Hardware

Macintosh: It's a Madison Avenue thing

Apple's perpetual emphasis on presentation style makes CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos feel pushed into getting a makeover.

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By Michael Kanellos

There are a lot of differences between Mac people and PC people. Mac people, conventional wisdom says, stand for creativity; PC people represent conformity. Mac people don't care about cost; it's all PC people care about.

But a new one dawned on me while watching Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs deliver a keynote at Macworld on Tuesday.

Mac people seem to want you to go into advertising. PC people don't give nearly as much career guidance.

The thing that has somewhat troubled me about Apple and the Mac community over the years, I now realize, is that there seems to be an overt agenda geared at giving everyone a makeover so that they can land a marketing position. It is always about presentation and posture with that company.

Jobs, for instance, introduced Pages, a word-processing and document-creating application, at the show.

"It is word processing with a sense of style," Jobs said. "It is designed so that mere mortals can create fantastic-looking documents."

Most of us are lucky to have poorly labeled computer files, a cardboard box with prints and/or a vague idea of who is in the picture.

He also demonstrated improvements to iPhoto. Now it's easier to put personal slide shows to music. In one demonstration, baby pictures swirled on a graphical representation of a mobile while Louis Armstrong sang "Dream a Little Dream of Me" in the background. In another, shots and videos from a Hawaiian wedding floated across the computer screen to the music of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

All the presentations looked great, but they also seemed foreign and impersonal. Who puts a soundtrack to their family photos? "Mom's second-wedding shots—cue up the Skynrd." Most of us are lucky to have poorly labeled computer files, a cardboard box with prints and/or a vague idea of who is in the picture.

Again, it looked wonderful on stage, but if you actually synched your home photos into a slick presentation, your friends will fear that a pitch to buy a time share is coming next.

Then there was the new computer, the Mac Mini. Measuring 6.5 inches by 6.5 inches by 2 inches, the computer is one of the more stylish desktops out there. Dell's mini desktop is about twice as big, measuring 12.7 inches by 14 inches by 3.8 inches. Sony's handheld Type U computer is smaller but costs more.

Still, consumers pay for the style of Mac Mini. The $599 model comes with a 1.42GHz PowerPC processor, 256MB of memory, an 80GB drive and a DVD/CD-RW drive. A similarly configured Gateway 3250 (2.66GHz Pentium 4, 80GB drive, 256MB memory, same drive) costs $499; $100 less with a rebate.

But the Gateway also comes with some important extras—namely a keyboard, a mouse and a 17-inch screen. The Mac Mini has none of this. Cool industrial design with an artsy interface or a monitor? It depends what you're looking for.

If you actually synched your home photos into a slick presentation, your friends will fear that a pitch to buy a time share is coming next.

I think the first time I ever picked up on this emphasis on presentation at Apple came several years ago, while watching a preview of a soon-to-be-broadcast Apple ad. In the ad, kids have to stand in front of the class and show an object for show and tell. The first kids stand up and give slightly dispirited monologues about rocks or other things they found on their summer vacation.

Then the kid with the Apple shows up. He cues a video that shows the family laughing it up on a canoe trip and just lets the class watch. Some reporters got teary-eyed. It made me feel sort of weird about the public-school system. The kid got high marks for all show, no tell.

Contrast Jobs' speech and product announcements with the standard stump speech from PC execs. Intel CEO Craig Barrett, for instance, delivered a typical one at CES last week. In each speech, there's a few irrelevant celebrity cameos. Then there's the sketching out of the brave new world of technology. Then there's always a reference to a billion of something—a billion transistors on a chip, a billion connected computers, etc.

But the speeches also typically contain two other elements: a nod to how PCs can help kids do their homework and how PCs are beginning to proliferate in the developing world. Corny and self-serving as some of the pitches might be, the audience is always reminded that there are people on the globe who have never been to Williams-Sonoma.

To Apple's credit, style and presentation—even with a mock turtleneck—are important. Baldassare Castiglione highlighted the importance of elegant nonchalance in the Renaissance classic "The Book of the Courtier." (Rule 1: Never shake hands with the pope.) There is also a personal bias here. I have knuckle hair that a rhesus monkey would envy.

Apple also comes out with some very cool software. One of the highlights of Jobs' speech involved a preview of Mac OS X Tiger. It includes a search technology called Spotlight and a handy tool called dashboard that gives quick access to weather, stock prices, a currency converter and more.

And finally, the emphasis on education and science that PC companies often stress is also a form of a sales pitch. Microsoft blankets TV stations with ads that emphasize the importance of school, but they also sell Xboxes.

Still, with Apple, I can't help but feel that I am being judged by the cut of my chassis.

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