Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mr. Gates are you in that closet? Is that a cell phone playing the Grateful Dead?

No officer, we're camping out here because I really want to buy a $500 cell phone. Really. I'm not making this up!--Friday is the day, people. i can’t wait Actually, i can wait.

As most of you may have gathered by now, I am one of the founding fathers of the Church of Apple. I’ve used Macs since they first came out in 1982 and I’m on my seventh or eighth by now. In fact, except for a year at Johns Hopkins, whose second-rate IT department was trying to squelch the use of every Mac on campus (Macs threatened their jobs because they did not need an IT person to set up, never got viruses and rarely broke down), I have never used a Windows computer and wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had it. (This is being written on a two-year old iMac, one of four Macs in our house).

Friday, is of course, iPhone day. That’s the day Apple and its accidental partner, AT&T begin selling the device that probably sets the world record for hype. No one does hype better than Apple. Whether no one builds a telephone as well as Apple remains to be seen. This had better be really, really good. If it is, Apple will have revolutionized yet another industry.

But some thoughts on aesthetics: I have learned that the Church of Apple divides the world into two kinds of people—those who love great design and will pay for it, and those who don’t understand that concept. Apple products, almost without exception, are the best-designed industrial products of the last half century. Nothing comes close. Jonathan Ive, the British-born designer and perhaps the greatest industrial designer since Raymond Loewy in the 1950s, gets a lot of the credit, but so too does Steve Jobs. It is Jobs’ conviction, that design follows function not the other way around, that makes Apple products so beautiful and useful. If you send messages on a Blackberry, punching out numbers with your thumb on minuscule keys, you understand. You are doing that not because it is the most efficient way of typing on a small device but because that's the keyboard the engineers attached to it and you must conform. That's function following design. Even Apple’s failures, such as the Cube, have been gorgeous, even if the public couldn’t grok them. As to those of us of the Church; you either buy into Jobs’ aesthetic and love Ive's implementation, or you don’t, and there is no in-between.

(I would point out that Apple may be the only large company in America that does no--as in zero, nada, zip--consumer research. No polls, no focus groups. We design them the way we think you ought to want them and you can either buy them or call Hewlett-Packard).

That aesthetic makes me a little crazy: I love gadgets, as my wife will attest. If it has buttons and lights, I want it, and the more buttons and lights the more I want it. I am about to buy a car with so much electronics, it will take me a week to figure out what button to press to turn on the radio (or I can bring in my 13-year-old daughter, who will have it down in about 10 minutes). Yet Apple’s aesthetic runs directly contrary to this. The Mac PowerBook has the fewest buttons of any laptop and nothing lights up, and while you can buy keyboards with lots of buttons and lights for your Mac, they come with the bare minimum because the machine works better that way. Your basic Dell laptop was designed by an engineer for people ostensibly like me; the PowerBook was designed by a designer. Big difference. And I am devoted to the latter. Weird. By the way, anyone know the person in charge of design for Dell? I thought not.

So, the iPhone. Apple got rid of the keyboard. In fact, the iPhone has only one actual button, the thing you turn it one with. You get to send messages--indeed, you implement every function--with a touch screen, using gorgeous icons larger than the mechanical buttons on your Blackberry and its ilk. There have already been complaints, but the complaints are misconceived: The touch-screen isn’t an accidental mistake; it’s the whole point. It's the Jobs-Ive aesthetic at work. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity." (If Thoreau really believed that, of course, he wouldn't have repeated himself twice.)

Do you really need one device that does everything but blow your nose, even if elegantly? Is Apple producing a high tech version of the dinner theater, which serves dinners, produces shows and does neither very well? We'll see. I'd bet on them.

The problem Apple faces is that its hype machine is so good, that every single flaw, real or perceived in the iPhone, will be used to slam the device and the company. Apple raised the bar too high. But we of the Church are not concerned. If the iPhone comes close to doing what it is supposed to do, it will revolutionize cell phones the way iTunes and the iPod revolutionized the music industry and the Mac revolutionized computers. Don’t believe the latter? Microsoft Windows and its new iteration, Vista, are fairly inexact copies of Mac OS-X, about one and a half-generations behind, soon to be two-and-a-half when Leopard appears in October. Stuff you are now doing on Vista, presuming you've managed to load it, we've been doing for almost three years, and more safely.

By the way, many have wondered how Apple gets away with the hype. The reason is simple: most journalists, writers and creative people use Macs. I was at a conference last year of Knight Fellows at Stanford. Most of the people there brought laptops. I did not see a single Windows PC.

Three years ago, I thought it would be nice to buy Apple stock. It was down in the 20s somewhere. I did some research and one thing that kept popping up was the adage from stock brokers and experts that you should never invest on emotion. I listened to the experts. I forgot that if they were so fucking smart, they wouldn’t have to work for a living as stock brokers and experts.

If the iPhone stumbles a bit, Apple’s very high-flying stock will fall considerably because people stopped actually investing years ago and Wall Street is just legalized gambling. But not to worry. The aesthetic will win out. Will I buy one? I wish. $500, I do not have. I wish I could afford the stock.

So I wont' be camped out in front of the Towson Apple store. I'll wait until I win the lottery.

If you want to see how wacky this is, see the armed guards and secret flights here.

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