Here's a simple
mental experiment. Let's take a few typical brand name personal
computers and arbitrarily swap some of the basic components between
them. Without knowing the original configurations, would you be able
to figure out which ones were replaced? That's pretty much
impossible, isn't it?
Now, would you even contemplate doing the same with two different
make-model cars? With those, even the bumpers are not
interchangeable, leave alone engine parts.
You see, there is a reason why a BMW handles differently on the
road than, say, a Buick. In order for a car to provide a distinct
driving experience, most of its parts have to be uniquely tailored
to fit the "character" of a particular vehicle.
In automotive and most other industries, "custom design" doesn't
mean that a bunch of ready-made parts were mixed and matched. It
usually requires a real development effort. Even toaster
manufacturers need engineers, yet your typical teenage geek is up to
the task of slapping a "cutting-edge" PC together.
To put it all in perspective, imagine building a Porsche in your
backyard. You probably wouldn't even know where to start.
So how can an industry that is as mundane as the PC integration
business be a source of "innovation?" The truth is that it cannot.
Technologically, there is literally nothing Dell or Compaq can do to
break away from the rest of the flock. Therefore, they have to
resort to brand marketing and corporate propaganda.
Clearly, computers have become a commodity. In essence, PC makers
are now in a "packaging" business, but unfortunately they are not
particularly good at it. How many industrial designers does it take
to "style" perfectly angular boxes year in and year out? Could this
situation become any more pathetic?
In fact, the only companies that can make a real difference are
those which have locked a certain supply niche market all to
themselves. The likes of Intel, nVidia, and Creative Labs drive much
of the hardware side, while Microsoft is in charge of software.
Everybody else is left at their mercy.
Fortunately, not everything is lost. There is still one computer
manufacturer that doesn't use x86 chips and refuses to rely on
Microsoft to supply them with an operating system. Yes, you guessed
it right -- it's Apple.
In one of the early iMac ads, the pitch was that the new machine
was "about as un-PC as you can get." This still rings true.
Macintoshes stand out because the "experience" of using one is
different from that with any other personal computer, brand name or
Obviously, the Mac is similar to a PC in a number of ways. On the
most basic level, it comes with a keyboard and a mouse. No, wait,
wasn't Apple the first one of the two to employ a mouse?
The user interfaces also look mostly alike, if only because
Microsoft has been trying to follow Apple's lead in GUI design for
over a decade now. Move the "Start" button into the upper left
corner, and the resemblance becomes even more evident.
But this is where the similarities end. In fact, there are a lot
of things about the Mac that are unique. For instance, there was a shiny round
gadget that came with my new iBook. I either personally
demonstrated it or sent a picture of it over the e-mail to dozens of
people. Surprisingly, not a single one of them could guess what it
I got responses ranging from a "heated mouse pad" to a "tracking
device for humpback whales," but nobody could pinpoint its true
purpose in life.
It is actually just an AC/DC transformer "brick," if you can
still call it that. However, it doesn't look like any other power
adapter in my house, and I have quite a few of those around.
Somebody had to think outside-of-the-box to make it both cool
looking and compact, while also adding extra convenience with a
Apple's hardware engineers took their time to do it right. They
paid attention to the little things that nobody else in the industry
seems to care about. And to me, this perfectly exemplifies what
"thinking different" is all about.
With rugged design that incorporates a handy carrying handle and
battery life that is about twice as long as that of any other
"value" laptop, the iBook is truly in a class of its own.
But the devil is truly in the details.