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Why is it innovative

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

When the iMac came out, industry pundits crawled out of the their burrow infested mounds to attack the product. It was everything they hated in a product -- well designed, not focused around just speed but around features and functionality, targeted (instead of a generalized Swiss army knife of computers), and so on. Most predicted it would be a flop. Then when sales went skyward they attacked it all as a short term trend. Then when it went on longer they got quieter, but still made occasional jabs. Now they hardly say anything on the subject -- certainly no apologies or clarifications as to why the product is a success, and why they should have eaten their words. Frankly, I think this is because they don't understand the phenomenon.

Now we have the iBook. (Great name by the way, and one I liked from the start). And once again the wannabe's and armchair CEOs (or CIOs) will crawl out of their caves to attack. An example of that is John Dvorak and his has-been view of the computer industry and Apple.

His long winded diatribe goes on to bash Apple and the iBook over a variety of reasons. I'll summarize them, and respond.

  1. Looks like a Barbie Cosmetic Case! Looks like a toy or guys will be embarrassed.
  2. The marketing behind the iBook and terms used (like targeting college kids, backpacks, etc.)

Looks matter

Yes looks matter. And the iBook looks a little simplified -- like the iMac. In car styling I think the phrase used would be "clean lines". In art it would be "minimalist". But I don't think it is toy-like or embarrassing. Heck I had an eMate for a while, which looks at least as "toy-like" -- and most of the comments I ever received were positive. So I'm sure there are going to be a few who don't like the style -- like many don't like the new Volkswagen Beetle -- but the machines are still going to sell well. Society adapts to new looks, and enough people like the styling that the others will "fall in line" or figure that if other people like it, it must not be too bad. So give it time. Whenever you come out with something that looks different people need a while to adapt. About the silliest thing you can do is attack based on your first impression and close your mind before you give something a chance -- you'll often eat your words later.


I think it would be a mistake to target a low-cost simplified machine to the gadget-elite of many Businessmen and the high-tech crowd. This would be hard because these men are often focused on specs and numbers and techno-features and not usability. So targeting there would be a bad idea.

Surprisingly, the young (men and women) seem to be far more sane. They are looking for an economical and rugged tool. They aren't as concerned about gadgety features or having the smallest machine on the planet -- they just want something that works practically. The 3rd time their Sony Viao breaks, they'll be lining up for the iBook. Give it features they need, like ruggedized case, a handle, longer battery life, lower cost, and easy plug-n-play and they are happy. Wireless networking is cool too -- especially in dorms and meeting areas for uh homework (and net games). So why wouldn't you want to target the young (and open-minded) with this product over the old and set-in-their-ways?

Many of the wiser and older won't mind the tie-in to youth, ruggedness and functionality. And the economical and older will jump on board and won't feel it is "beneath them". They'll just think about how much money they saved, and how young they feel just typing away on the machine. So it isn't going to exclude anyone by targeting it towards school and learning.


The thing is that in his usual way, the cantankerous old fart likes to attack Apple without opening his mind. He litters his prose with barbs like "it's a pretty hot system for the money, if it works as advertised". Why wouldn't it work as advertised? Apple has an excellent history of doing just that -- so the tone is sort of demeaning.

I think this shows the bigger issue. People like Dvorak don't get it. They don't understand why the iMac took off, and won't understand why the iBook will. They will think it is the cool "toy" look -- and mediocre feature set (at a good price) and miss the bigger issues. He's learned the hard way not to count Apple out (or predict failure) through having to eat his words so many times in the past -- so the direct proclamations of failure are watered down. But he still doesn't like it, and he will hit us with his shallow remarks and barbs because he dare not attack directly. I figure he is just trolling to anger people and get them to feedback on his chat forum which generates him income.

The issue is why -- why did the iMac (and why will the iBook) take off?

The iMac took off not because it looked different -- but that didn't hurt. It took off because the form had functionality. It was small, compact, simple. It did the job better than many more complex tools, was easier to move around, was rugged AND it looked different. When everyone else was buying 150 piece socket set, the iMac was the one piece adjustable wrench. It was a simpler solution to the problem.

Engineering (and life) is about tradeoffs. What do you give up in one place to gain in another? The iMac gave up slots, anachronistic I/O ports, and a floppy disk. For that it got a better and simpler design, better plug-n-play ports, more simplicity, easier to install and use, economical machine that could be moved around and so on. It got rid of the boat-anchors of complexity, to trade for elegance of design and purpose. It isn't perfect for all uses of course, but many people were perfectly willing to make those tradeoffs. In fact, many people had been waiting for such a tool -- one where they could focus on their task, and not on just installing and maintaining the tool itself. Hence the iMacs success was BECAUSE of the feature set (and what they were willing to drop).

The iBook will follow the same path. It drops some features that add cost and complexity. No floppy, or complex ports. It has a smaller screen -- which will lower cost, weight and increase battery life and ruggedness. It's not that small, because it is hard to make small and rugged (and inexpensive). It has simple styling and will be exactly what it is sold as -- the iMac of PowerBooks.

The testosterone charged old-guard of computers will still fail to get it. They want the biggest (smallest), fastest, with most possible attachments and features. It is about expandability and ports to them. Many other people don't care. They want features that are important to them. Some small issues -- like an integrated handle (or wireless networking) mean a lot more to them.

I've worked (and owned) both a PowerBook and an eMate. (The eMate was a simple Newton in a laptop computer form-factor). For just carry-around note-taking and the like, the eMate was a better solution. It wouldn't do everything a PowerBook would do -- but for what I needed to do it was lighter, more rugged and the longer battery life meant I didn't have to be tied to a leash (a power socket). The handle was an incredibly simple and valuable addition. I didn't care about the smaller screen -- because the tradeoffs were right.

The iBook is the same thing only better. It will give people the features they need (like ruggedness, a handle, cost and longer battery life) -- when all the geek-elite have been demanding is smaller size, more speed and expandability (when those things increase cost and complexity while decreasing reliability, durability, and usability). Fortunately there is a large enough minority of the public that is more intelligent about what tradeoffs they need than the geek-elite close-minded writers. They lined up for the iMacs, and will continue to do so. And they will do so for the iBooks as well.

A year after the stories about how the iMac would be a failure, it is still selling well for all the right reasons. It wasn't just about style -- it was about making the right tradeoffs. I think in a year we will see the same thing for the iBook -- and the pundits will still not get why.

Created: 08/02/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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