Virtuality with David Schultz

Virtuality: the nexus between the virtual and the real, the place where the virtual becomes real and reality becomes virtual, a matrix of appearances.

The Natives Are Growing Restless

May 8, 2000 - David Schultz

PowerBook G3The last time Apple introduced new products was at MacWorld Tokyo back in February. The Pismo and iBook SE were introduced then, as well as the speed bumped G4s. We waited and bought a Pismo. A lot of people waited, it seems, because the Pismo is on fire as far as sales go.

But that was almost three months ago - and the next Expo is still two months away. Now the natives are getting restless, as they do every year at this time. To quiet us down, Apple made iMovie a free download. But this won't keep many quiet for long, especially those, like me, who don't do DV.

Recently there have been some articles on the Mac web about where Apple is headed, what we (the consumer base) want from Apple, and speculation on dual processor G4s and desktop iMacs and all kinds of things. People want the Mac Palm, if there is such a thing, an iBook Duo, and glowing keyboards on PowerBooks. The longer Apple goes without introducing new products, the louder the clamor becomes - and the more far-fetched the product speculation gets. I think it is silly, at least on one level.

I have to tell you this. No, I must. We got a Pismo (have I already mentioned that?) and absolutely love the thing. It is my first PowerBook and, even with the G4 I have, the Pismo has become my Mac of choice. I gave the G4 to my wife, in fact. I was so excited getting it.

And yet within a few days after it was released and I got mine, someone on the Mac Web had an article on the next PowerBook and what it needs. For a moment, but only a brief moment, I felt like my brand new Pismo wasn't enough. And then I thought, "Don't these people ever give up? Can't they appreciate what is before their eyes?" It seemed patently ridiculous to me. But that's another story, and one many have written on. I want to look at it from a different perspective.

Consider just the current offerings from Apple. Apple is small company, relatively speaking. Sure, it has three billion in the bank and continually increasing sales. But once you get down to it, it has three G4s (or one in three different speeds), two PowerBooks (or one in two different speeds), three iMacs (iMac, iMac DV, iMac DV SE), and two iBooks (I am also setting aside color variations, but see below). That is a grand total of ten computers. Apple servers are just variations on these themes.

Ten. That is not a lot, considering the millions of potential and actual customers out there. Moreover, Apple is brushing in very broad strokes with a hairline brush. It has only two products lines, Pro and "i" (consumer). There are five Pro models and five consumer models. This is a very small product line for such broad consumer categories. (There are permutations, additions, and variations, like monitors, AirPort cards, and base stations.) Categories such as small business, corporate, SOHO, and others are supposed to be captured by this simple two-fold categorization. Indeed, it might be that an iMac is a good SOHO machine. But under the label "consumer," it might not be noticed as such.

Now simply adding colors will not do it. They are still the same machines no matter how you paint them; it actually appears that Apple has more products than it really does because of color variation. As I said, simply adding colors won't meet the demand. A blueberry iBook is still an iBook; a tangerine iBook is still an iBook; and a graphite iBook is still an iBook. Same with iMacs. New colors may placate us for a while, but we will still suffer from "new productitis" because colors are just bandages for gapping injuries. We will still bleed profusely.

When it comes to software, well . . . AppleWorks 6, OS 9, HyperCard, AppleScript, QuickTime, iMovie (free!), Final Cut Pro, AirPort 1.1 (which is more of a system extension), Mac OS X Server, AppleShare IP, WebOjects, and that is about it. FileMaker, a subsidiary of Apple, has five products by itself. (Yes, I realize that there are 25,000 software titles out there, but that is not my point.) And of course we have iTools now and the whole net strategy. Again, that's about it, the rest are just add ons, and it ain't very much. No wonder the natives are restless.

When we look at the hardware and software offerings, there is not that much there, relatively speaking. Apple is, to say the least, a targeted and focused company. It doesn't want to do it all. I just hope that Apple's focus doesn't become myopia.

There are things Apple could be doing. When they got focused during the turn around they dropped Emailer, a great program we need back. HyperCard lays dormant for all intents and purposes. AppleWorks 6 could be more robust, in my opinion. Beyond these, there are software companies which have greater resources that can do the rest.

As for hardware, we all know that Apple is a hardware company first and foremost. They have a legacy and have produced many great machines. Just look around LEM for the list.

Do we really want Apple branded cell-phones? An Apple Palm would be nice, as long as it's different - I mean really different - from Palm products. (AirPort might be the clue here.) Otherwise, I can paste an Apple logo to my Palm and save the money.

As Apple grows its customer base and sells more Macs, the disparity between products offered and customer expectations will broaden even more. The two, in fact, stand in inverse proportion: The larger the customer base the smaller the product line seems to that base. There will simply be more variety in a larger customer base, which will make the small variety of products more apparent. As the base grows, so do the needs, expectations, and wishes of that base.

The more customers a company has, the more likely some customers will grow dissatisfied and restless. The chance for this is even higher if new products are fewer and farther between (how one measures this, I don't know). But Apple refuses to give in, it seems, or drags its feet doing so. I'll return to this in a moment.

But there is another variable at work here. Apple's customer base is, to put mildly, fanatical. It is, generally, loud and vocal, perfectionistic, demanding, and knowledgeable. We love Apple product. As with anything people love, we can't get enough. This adds fuel to the fire. We must keep our heads about us here.

So we have these opposing forces facing off. Sometimes I wonder, though. Technology is not something developed overnight. It takes a lot of testing, R & D, money, and time to develop new products. I don't mean new Macs, necessarily. The pieces are in place, and new ones can be developed more quickly than they used to be. But items such as FireWire and USB are still new, and conflicts are bound to arise. Software takes time to develop. AirPort is very new, though it works great. A Mac Palm introduces all kinds of engineering questions, such as what kind of display to use, integration with existing products (which Palm has done a good job of doing), trying to fit AirPort into one, and many other decisions. Better they do it right than get it to us quick. We have lived through that, and the sometimes buggy G4 is one product that made many Mac buyers beta testers, according to some.

I don't want to be a beta tester for a Mac Palm.

I don't think it is just a matter of quality versus quantity. It is not that simple. It is possible that Apple could have fifty products all of high quality and three of poor quality. We know that quality is tops on Apple's mind: "Our goal is to make the best computers in the world," says Steve Jobs. A lofty and admirable goal. But his own perfectionism sometimes seems to slow down development and release. This has its up-side and down-side, obviously. Consumers are left in the lurch, and that is when the natives get restless.

We'll see at the next Expo what Apple has in store. The only things that could get my attention are machines and software I don't have but need. I have a G4 and a Pismo. I have AirPort. I have AppleWorks 6. I have a Palm IIIe. I am pretty well set and happy with my products. This native isn't very restless anyway. Besides, if Apple followed all the suggestions for products and ideas I see on the Mac Web, well . . . maybe Apple wouldn't be Apple anymore. LEM

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