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But I Digress...
by Doc Hillman

Baseball Cards, The Perfect Metaphor For Macs...
August 4th, 2000

Took the kids to the Red Sox game today. Rained out. Everyone bummed out. Even great pizza and Guiness didn't remove my funk. Spencer, my eldest son, got the funk too. He bought a set of Red Sox "team" cards for five bucks, only to discover that there were eleven cards in the set. Baseball teams have thirty. He hid it well, but he had a serious bummer going on.

Spencer's a card trader. He's got more baseball cards than I ever even thought of having. He's got the shoeboxes full, the massive trades to pick up a Greg Maddux RC, and the endless perusal of Beckett. For those of you who don't have an idea of what all this means, I'll put it this way. He's tucked away a zillion Nomar Garciaparra cards. If Nomar ever hits .400, Spencer will be in heaven.

But I digress...

All this collecting made me think a bit tonight about something that we don't really think about all that much when it comes to Macs. Almost universally, we praise the new OS that won't run on a Mac 128, or praise and simultaneously curse the form of a cube computer. The old ones? Pretty much forgotten or so it would seem. Most of the Mac users today probably weren't brought up on Classics, or Pluses. Performas maybe. If anything, we've got a bunch of people who flocked to a computer first because of how it looked. The iMac ended up in new and long time user hands, and the Pismo, well- if you've ever wanted to use a laptop- use the damn Pismo. Gad it's a wonderful machine. I can't imagine a machine being, well, more amazingly great (I'm sorry- cliché. My bad) than this. A look across the back and there's FireWire, USB, and even the S-Video. I didn't even think about an S-Video port when I got the Pismo and then there it was. Wow.

But here's the thing. If I use this Pismo for ten years it'll be a shock. In fact, I know I won't be using it. It'll be replaced by the leased laptop of the day, and this one will find its way to the bargain bins of computing. Maybe I'll still be using it in the department. But in ten years it is, or actually ISN'T, history. Baseball cards, flimsy pieces of cardboard, ink, plastic, and foil, are built to last. Right now, if I liquidated my minor league supply of cool sports cards, I could probably get the Color Classic that's sitting on the front table of my local PC dealer. It looks forlorn and almost pitiful. And I have no, I repeat NO interest in having a Color Classic sitting around the house collecting dust. Nor does my wife, who you'll hear more about, but quietly. She's a bit shy.

Next door though, at the card shop, Spencer and I get down on our haunches, and looked at the Holy Grails (yes, there are dozens) that are on display in Westerly Card and Collectibles. Mark McGwire rookie card. 1984, US Olympic Team. That's his rookie card. That's bizarre (he joined the show a few years later), but I would shell out about a hundred if I had it to spend. I don't, so McGwire stands holding a bat for Team USA and looking, well, almost frail when compared to the man who launches home runs from stadiums all across Major League Baseball. I'll never be able to buy that card, but we had Westerly.

But I digress...

I don't want a bunch of old Macs around. There are old Macs, and while the form of the machine was usually interesting (even in the worst of times, they did keep trying to innovate, they just didn't get it right), now they take up space and certainly don't do much else. Whenever I need an arcane Mac part, to this day I can go digging in the back room and pull whatever I need from the LCII's that have been abandoned there. They've been left behind in the flow of change. The change of course, has been the operating system.

As much as some like to think that it's the industrial design factors of the Mac that bring us to the system, I posit that the design factor is but one element. Have you taken a good look at the iMac lately? Its bulbous form, once a radical departure, is no longer that. Give it a few more years and chances are that the machine is going to become downright ugly by comparison to newer Apple products. Andy Ihnatko will build an iMacquarium, and that will be that. Something new will come along.

And that's the whole trick to getting the Mac experience right. As a hardware manufacturer, Apple is going to have to continually produce hardware that is current and marketable. The baseball card people have done the same thing. It must be a source of great consternation to the card companies that the product they release is more valuable to the collector than they can ever charge for the cards. What's more, in order to sell more cards, they have had to learn to innovate in form and function.

Baseball cards don't just picture players anymore. They have "inserts" that add value to the product. Card manufacturers insert cards with swatches of jerseys, slivers of bats, and unobtainable autographs. The result? Boys and grown men buying boxes of cards searching for the invaluable insert card.

But I digress...

In their own way, Apple is doing exactly the same thing for users. They add value to their product, while keeping the bottom line as low as possible. Altivec technology is extraordinary, but only of use if you've got the proper product to exploit it. The same is true of FireWire.

Finally, OS X is the baseball card, and the computer is the wrapper. If baseball cards were packaged in plain old wax paper, like in the good old days, they wouldn't have a chance in today's market. The computer's got to look like something special in the short term. So keep yourself prepared for more and more visual innovations to come from Apple, but remember that the core of this business is the operating system. When those two elements have a synergistic relationship, you've got one hell of a computer, and a temporary object of art.

Your comments are welcomed.

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Dr. Tim Hillmanis a long time contributor to the Mac community through his work with MacCentral, MacOPINION, and most recently MacOS Daily.

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