Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Loss of Mac Exclusivity

Everywhere you go these days, there's an Apple piece of kit somewhere to be seen. Whether it's an iPod, iPhone, iPad, Macbook Air or even just a plain old iMac - you can't move for one of Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs' beautifully geek-chic offspring staring at you smugly with its little Apple logo. They're in cafes, restaurants, and cool clothing shops. You see them on trains, buses and planes. Schools use them. Universities use them. Even boring blue-chip companies use them. Not only that, but a disproportionate number of characters in the movies use them as well.

In case you didn't realise, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has pretty much done the miraculous and cleaned up. Apple is king. It may not be the largest company in the world, but it ain't far off. It's cool, sexy and making a shedload of money despite the recession. Apple has a firm grip on the music industry, and has helped to revolutionise the way human beings consume, share and create media content.

If you'd told this to a Mac geek ten years ago, he/she'd pretty much laugh at you.

A lot.

And then walk away nervously.

You see, the spirit of the Mac has always been that of the underdog. Not mainstream. People who weren't in the know saw Apple computers as strange and alien - incompatible, so therefore mostly useless. Macs used a different Operating System to everyone else, so worked differently. There was a lot less software for Macs, and what was available didn't work with the PC alternatives anyway.

Macheads didn't mind those problems, though. They were happy to put up with the inconveniences because they believed their way was better. Macs hardly crashed (not quite true), didn't get viruses (largely correct) and had a longer lifespan than other computers (I think that's pretty true, also). Sure, they were more expensive - but at least you had a reliable machine that would serve you well for a good 5 years before you had to contemplate an upgrade.

Owning a Mac was like belonging to a secret club - one that was friendly and inviting, but one that required a commitment to the Way of Apple: accepting the computer's shortcomings and learning to live with derogatory comments from PC users and non-techie people alike. Owning a Mac was worth the pain because it took you to a higher plain of computing.

Well, sort of.

Mac owners used to spend a great deal of time bemoaning the mass market products that were the alternative to Apple ones. Namely, Windows PCs in all their beige plastic glory. Windows (or Windoze, as Mac addicts jokingly called them) machines were laughed at as being unreliable, clunky and lacking any aesthetic properties. Macs, on the other hand, were quietly uber-stylish - self-importantly smug as they hummed away on people's desks.

By the early 2000s, though, Apple computers were creeping into the mainstream. Steve Jobs had come back to save the company from ruin and had turned things around dramatically. Apple had a broad range of cool computers, and was making its mark as the creative professional's tool of choice. It wasn't, however, impacting the computer market as it would have liked. Windows PCs were still the dominant platform with the Mac having less than 10% of the worldwide share. Apple needed to up its game and be seen as a serious choice. It needed a saviour.

And lo - the saviour was born...

The iPod.

It changed everything.

People looked at it with a sense of confusion and awe. What was this thing? You could play music on it? But where did you put, like, y'know....the CD?

MP3 players had been around for years, but Apple knew how to do them better. As is common at Apple, they took an idea and Apple-ised it. They made it sexy, but most importantly they made the damn thing work. Alongside the iTunes application, where people could get hold of their favourite music at the click of a mouse, Apple turned the tables on the big media companies - just as they were slowly beginning to realise that the internet was going to permanently change the music industry.

This little white hunk of plastic and metal opened the floodgates - slowly but surely, people began migrating to Mac computers via the iPod. It was known as the 'halo effect': get people to buy one Apple product and they begin to fall under the Apple spell and want to buy more. They get seduced by the sexy styling, nifty interface and tech-kudos that only Macs have.

So now, after the iPhone and iPad hitting the mainstream and doing better than the iPod it seems everyone owns at least one Apple product. For goodness sake, even my mother has an iPhone! (in fact, she got one before I did!!). Apple has managed to remain cool despite huge success and occasional PR disasters (cracked iPhone glass, anyone? weird antenna issues?).

In conclusion, I'm a little saddened at Apple's success. I can no longer enjoy being a little bit smug about owning an Apple. People no longer go 'What's that? An Apple com-pew-tur?', they go 'Oh yeah, I got an iPad 2 for my birthday'.

What I'd like to point out is that people like me took the plunge way before the masses began following like robotic sheep. I had to endure the pain and anguish that came with buying a Mac. I was a loyal and faithful Mac Geek.

The question is - after all I've said, am I going to abandon the Mac?

Well, no - not really.

Windows is still, in my opinion, a bit rubbish. Linux is beyond most normal people with social skills. Google Chrome is a young upstart with a long way to go. There is nothing else to choose from.

I'm going to stick with the Mac until something better comes along (which probably won't). I shall continue to pour my hard earned greens into Apple's coffers, and encourage friends and family to give up their Windows woes and convert to the Church of Jobs. Even though it pains me to do so.

Who knows, maybe Microsoft will one day be the underdog.

If that happens, I just might renounce my religion...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A little story I wrote a while back.

Desperate to quickly update my blog with something I turned to some short stories I wrote a while back. Here's one about iPods (yes, I'm that sad) which I wrote five years ago. Interestingly, I had to amend it slightly to reflect some changes over the last half-decade. Left in its original form, it would have sounded very dated.


The train doors slid open and Jerry lumbered out, fighting against the flow of passengers trying to get on. The commuter cattle didn’t bother him too much – he was too engrossed listening to 84’s latest spell-beat remix of Thirteenth Hour. He’d downloaded it earlier that day and was beginning to enjoy the tune so much that he'd adopted a slight wiggle in his walk.

Jerry was on his way to meet Pardip by the newsagents owned by that crazy Taiwanese guy, Mr Li. Jerry regularly stopped by the small shop and so had come to know Li quite well over the years. Li always had an opinion on something, and Jerry ended up taking the full brunt of it. Not that he minded – Li’s outbursts were usually quite funny, and he always had a serious point.

‘You read this?’ shouted Li as he held aloft the Daily Express. ‘Bloody Politicians! This new law stupid!’

Jerry took out his earphones and sat on a stack of The Sun as he grabbed the offending paper off Li. The headline shouted at him ‘Pod crime man convicted!’ with a picture of the familiar little music player being held aloft by some bimbo celebrity. In the corner was a grainy black and white passport photo of the poor sod referred to in the title.

‘Bloody disgrace! Can’t believe it! I not use those thing!’

Jerry read the article intently. Of course, he’d known about this all morning. His first act of every day – after taking a leak – was to switch on his iPad and surf the news sites while munching on a bowl of Frosted Malt Pods. He was a man of habit, grateful for the technology that kept him informed and up to date, 24-7.

‘Well, that’s the new century for you,’ offered Jerry.

‘New century? New century? You bloody mad! You bloody lost it, mate! You plugged into those thing – they burn your brain!’

Li disliked the small devices immensely. He always sneered at customers who possessed one, which was pretty much all of them. Even the old folks – listening to their favourite audiobooks – were keen Podders. Such colloquial terms grated with the Sony execs (as well as Pardip, who worked at their European office on Belvedere Road). The world was divided into two types of consumer – those that had an Apple iPod, and those that had a Sony Walkman (Walkie). Two mega-corporations were constantly at war: battling it out on the world stage for consumer domination.

Sony tried ever so hard to weave their Walkman into the zeitgeist, but Apple had beaten them to it with their sleek, sexy and clever devices. Only after several years of ruthless marketing and price-cutting did Sony manage to claw its way to an equal number one spot. Even so, they never managed to influence culture quite the way Apple did. Sony followed, it never led, and trying hard to change the status quo made it even less likely that the electronics giant would ever succeed.

Whether it was an iPod or a Walkman, they were usually referred to just as pods. No longer confined to playing music, the most up to date pods now doubled up as phones, personal organisers, game machines, voice recorders, cameras and even miniature masseurs.

Jerry was itching to listen to the 84s again, but Li went off on another tantrum about pods ruling the world and causing brain cancer. Jerry nodded absently as he re-read the article - describing the actions of a Winston Smith who’d failed to wear his personal pod to work. The new laws were getting more and more strict. Now it was an offence not to have a personal device on show. Jerry looked up at Li who shouted at some random passer-by giving them a serious fright.

‘The last thing I do is wear a pod! You unnerstan’ me, boy? I a free man!”

As the rant continued, Jerry’s fingers danced over his iPhone, sending off a text message. Looking up, he saw Pardip in the distance and went to greet him.

‘See you later, Li.’

Mister Li to you, boy!’ screeched the old man. He gave Jerry a fierce stare before melting into a toothless grin. He began to cackle, laughing at his ludicrous over-reactive self. ‘It hard work bein’ mad,’ said Li before muttering quietly ‘Say hi to your frien’ for me.’

‘Will, do,’ smiled Jerry.

Pardip waved to Jerry, laughing as he noticed Li wander back into his kiosk. Pardip figured he'd just missed a ‘Mr Li Rant’.

‘Hey, man. Li giving you a hard time again?’

‘Nah. Just the usual,’ replied Jerry. Pardip chuckled.

‘Ok, you ready? The presentation’s startin’ soon. I wanna get a good seat.’

‘Just a sec,’ Jerry nodded in the direction of where he’d just been. ‘I need to see this.’

Out of the horde of commuters, six dark shapes appeared. Kitted out in full riot gear, the Podcops made their way to Mr Li’s shop. There were raised voices and then a commotion, with Li shouting furiously and lashing out with his spindly arms. No-one around seemed to notice – either they didn’t care or were afraid to show any kind of concern.

One of the Podcops produced a baton and brought it down heavily onto his victim, bringing a sudden silence from the Taiwanese man. As his limp body was hauled away, the crowds snaked past mindlessly. It was over in an instant.

Jerry and Pardip turned and headed for the exit.

‘You do that?’

‘Yeah – couldn’t stand his anti-pod attitude,’

‘I hear ya. Why can’t people just get along with technology?’

They clambered up the steps into the gleaming sunshine just as Big Ben clanged the bells for midday. Jerry breathed in the atmosphere as he popped the small white earbuds into his ears.

‘It is, after all, the twenty-first century.’

‘Amen to that. People should just accept it.’

Jerry pulled out his pod, deftly selected the 84s and pressed play. He had to hear that song – just one more time.