a small device. This is very important for someone like me, who is all thumbs and whose eyesight is declining with age. Those tiny PDA screens drive me to distraction – and besides, why give up my Mac OS if it isn’t necessary?

How many of you artists out there would just love to have a computer on which you could load Photoshop or Painter, take out into the field and sketch right on the screen? How much easier would it be for a person to edit still pictures with such a device? What if you’re an engineer or technician needing to do field sketches? I’ll bet you could use just such an animal, right? There are already flat panel displays available that double as a graphics tablet. Why not build one right into the body of the computer? Keyboard and mouse? Well, sure – that’s what USB is for, right?

The possibilities for this type of machine can’t be covered in just one article – that will have to wait until next time. But I think the time is right for some radical changes in portable computer design, and I think that the PDA is but a fragment of a much larger market waiting to be created. Creating new markets with new products is what Apple is all about. Whaddaya say, Steve? I know you can do it. Give us a chingererra we can fall seriously in love with!

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