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The End of the Elite Generation

Those of us who embraced the Mac as the ideal personal computer solution early on might have been thought of as elitists at one time. That’s because we all paid substantially extra for the privilege, and that’s where the concept of the “Apple Tax” began.

More to the point, for so many years, the Mac user existed in a tiny niche where artists and other content creators resided. If you wanted software, local stores would rarely be able to accommodate you. If they had any Mac products for you at all, they largely consisted of a few dusty boxes consigned to a rear, seldom-visited shelf. So you ordered mail order catalogs to find the titles you wanted. That was, of course, before the Internet and convenient online ordering spread to the masses.

Certainly the success of Microsoft’s Windows 95 made it awfully hard for some to remain faithful to the poor, beleaguered Mac platform. This isn’t to say that Apple didn’t do its share to make you feel abandoned. Sure there were regular model updates; in fact, so many sometimes that you didn’t know the differences.

Of course, part of that failed model proliferation scheme was an attempt to make Macs cater to the masses, in the same fashion as the generic PC. So the consumers were expected to buy a Performa, whereas the traditional Mac user would go for the Quadra and later the Power Mac. And don’t ask me how the name Centris came to be, although our David Biedny tells me that he was responsible for the name “Power Mac.”

In any case, Apple’s renewal began a decade ago with the introduction of the original pear-shaped iMac. Indeed, they sold millions of them. The strangely-shaped successor, with the articulated arm, didn’t do quite so well, although it was a fascinating bit of engineering.

More to the point, though, by making Macs more mainstream in terms of pricing and user appeal, the potential audience crew incredibly. While I haven’t polled my readers recently about this, except for the special listener surveys we do on the radio show sites, I bet a large number of you never heard of a Performa or a Quadra, and perhaps regard both as alien terms.

Well, perhaps, but as millions of you buy new Macs, I am willing to suggest that the conventional wisdom that we’re all part of an elite class has certainly gone out the window. Indeed, Apple has to be pleased over this state of affairs, and you can well believe that some of their design decisions have followed this marketing initiative.

Let’s look, for example, at the new MacBook with that terrific aluminum unibody. I know some of you are disappointed that it no longer has a FireWire port. But consider that most of the people who used FireWire on a consumer-grade note-book probably required it for an external hard drive or a camcorder.

Well, as Steve Jobs has said, most of the camcorders you buy today, except for professional-grade products, have USB 2.0 ports. What’s more, there is a plentiful selection of USB drives. Sure there are undeniable advantages to FireWire from a technological point of view, but for most of you, I bet USB is good enough. Even the iPod no longer requires FireWire. Indeed, it probably saves Apple a few dollars on each unit, the better to pay for that glass trackpad with the embedded button.

I would also think that the move to glossy screens on new Macs, however controversial, has a larger purpose in mind. We ran a tiny survey, and found that roughly 56% of you like glossy (this figure will change slightly from day to day), although many of you still object and prefer matte. Certainly my friend Rob Griffiths, a Macworld Senior Editor, abhors glossy because he cannot tolerate the reflections under many lighting conditions.

There is also the larger question of how well a glossy screen fares when you try to calibrate for more accurate color reproduction. Certainly Macs are still preeminent in the graphic arts industry where accurate color is a prerequisite, So does that present a potential obstacle? Does Apple expect content creators to just use external displays when they cannot, for whatever reason, tolerate glossy?

In a practical sense, glossy does have its undeniable advantages. Pictures seem brighter, blacks richer, and from a mass-marketing point of view, I can see where they might be preferred. While Apple doesn’t break out the actual figures, it’s also possible that, when both glossy and matte displays were offered on the MacBook Pro, the vast majority of users preferred the former. So Apple made an appropriate decision.

Then again, Apple quite often finds itself ahead of the curve when adding and removing features. They got plenty of flack with those first iMacs, because they didn’t have floppy drives, nor the traditional peripheral ports, such as LocalTalk and SCSI. Instead, it was all Ethernet and USB, but the rest of the PC industry finally caught up.

Today, being a Mac user no longer puts you into an elite class, unless you feel that people who prefer elegant design, relative ease-of-use and reliability ought to feel special. Apple happens to think that most everybody would prefer their solutions if they gave them gave half a chance, and I happen to agree.