From the first, this has been a cornerstone idea at Apple Computers: make stuff that is cool and hip enough and it will eventually succeed. Until recently, this foolish idea permeated the hacker culture as well -- if it's neat, it's good. Initially, Apple was a welcome antidote to the elitism and cluelessness of the tech elites who designed early computers. Although that seems a long time ago, the early idea behind Apple was revolutionary -- make computing accessible to everyone, not just coders and programmers. But the recent history of software development, networked computing and the Net suggests that now just the opposite is true: being cool is nice, but it's not nearly enough. Steve Case and Bill Gates have known this for awhile. Nobody would ever label them cool, just stunningly successful.
The truly successful technologies and technology companies are utilitarian and dull -- decidedly non-hip. You will never seen a Microsoft or AOL exec talking about how cool the their companies or products are, only how useful and easy to use. They don't really care how much heavy breathing they generate in the media or among excitable teenagers and college students. Those two companies have, in fact, dominated their environments by pointedly focusing on the non-technologically adventurous middle-class and busy business executives and workers and by presenting themselves not as cool but as reliable and accessible. And for this sin they get jeered at -- all the way to the bank. Their motives may be money, greed and power, but they understand what really drives technology in America and much of the world. Steve Jobs does not.
The tech media have served as enablers and co-dependents in Steve Jobs' sometimes-brilliant marketing impulses. Last week, the volatile Jobs projected himself onto the cover of Time magazine by unveiling the oh-so-cool new iMac, a computer as entertainment/culture center, a "hub for music, pictures and movies." It's elegant and affordable, says Time, and takes up little desk space, "but will millions of PC users get it?"
Gates understands something Jobs and media don't. When it comes to technology, it's middle-class consumers and their tastes, needs and expectations that determine success or failure. This is a hard lesson for many hackers and programmers too, who remain bewildered that superior systems like Linux aren't on every desktop. But the middle class, for years abused and exploited by the arrogant tech industry (just think of what poor Comcast subscribers have been going through for weeks now), wants easy of use, safety, utility. Just consider at the telephone, the automobile, or for that matter, Wal-Mart. Apple has demonstrated for years, and so, to some degree, has Linux. Harry and Martha in Dubuque decide which products will enter the mainstream and last, not college kids editing movies or downloading music and DVDs, or using firewire ports to fiddle with video clips.
Apple, perenially aspiring to coolness, has always been the favorite computer of the non-hacker hip and the creative. And of many people (like me) whose entry onto the Net and Web has been made easier for the first programming language that really made sense to non-techies. Jobs' colorful, well-designed, fun and entertainment-centered iMacs and Powerbooks have been getting fabulous press for years. His idea to fuse the desktop with pop culture is, in fact, a powerful one. But it's too soon. The middle-class isn't ready for that. Most Americans don't need the 1,000 songs the iPod can store, and would rather go to the megaplex than edit movies on their computers.
So Apple accounts for only 4.5 per cent of new personal computer sales, according to Gartner Dataquest.
That's probably because Jobs hasn't addressed the central problem facing computer makers: the public doesn't trust them. Burned by years of outrageously poor tech support, increasingly expensive software, and hardware that's almost instantly outdated, middle-class consumers aren't the least bit interested in the coolest new new thing. They want computing that works like TV does -- that's easy to use, takes little space, costs relatively little money and works every time you turn it on, year after year. The public is increasingly wise to tech scams like hardware that's obsolete every 18 months and software that doesn't even last that long. Computers -- even the jazzy new iMac -- are a long way from reliability, and are profoundly mistrusted. In fact, it was only a couple of years ago that the candy-colored iMacs were the next cool thing. Now they're about as hip as Windows 98.
If you're a teenager, Web designer, film editor or visual arts major, or even a loving Grandma, it's great that the iMac allows you to create your own DVDs, organize and edit digital pictures, play CDs or convert MP3's, turn home videotapes into high-quality edited films. What's less clear is whether or not the public -- especially that critical middle-class chunk of it -- wants to do those things on a computer, or is confident about its ability to use machinery that's still more complicated and problematic than its makers seem able to admit.
For nearly a generation now, from Jobs to the makers of instant replay TV machines, some of the best minds in the tech world -- usually the younger ones -- have been crippled and misled by the confusion between what's cool and what's going to be successful, between what's neat and what's necessary. The survivors of the Net's first generation -- brilliant plodders like Gates and Steve Case -- understand quite well that they aren't the same thing, and have, as a result, increasingly come to dominate the Net.