Wednesday, 9 July 2003

It was only a matter of time, I suppose - nearly a year, in both cases. A year of microcomputer wonderment and dismay.

Last summer I bought an iBook. OS X.2 was the dog's proverbials: a unix that was more user-friendly than Windows. True consumer computing. Nothing, it seemed, could trouble this little bundle of fun, barring the odd quirky software update. Contrary to popular belief, it was cheap, and excellent application software was not hard to find - most of it better than Windows equivalent (eg. Entourage vs. Outlook).

The iBook actually changed the way I used computers: with PCs I have always been an inveterate tweaker, yet with the Mac it just worked, so I left it alone. In fact it was too easy to use in some cases: I bought a bluetooth dongle and nearly sent it back because it didn't include Mac drivers on the CD. The kind gentleman in the shop informed this bristling (at the prospect of hardware mac-phobia) fool that it didn't need any drivers. "Just plug it in and go to the preferences panel. You'll see a new Bluetooth menu. It will also appear under Networks as a new network device." Dohhh. Having sheepishly walked home and done what he said, I had my t68i phone syncing perfectly with the iBook, the iPod and my .Mac account - all at once!

I have a Windows iPod, just because I wanted it to be compatible with my Windows PC. I never actually use it on that for music - oh no. I have iTunes. Likewise, I never even saw the point of camcorders (except as weapons of mass embarrassment) until I started mucking about with iMovie. Very effective, very easy, and included. Sure, MS have released Windows Movie Maker (I think it's called), and when I looked at it, it starkly reminded me of iMovie 1.

All, it seemed, was perfect in Macland. Even the company struck me as an intelligent mover in this industry: it had focused on hardware and design, and borrowed and shared the rest. Unix-based OS (with their own design elements), adoption of Rendezvous, Bluetooth, 802.11, Java, WebDAV, Apache - all these open standards and platforms. Bliss.

Until the niggles crept in.

It started unobtrusively: 2-way tune transfer on iPods - understandable, given the Music Industry's fear of having its collusive rights to print money curbed by a free market. iPod revolutionary, but respectful of current thinking. I could go with that. There are tools that do this, but clearly Apple could not include the functionality in their music software product. Then it became frustratingly, obviously, tedious: the sorts of things that you would think were so easy to improve, yet seemingly not commercially worthy of fixing. Eg. Backup not having multiple backup sets. iSync not syncing Notes. iCal not webDAVing properly.

Then the real bugbear struck: iDVD. This excellent piece of software enables one to put their iMovie-spun vids and iPhoto-adjusted piccies onto a DVD, with chapters and title screens and all the other pretty stuff you get on a commercial DVD - simplified so that amateurs like us could use it. Excellent, I thought. Time to by a DVD Writer. I opted for an external firewire writer from LaCie. Very nice package, very capable & quite future-proof. I then discovered that iDVD only works for internal Superdrives. What? I hear you say,
only for Superdrives? Indeed. But surely they had it on the packaging? Well, not exactly, no. It does say 'superdrive' under system requirements, but does not stipulate ONLY superdrive. The usual case of marketing over information: admission only by omission.

But why? I thought it could be that DVD Writer manufacturers were expected to write their own drivers for it, and most hadn't because they had their own software they wanted to tout. Then I read somewhere that one of the DVD writer manufacturers had done this, and Apple had nixed it in the first week for sales. Seems to me its a case of Apple being a bit too Apple for its own good: the sort of protectionism that lost it the PC war. As ever with such things, it's important to stand back and weigh up what they stand to gain by this action, and what they stand to lose. Gains: rich people with more money than sense buying a Superdriven Powerbook and running... iDVD on it? 1. if they have the money, they might as well buy the $500 DVD Creator Pro (which can use external DVDs); 2. do they really want the bulk of their customer base to consist of buyers with more money than sense? Losses: an insidious feeling among loyal Mac-ites that Apple are still capable of technological hubris, and that while MS may have sown up the OS market, PCs still have a more free, possibly less constrictive apps market.

To borrow Neal Stephenson's analogy: Apple, stop trying to make station wagons.

Postscript: luckily, I was using a borrowed copy of iDVD and didn't stump up the £40 asking price for it (as part of iLife). The DVD Writer was refunded by those lovely people at Micro Anvika.