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Apple's Efforts to Innovate Inconsistent as of Late

by Joe Leo, Columnist September 22, 2006


'THINK DIFFERENT' (a three-part series)
Part One

OPINION: (9.22.06)-- When Apple announced the release of the MacBook back in May, their press release stated that, "...the new MacBook completes Apple's Intel-based portables lineup and replaces both the iBook and the 12-inch PowerBook." Oh, really...??

(Say that last line in the style of Jim Carrey's character from the 1994 smash comedy hit, "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective").

Was Apple's strategy to get rid of, sorry, replace their "flagship" portables-- at least, their true portable line in terms of size and form factor --a good idea? It depends on how you look at the whole picture, and with their decision to replace their 12" line of laptops, they were clearly thinking different.

Apple's "Think Different" advertising campaign back in the late 90s was said to be inspired by a quote from Albert Einstein-- who not unsurprisingly happened to be one of the celebrities/historical figures used in the ad campaign --who once said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

But only Apple knows how to twist that theory around inside out, sometimes solving problems in fact, by using the parts of that "same kind of thinking" when they created their products. And therein lies the double-edged sword that the Mac maker has used over the years which, lately, has been producing the opposite results.

"Whatcha talkin' 'bout Willis?" (to quote Gary Coleman's character from the NBC television series "Diff'rent Strokes" which ran from 1978-86).

Usually when you replace something, it's because there were some flaws in your product's design, so you take steps to fix it. Or, as the case is with Apple most of the time, you take something that already is a winner, and hack at it a bit (for lack of a better term)-- okay, tweak it --to make it even better than it was before.

And Cupertino has always been good about using both strategies to their advantage, always being in the forefront as the leader in innovation, leaving other companies in the dust (who sometimes even copy Apple's techniques to boost their lack of a "cool" factor). You don't have to convince us Mac users and aficionados of that fact.

Take the iBook for starters. The first iBooks, "clamshell" edition, looked good in terms of its colors, but form factor, size, and weight (not to mention, shape!) were less than desirable for a portable. The only innovative thing about its design, besides its color scheme, was that cool handle on the back of the machine that allowed you to carry your laptop around without a bag.

When Apple decided to refresh the line, they redesigned the iBook from the ground up, and turned out a more stylish product that improved upon its failures. The machine shrunk in size, was much sleeker and its shape more refined, making it more like a standard "square" laptop, but in its own definitive and recognized Mac-only design.

The only thing that wasn't hot on the revised model was its easily-scratched polycarbonate casing, and white easy-to-get-dirty, color. As hard as you tried to shield it from scratches and keep it from getting dirty, it was a losing battle.

At least, now users were proud to carry an iBook that you didn't have to, uh, purposely hide in a bag, its former self gaining the reputation of the infamous "toilet-seat" toy laptop. This came from designers trying to copy their own, thank goodness, "candy flavor" iMac look and incorporate it into a laptop design-- innovative, but an eventual failure.

Minor imperfections aside, the revised machine was still popular among its targeted user base, geared toward consumers and students. As cheap as the white plastic casing looked, it was actually tougher than the titanium PowerBook, it was a true portable, and it seemed to be even more popular with pro users who were left feeling just a little (maybe?) jealous because of its size and ultra-portability factor.

Then Apple pulled an iPod, oops, a rabbit out of their hat with the debut of the 12-inch aluminum PowerBook, packing the then top-of-the-line G4 processing power into an even smaller / sleeker / cooler-looking machine and design. The 12" PowerBook was clearly an improvement to the PowerBook line in that it now could classify itself as a true portable.

It also addressed the problem of one major flaw in the original PowerBook G4's design, the flaking paint on the titanium casing. (Let's not forget that the 17-inch aluminum PowerBook G4 was also released, taking the opposite route by creating a portable "desktop computer" for those who needed a desktop's screen real estate).

And what did that new PowerBook look like? an iBook! for crying out loud, but no white plastic to get scratched or dirtied here, nor paint flaking off a titanium casing. It was encased in shiny silver aluminum. With this machine, they clearly based it on an already great design (the 12" iBook), and improved upon it by giving it a tougher case, faster processor, and ultra-compact portability.

Ultra-compact? Yes, because it was even a tad smaller and thinner than the iBook.


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