American Culture

iHype and the unHip

By Sunfell

Apple wants me to be a Pod Person. Seriously. According to them, I’m the frumpy, square, humorless, uncreative, stuck in biz-mode PC guy in the ads. I’m the one not wearing the coveted white earbuds with a microscopic music player clipped to my collar. And I’m not part of the crowd breathlessly waiting for the iPhone. And while I’ll ooh, and aah like any True Geekâ„¢ over an iPhone or any other juicy gadget that comes into range, I won’t buy one.

Why? Price and tinker-ability.

It was price, really, that put me on the PC side of the Apple/PC divide. My friends had Apple IIs and Mac Classics. I had hand-me-down Commodores and cranky 8086-series PCs. When the fateful day came when I could buy a new computer of my own, it was a no-brainer- the PC was cheaper. I wanted the lovely Mac LC, but it was $1000 more than the Packard Bell 486 next to it. I came home with the PC, and my fate was sealed. The price difference made the decision- and future decisions about the Power Mac, the Power Book, iMac, iPod, and now iPhone very easy. Hip people apparently get money for being hip. The rest of us poor slobs have to parcel it out with an eyedropper.

And there was the other thing that influenced my fateful decision: what I call the “Tinker Element”. Lots of PC geeks have a love of tinkering- tweaking, over-clocking, messing around, etc. Mac users do not. They want their machine to be a transparent, plug-n-go, no-brainer (and certainly no manual!) experience. They want to create stuff with it, not mess with the innards of the box. (Or the outside, either. Well, maybe there are rare exceptions…) It’s a definite cultural difference that is palpable. There really isn’t anything wrong with this, but the Mac people have a tendency to look upon PC people as the computer equivalent of car mechanics or nerdy stuffed shirts. OTOH, PC people can sometimes get a little snarky about the Apple-using ‘pony-tailers’ in their turtlenecks or too-casual workplaces with dogs as mascots- after all, PCs populate places that don’t let people wear flip-flops and play hall ball.

But the bottom line was that the PC invited tinkering- and the Mac was a sealed, untouchable, lollypop colored (iMac) work of art. Nobody I knew ever cracked their Mac open to mess around inside- they cracked it open to show off to the PC people how easy it was to get inside the darn thing. Fortunately, the PC makers got the hint, and the Era of Bloody Knuckles and Foul Language was mercifully short.

Apple touts itself as simple, plug-n-play and intuitive. Hey, I like intuitive- and the idea of tilting the device and it knowing which way is ‘up’ is a cool one. And simple, clean, un-mess-with-able interfaces are nice too- for about five minutes. Then un-hip people like me want to open the case or fiddle with the kernel. It’s a geek thing.

“Marketplace” made an observation about the sort of people who use the stuff Apple cranks out- they’re “orderly, sleek, graceful creatures who always know which way is up.” And they add, “Who’s not eager to buy that?”

Not me- I’d look strange with a Nano clipped to my belt and white earplugs in my ears. I have enough trouble with the hands-free headset I use for my phone when I drive. The pushing of the hip, young image and the proliferation of iPod accessories to the exception of everything else makes me think that I am living in some sort of electronic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I am almost expecting some hip young iPodling to catch me with my teensy little Creative Zen V Plus hanging around my middle-aged neck and start screeching at me. Or frantically dialing their iPhone to get the Square Police to remove me from sight.

I’m not sleek and hip. I’m not beautifully organized, either. My work-desk looks like a computer store and a library exploded all over it. The glowing screens in the middle aren’t Macs, they’re boring old, much tinkered with and cussed-at PCs. If there are any lollipop colors, they’re the result of the fringe of post-it notes I’ve put around the screens.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d picked the Mac over the PC? Would I be richer today? Would I have a better job- or a job at all? You see, all that un-hip tinkering and messing about became what I do for a living. I got good enough at it that I became an expert, and now someone pays me to mess with them. I’ll admit to having a bit of envy at seeing the Xeon powered Mac Workstation and the 30-inch cinema display boxes in the hall of a fellow agency, but they’ll eventually invite me in to admire their new gear. Then we’ll exchange PC war stories.

21 replies »

  1. I never bought into the Apple culture, but I’m jealous of people who did and are happy with it.

    They’re always pleased to rub it in face that their Mac gives them performance and capabilities superior to my buggy, Microsoft-powered, possibly virus-infested PC.

    Like you, I make price an issue. I’m honestly just too cheap to fork over the money for a Mac.

    As for iPod, screw iPod. I have a Toshiba Gigabeat that was rated higher in the 2006 year-end gear roundup issue of WIRED than last year’s iPod. I love it and don’t miss the iPod for a second.

  2. Bah! No tinkering indeed.


    As if I would give up on my Rev. A Bondi Blue iMac just because the analog board died. I *need* my proper Photoshop, Gimp(shop) just isn’t the same. (Not to mention Freehand and InDesign.)

  3. D. Peace- Oddly enough, I don’t have too much trouble with Windoze-powered machines. It might be from the accumulated ‘foo’ I’ve gotten from nearly two decades of messing with them. And I love my little Creative Zen V Plus. My only regret is that I didn’t get a larger capacity one.

    Michael: Motorcyclists would call your Apple a “Basket Case”. I ought to learn Photoshop, but MS had a competing program for a too-brief amount of time (Photo Draw) that does what I want. Best of all, I got it for free. I learned how to use it (I was selling computers and software at the time), and still like it.

  4. Heh. The idea that the Mac is hip is a great advertising and branding meme – those are great ads – but I’ve never been silly enough to buy them as factual. Dear lord I know some unhip Macsters and many of the coolest people I know are PCers.

    Another idea I’m waiting to see actually PROVEN is the article of faith crap that Mac is simply better for design and art and the like. Well, there may be spots where there’s better software (although for every one such case there’s probably 10 where the reverse is true) but you put the latest Photoshop for each platform up on comparably powered machines and it takes a lot better eye than I have to tell the difference.

    And I started as a Mac guy, and in my professional life have supervised any number of creative projects so I’ve SEEN the results. Mac has a tremendous ideology and fantastic idea marketing, but when you get past the hype those articles of faith and dogma are just about impossible to prove.

    Mac customer service ain’t all puppies and rainbows, either. I had to rip out and reinstall iTunes two or three times because they had refused to fix a known but that causes songs to skip on playback (almost like a vinyl record with a bad scratch in it). That one drove me nuts.

    And I’m waiting to see how this iPhone thing works out. Based on all I’ve read and some conversations I’ve had with people who know more than I do about it I’m expecting a bit of a trainwreck. One of the secrets to successful business initiatives is to “underpromise and overdeliver.” Well, perhaps no product in history has done more in the way of overpromising. I expect that in five years something like the iPhone will be mandatory – it certainly looks like a GREAT way of doing mobile (for some things, anyway) but the rule that you don’t want to buy the first version of anything is about to be reinforced in spades, I think.

    I listened to a Verizon rep, for example, theorizing that they were going to have massive issues with the touch-screen. If you drop it, she said, it will screw up the usability and if you break it you’re really hosed – she says (And I haven’t verified this) that AT&T won’t insure any handset over a certain dollar amount, and if you break this one it’s going to many hundreds of dollars to get back in the game. There are network issues that will prevent certain functions from working in many areas, and so on. Her take on the touch-screen problems were informed by what they’ve seen themselves with the Chocolate phone, a handset that she pointedly would not recommend to me. Talked me completely out of it, in fact.

    As a marketing guy, I have tremendous professional respect for outstanding design and the ability to promote and idea in the marketplace, and on these fronts I bow down before the altar of all things Steve Jobs. But at the same time, a good marketer knows the difference between smoke and fire.

    With Apple, you might choke to death on the smoke, but you’re in no danger of burning…

  5. Apple- all surface and little substance, eh? I’ve heard about the problems with customer service and ‘Sad Macs’.

    It’s ironic, because I started out tinkering around on Macs- I even created a cool Runic font on one- it’s probably still wandering around the digisphere. But my friends also had Commodores and Ataris, too- and the rather clunky and primitive laptops of the early-mid Eighties. The geeks quickly sorted themselves out- they were the ones who were getting color boards and more (very expensive) memory for their PCs, and the Mac people were the ones looking down their noses at our labors and ‘ugly’ computers.

    One of my friends used the term “Mac Jesuit” to describe the fanatical loyalty to the brand- no matter what the sordid truth might be. Mac Jesuits are convinced that Photoshop will always run better in a ‘native’ environment (a Mac), and no amount of benchmarks and demonstrations to the contrary will shake their belief in this. Even studios like Pixar and ILM are using massively paralled Xeon powered PCs to do their magic- Macs might be at the front end, but the major digital heavy lifting is all done by PCs.

    I suppose it all boils down to what you’re used to using. The USAF got PCs instead of Macs, and I learned word processing with Word Star. But getting MS Word was miles better. Point and click replaced command line formatting, and made writing on the thing more intuitive than ever. The first program I got for my first PC was Broderbund’s Print Shop Deluxe- because desktop publishing was (and in many ways, still is) my main purpose for having the thing. Odd- now I type into AJAX-powered boxes on a website, and the results are as wonderful- and instantaneously available- as anything I used to slave over with white-out and wax patches. (I used to publish fanzines.) Plus, I don’t have to mail it to people. They can read it seconds after I click on “Say it!”

    I’d like to get a Mac just so I can understand more about the interface. The newer ones will run Windows (or Linux) in a dual boot mode, so there’s no excuse- except price- for me to get one. But I have my eye on a teensy little slim-line HP that’s about the size of a hardback book. It’s got the bells and whistles I need, and even though it costs the same as a Mac Mini, I’ll let the PC win again.

  6. I’m a Mac guy ’cause I’m lazy. I just want it to do what I want it to do without too much fuss.

    So far, so good. And yes, I bought my first Mac the Monday after the ’84 Superbowl.

    Nice post, Lori. Thanks. 🙂

  7. Sam, I know you told me about this post just to bait me, and sure enough, it’s worked.

    I would argue that it’s not that Mac users don’t want to tinker, it’s that computer users don’t want to tinker. While there are more PC users than Mac ones purely due to historical trends in platform openness and cost, the Mac is in fact gaining market share, partially due to people being drawn in by the iPod, and partially because OS X is beautiful, usable, and has Unix under the hood. You’d be surprised how many geeks now use Macs — my friend the security consultant tells me that at conferences he goes to, Macs comprise nearly 50% of the machines he sees people using.

    I’ve been using Apple products since the early 80’s, PCs since 1984, and Unix boxen since 1988. I am the kind of person who’s unafraid of building a home network, swapping out internal drives and cards, and generally messing around with parts of my system. But you will pry my MacBook Pro from my cold, dead hands, because any machine that combines an elegant and simple UI with the power and flexibility of Unix is a machine I will use forever.

    As for the iPhone — sure, I want one desperately, but I also know that I can’t afford it, nor should I jump at release 1.0. But as Xeni Jardin points out on Boing Boing, “It isn’t hype if the product lives up to it.” Heck, even The Boston Globe‘s notoriously anti-Mac columnist Hiawatha Bray falls all over himself praising the iPhone. You may not want one now, but based on what I’m reading about the interface paradigms Apple is introducing with this phone, I assure you, you’ll be using it, or devices inspired by it, sooner than you think.

  8. Debby, I would never bait you. Ever. That just ain’t how I roll.

    The issue isn’t the promise of the iPhone – I have an iPod and love it, iTunes has changed how I listen to and deal with music, and I fully expect that the mobile comm landscape in five years is going to be dramatically shaped by this new product.

    It’s interesting, though, that Mac’s successes these days – and in this I guess I’d include the alleged share gain you note – is about peripherals, and that a big part of what you love these days is about UNIX.

    In other words, the best things we can say about Mac are either about things other than the computer itself or the fact that in OS terms it has become a lot less Mac-ish.


  9. I’m one of those ‘sit back and let the technology mature’ sorts of geeks. I’ll wait for everyone to work the bugs out, and version 2.0 come out before I get it- I’ve been burned way too often before.

    Macs are wonderful machines. I fear though as they grow in popularity, the now-rare attacks against the OS will become more common as the griefers, spammers and crackers glom on to whoever is on top. PCs are currently my bread and butter, and MS PCs are my specialty, but I am not above learning the Mac or various Linux operating systems if that’s where the majority is headed. Heck, I downloaded Ubuntu last week to mess with. I tinker for a living- I’ve built boxen, brought back old PCs from the dead, rigged up a ‘home theater’ system before ‘home theater’ was around (ok, it was a boom-box connected to the VCR, but it sounded a lot better than the TV speakers!). Repairing and maintaining PCs is my job, but it’s more play (for me, anyway) than work. I suppose it’s a great fit!

    Simple is good. Simple and powerful is better. Simple, powerful and cheap- or even free- is best.

    I hold no ill will against Mac enthusiasts- it’s the hype that itches me. If Xeni is right, I know we’ll hear about it. She knows her stuff. I’m just wondering who will be the first to bound into my office with their new iPhone and demand that I make it work with our network? I’ve volunteered to be the ‘go-to’ person for that- we can handle the Palms and the BlackBerries and the Mobile PC smart phones our members use, but I get to get my mitts on the iPhone first. RHIP!

  10. Sam, that market share gain I mentioned is more than “alleged” — see this article in PC World as one source.

    In other words, the best things we can say about Mac are either about things other than the computer itself or the fact that in OS terms it has become a lot less Mac-ish.

    I don’t think that’s the case at all. If anything, the OS is now more Mac-ish — Apple took Unix, which is hardly the most consumer-friendly OS out there, and gave it a UI and usability makeover so that even computer novices can use it. (Yeah, I’ve used GNOME, X Windows, and other Unix window/UI apps, and nothing comes close to Mac OS X in terms of user-friendliness.)

    And in terms of peripherals, not only is it a great advantage that quite a bit of hardware out there will work with the Mac now, the Mac just makes working with peripherals easier than it is with the PC. When I bought my company a video camera, I didn’t have to download any funny drivers or install any software to hook it up to my Mac, as I would have for my PC — I just plugged in a FireWire cable, and boom, I could pull things into iMovie. The same goes for my new digital camera — no driver nonsense, just a USB cable and iPhoto. Meanwhile, the current drivers for the Belkin wireless card I run on my Windows laptop insist on telling me that I have no wireless connection even though I obviously do, since I can access the internet.

  11. That plug-n-play thing is fine, depending on who you are. No doubt that its convenient and secure. But that’s also a ceiling – the price you pay is that it limits you. You can’t crawl around under the hood (not unless you’re a damed sight more savvy than the average user) so your experience is pretty much defined by a technological ideology that began – and let’s be honest about this – with the assumption that the user wasn’t smart enough to handle a real computer.

    And yeah, it’s nice that the peripherals do all those cool things, but that ain’t the point. The point is that the bump is not due to the COMPUTER. Psychically, it’s the peripherals that now become the hub of the strategy and the computer becomes, well, peripheral.

    I’m absolutely taking nothing away from Mac, although let’s be honest about one more thing while we’re at it – in 1984 Steve Jobs created Bill Gates. The decision to slave Apple to a closed box opened the door for somebody to come along and take the heck over the PC world in ways that have rarely been good for the consumer.

    I like the iPod, but it doesn’t make up for Bill Gates.

  12. I think the emergence of various Linux iterations as comparable OS substitutions has really put a wrench into the classic Microsoft vs. Apple debate. If I buy a Dell laptop with Ubuntu preinstalled, download serviceable Office substutites like OpenOffice (or use Web-based apps like Google Docs or Zoho), use Firefox or Opera for my browser, and buy a handset that has a Linux OS as its base rather than Windows (or go back to the Palm OS), I could theoretically accomplish all of my basic computing needs. (Oh, and I could use the GIMP or Paint.NET as my Photoshop alternative, and I could probably find a Linux-compatible MP3 player with some effort.)

    True, it’d be harder, it would take more time, and I wouldn’t have the ease-of-use of a Mac or the familiarity of Windows, but it could be done. Both companies have rigorously defined and designed monocultures that demand adherence to their precepts and intolerance of the other side’s assets and their own flaws.

    And both companies have made terrible, anti-consumer business decisions that turn me off tremendously. That’s why my next PC will take the aforementioned journey of Linux. Why pick one side or the other when you don’t have to play the game at all?

  13. “Steve Jobs created Bill Gates…”

    I never looked at that relationship quite like that before, but you have made a great observation, Sam. It was the proprietary closed-box system (along with the high prices) that turned me away from Apple. Why couldn’t I build my own Apple box? I wanted to! But I ended up building a PC, because everything was there, affordable, there was a huge number of experienced people whose brains I could pick if I got into trouble. There was a very brief period of time where Apple actually ‘opened’ their system to other manufacturers, but that didn’t last very long. And you’re right about the peripherals being the real power behind the Apple throne. PCs are getting a lot better about using better drivers- but with the vast array of things available to build them with, it’s no wonder that Vista was released before it was ‘done’. New boards and peripherals are being made almost faster than they could write the code, and they had to pretty much give up trying to keep up. (I’m still waiting for SP 1 before I get Vista, though…)

    I think that the era of Gates and Jobs is passing- with all the online Web 2.0 and 3.0 stuff that’s out there- along with open source and recycling of older PCs, their stranglehold on our wallets is weakening. That will be good for all of us- Mac Jesuits and PC Geeks alike.

  14. Martin-

    I’ve been looking at those Dell Ubuntu machines, and I am very tempted. But I might to to the state surplus sale and see if there’s an old laptop that I can get to play with at a cheaper price.

    There’s a group of people called “Code Weavers” who have created a “Wine” interface that allows Windows programs (like Office) to think they’re interacting with the Windows Kernel, even though it’s a Linux, Apple, or Solaris machine. This is- in my humble opinion, at least- the wave of the future- third party coders creating open source software that permits someone to reuse the software they’ve invested in on a Linux machine. The interface software is inexpensive- only $60, so it isn’t a huge bite out of your budget. Plus, they’re actively working on making many apps run in Wine, and will do custom work- reminding me about how Microsoft is now pushing their Virtualization technology.

  15. I wonder if the Mac Mini has OS X?

    All Macs ship with OS X, though unless you’re in a hurry to buy a new machine, I’d wait until the early fall — Leopard (10.5) will be shipping then, and there’s no point in paying $129 for an upgrade when you can just get the OS for free with a new box.

  16. Thanks Sunfell, brilliant article and I’m enjoying the debate.

    Consider the bell curve: at the top end – all sophistication and elegance, is the Apple range, in the middle is Microsoft and a wide range of DIY proprietary stuff, and at the far end is open-source.

    The bumps at each end are vocal, self-riotous and noisy. The Mac Jesuits and Open-source Evangelists have a lot in common in their mutual contempt for the rump in the middle.

    Where Apple has started going right with their peripherals over the last few years is in recognising that the rump is not into buying ideology. They want to buy something that solves a problem. They’re suspicious of being told “but it’s open-source, you can edit it any time you like,” much as you’d be suspicious of being given a lemon if your motor-dealer said, “there’s lots of parts available and it’s real easy to get in under the hood and tinker.”

    They’re also suspicious of anything that is exceptionally expensive but doesn’t appear to give any clear advantage over cheap replacements.

    I’m fairly sure that all those devotees queuing for iPhones were doing so based on the cult of Apple, rather than any knowledge of the superiority of the product.

    In a few weeks time, if the phone proves itself, then the mainstream may buy. At the moment there appears to be some doubts about that if the screaming online from people struggling to port their numbers to the phone is anything to go by.

  17. Very good points, Whythawk. I’m not sure where I am on that bell curve- or if I’m on it at all. I have more puzzlement than contempt, for the most part, but I do understand the fanatical devotion to a product that lives up to its reputation. I own some Klipsch speakers. I absolutely adore them, and would get another pair in a heartbeat, even though they’d set me back by quite a lot of money. (It took six months in layaway at the BX in Germany for me to afford them in ’86.)

    I have certain reviewers that I trust when it comes to shopping for electronics: Maximum PC for computer stuff, and MobileTechReview for handheld goodies. I’ve found their reviews (especially the latter’s) to be fair, in-depth and accurate.

    And I have my own criteria for new things, gained over the years I’ve messed with them:

    Is it well-designed?
    There’s nothing I hate more than slap-dash construction, stuff that crashes, and inscrutable manuals.

    Is it useful?
    That’s probably a no-brainer- but if I’m going to drop a Benjamin on an MP3 player, it needs to have features I’ll use. Same with a phone, although phones are practical in themselves.

    Is it priced correctly?
    This is critical. I hate being gouged. I have the Internet to tell me what the price range is. There are brands who tend to jack up their prices because of their ‘branding’- like Apple, Bose, and Sony (although Sony has gotten better). Brand cachet means nothing to me. If I have a Cowan player or an HTC phone that does what I want (and they’ve got a new one called “Mogul” that just came out for Sprint), I’ll not only buy it, but I’ll tell my friends about it.

    I like things that work as advertised, are priced correctly, and are easy to use. I’m becoming an HP and Cuisinart fan because of these factors. These items have excellent workmanship, useful manuals, and a long history of being excellent items. My next computer will be an HP, and my next kitchen toy will be Cuisinart.

  18. Sunfell @ 19:

    My current computer is a tough old HP Dimension that I’ve had for four years. I’ve put this thing through hell and it just keeps on going–one of the keys there is regular maintenance, which is something a lot of people forget.

    Your computer needs tune-ups and checkups, much like your car. If you don’t clean out the vents, remove unwanted crapware, etc., it’ll suffer. Of course, I know you know this, but it’s amazing how many people just blithely expect it to work like new after long periods of abuse.

  19. I’m multicultural. I can operate Windows. But I don’t. I run Apple OS X and Ubuntu.

    For me it really comes down to what’s the easiest to run and support. MS lost that battle a long time ago. It’s all in the design, which is what Apple tries to convey. Their software is great, but their hardware leaves something to be desired. Almost every piece of (expensive) Apple hardware I bought has had problems. That sucks.

    That’s where Ubuntu comes in just fine for me. I can get old Intel hardware and use it. Apple simplicity without MS headaches.