Summer doldrums: A tale of two product launches

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, September 1999

A tale of two product launches. Unlike the similarly-named Dicken?s novel, I won?t start that it was the best of launches, it was the worst of launches (and so forth).

As a technology writer, I get a lot of invitations from companies looking for publicity. Mostly, I don?t go?the food?s not that good as a rule, and most of the time, I?m chained to my day job anyway. But in the summer, I?m a lot more flexible, and these two events were on consecutive days, so I made an exception.

Invitation #1 was from Apple?Steve Jobs was giving the keynote address at the summer MacWorld Expo in New York, and Apple Canada was re-broadcasting it in an auditorium in downtown Vancouver. So I joined a couple of hundred Apple fans (remember, ?fan? is short for fanatic).

As always, Apple provides a good show?at least when compared to the competition. At last summer?s Windows 98 launch, for example, it was somewhat odd, to say the least, to see Harvard dropout Bill Gates role-playing a professor, trying to teach us that the growth of computers was like the growth of the automobile, early in the century, with the Internet analogous to the highway system. Excuse me, sir, will this be on the test?

Apple?s presentation was a bit more lively, starting off with ER?s Noah Wylie pretending to be Steve Jobs, complete with black turtle-neck and ?insanely great? clichÚs. After the real Jobs introduced the company?s new iBook notebook, he demonstrated its durability by having an iBook-holding Apple exec jump out a window. Not high art, perhaps, but entertaining.

While this isn?t the place for a review of the iBook, my first impressions are that it looks like nice value?certainly the $2400 Canadian price puts it right out there with PC notebook models from IBM, Toshiba, Compaq, and more. But the iBook stands out from the crowd with its fast, PowerPC processor and that it?s a Mac.

And in a field of black or charcoal notebooks, the iBook comes in your choice of bright orange (?Tangerine?) or blue (?blueberry?). Although detractors have suggested that the shape resembles a toilet seat, no one is going to mistake your iBook for a run of the mill notebook.

The next day, I attended product launch #2 at the Pacific Space Center (aka the Planetarium). Here, along with half a dozen or so from the computer press, I saw Creative Labs Canada and partner Empac (a Canadian systems integrator and distributor) launch the Blaster PC. Not available in the States??Only in Canada? Pity? I hear you say.

Not surprisingly, neither Creative?s Mark Jamieson nor Empac?s Florence Ng could match the showmanship or charisma of Apple-founder Jobs. And the product they were touting was yet another beige, tower-case PC.

Not that the Blaster PC is a bad product?inside, it includes the high-end sound and video that Creative Labs is famous for. The custom motherboard design makes it easy to plug things in, putting the jacks on the front of the case, along with a big, handy volume control. (Has it really taken the PC industry nearly 20 years to think of these enhancements)? Complete with FM tuner, these PCs make a good start at being the center of a home entertainment system.

Like the iBook, Creative expects that the Blaster PCs will be available in September in selected stores (with custom ordering over the Web, in conjunction with local dealers), with models at a range of prices.

It?s not really fair to compare these two events?certainly, Apple had the advantage of the enthusiasm of a crowd, both live in New York City, and at the local re-broadcast. The same product launch would have lacked a lot of its energy, if the only viewers were a handful of jaded press types, as at the PC Blaster launch.

But is it just me, or do PCs in general seem, well?a bit dull? Maybe it?s their background as machines for running spreadsheets in corporate offices, while the creative types used Macs. Maybe it?s the ongoing PC addiction for beige while Macs are in a range of fruit flavours. (A year ago, Jobs suggested that he was hoping to market computers the way Swatch marketed watches?as fashion accessories). Without getting into the whole PC vs Mac war (which has gotten boring in its own right), it seems to me that Apple?s about the only major company in the industry with much of a zing.

As an experiment, I?d love to see Creative offer buyers on the web site a range of colours, including generic beige. How much extra would it add to the price?

What do you think? Have computers gotten boring? If so, what would it take to bring the excitement back? Let me know.

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