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OPINION:
What Does It Mean to 'Think Different'?

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Contributed by Stanislav Kelman
osOpinion.com
February 28, 2001


Apple's hardware engineers pay attention to the little things that nobody else in the industry seems to care about.

In This Story:

Beige Boxes Forever

True Innovation

Today's Special

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.

Beige Boxes Forever

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 otherwise.

True Innovation

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 was.

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.

Today's Special

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 retractable cord.

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.

Talkback Forum


Author's background:
Stanislav Kelman is a long-time PC user who has never owned an Apple-branded computer until he got a tangerine iBook earlier this year. He maintains a list of his past technology-related editorials on TechOpinion.org. He also invites you to visit LetItBe.org, a site where you can learn more about him than you might care to know. Stanislav would love to hear your reaction to his opinion columns, so feel free to drop him a line at osopinion@letitbe.org

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