Business-like, isn't he?



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    Apple innovation grounded in exploiting useful technologies that are available now

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business in Vancouver September 30-October 6, 2008; issue 988

    High Tech Office column

    Harken back to mid-2004. Apple, announcing features of its upcoming OS X 10.4 Tiger, festooned its developers’ conference auditorium with banners reading “Redmond, start your photocopiers.” The not-so-subtle message: Apple innovates, Microsoft, mired in delays getting what would be Windows Vista to market, copies.

    Like most modern myths, reality is more nuanced. Take Apple’s August 15 ship date to celebrate the iMac’s 10th anniversary. The original iMac was an egg-shaped blue-and- white one-piece computer that looked unlike any previous desktop computer. Up until then, computers – both Macs and PCs – came in beige cases with separate beige monitors.

    And unlike other desktops – both Macs and PCs – the iMac lacked a floppy disk drive and used USB to connect to keyboard, mouse and printer. Initial reaction from the media and many members of the public was puzzlement. No floppy drive? And were there any printers, scanners or other devices that could connect to those USB ports?

    Apple innovation, right? In fact, USB was developed by Intel. It, along with Microsoft, had been pushing PC-makers to use it in place of printer and serial ports, ISA slots and keyboard and mouse connectors dating back to IBM’s 1983 AT.

    At the April 1997 Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Microsoft and Intel proposed PC98 specifications. The two companies felt dropping legacy connectors and replacing them with USB was required for better PC performance and reliability. But PC hardware manufacturers weren’t listening: 1998-model PCs remained beige boxes with old-style connectors.
    Ironically, Apple was listening. Apple’s hardware used its own set of old-style connectors. And with Apple’s then-shrinking market share, manufacturers of printers and other computer peripherals were increasingly uninterested in including Mac-compatibility.

    So while PC hardware manufacturers were unwilling to be the first to “think different,” with its 1998 iMac model, Apple made that slogan its corporate motto. The 1998 iMac spelled the end for the beige-box PC. Your current PC is more likely to be black or silver or white and makes at least some attempt at attractiveness – a reflection of the original iMac’s contention that attention to style is worthwhile, even in products aimed at business users.

    The iMac kick-started demand for USB-connected products. With USB-compatibility also included in Microsoft’s just-released Windows 98, by 1999 even reluctant PC manufacturers were building USB connectors into their products, eventually using it in place of old-style printer, keyboard and mouse connectors. Today, most computer peripherals connect via USB, and few computers bother with old-style ports.

    And when was the last time you used a floppy diskette? First PC notebooks and more recently most PC desktops stopped bothering to include a floppy disk drive.

    The successful 1998 iMac release also had other spinoffs, including far too many products with names starting with a lower-case “i” – not all of them from Apple. That “i” originally stood for Internet to underscore Apple’s claims that the iMac was designed for easy connection to the Net. The next year, Apple released an iBook notebook.

    It followed that up with iPods and iPhones and more, devices that were not necessarily Internet-connected. Similarly, the original iMac’s blue-and-white plastic colour scheme was copied onto late ’90s plastic gadgets, from ballpoint pens to alarm clocks. And as the first of a series of successful Apple products under the leadership of returned CEO Steve Jobs and industrial designer Jonathan Ive, it saved Apple.

    The following year, Apple released its iBook notebook, again in a curvy colourful case with USB built-in. That model popularized WiFi, again a technology that had been around for a while but was not widely used.

    As with the original iMac, Apple’s lead was not in creating something new, but in successfully prodding both the public and a reluctant PC industry to adopt useful technologies that were out there, but being ignored. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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