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Apple Innovation Includes Exploiting Existing Technologies Others Ignore

- 2008.09.30 - Tip Jar

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Harken back to mid-2004. Apple, announcing features of its upcoming OS X 10.4 "Tiger", festooned its developers' conference auditorium with banners reading "Redmond, start your photocopiers." The not-so-subtle message: Apple innovates, Microsoft, mired in delays getting what would be Windows Vista to market, copies.

original iMacLike most modern myths, reality is more nuanced. Take Apple's August 15 ship date to celebrate the iMac's 10th anniversary. The original iMac was an egg-shaped blue-and-white one-piece computer that looked unlike any previous desktop computer. Up until then, computers - both Macs and PCs - came in beige cases with separate beige monitors.

And unlike other desktops - both Macs and PCs - the iMac lacked a floppy disk drive and used USB to connect to keyboard, mouse, and printer. Initial reaction from the media and many members of the public was puzzlement. No floppy drive? And were there any printers, scanners, or other devices that could connect to those USB ports?

Apple innovation, right?

In fact, USB was developed by Intel. It, along with Microsoft, had been pushing PC makers to use it in place of parallel and serial ports, ISA slots, and keyboard and mouse connectors dating back to IBM's 1983 AT.

At the April 1997 Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Microsoft and Intel proposed PC98 specifications. The two companies felt dropping legacy connectors and replacing them with USB was required for better PC performance and reliability. But PC hardware manufacturers weren't listening: 1998-model PCs remained beige boxes with old-style connectors.

Ironically, Apple was listening. Apple's hardware used its own set of old-style connectors - DIN-8 serial, NuBus, SCSI, and ADB (Apple Desktop Bus). And with Apple's then-shrinking market share, manufacturers of printers and other computer peripherals were increasingly uninterested in including Mac compatibility.

So while PC hardware manufacturers were unwilling to be the first to "think different", Apple made that slogan its corporate motto with its 1998 iMac.

The iMac spelled the end for the beige-box PC. Your current PC is more likely to be black or silver or white and makes at least some attempt at attractiveness - a reflection of the original iMac's contention that attention to style is worthwhile, even in products aimed at business users.

The iMac kick-started demand for USB-connected products. With USB compatibility also included in Microsoft's just-released Windows 98, even reluctant PC manufacturers were building USB connectors into their products by 1999, eventually using it in place of old-style printer, keyboard, and mouse connectors. Today, most computer peripherals connect via USB, and few computers bother with old-style ports.

And when was the last time you used a floppy diskette? First PC notebooks - and more recently most PC desktops - stopped bothering to include a floppy disk drive.

The successful 1998 iMac release also had other spinoffs, including far too many products with names starting with a lower-case "i" - not all of them from Apple. That "i" originally stood for Internet, to underscore Apple's claims that the iMac was designed for easy connection to the Net.

the original iBookIt followed that up with iPods and iPhones and more, devices that were not necessarily Internet-connected. Similarly, the original iMac's blue-and-white plastic colour scheme was copied onto late '90s plastic gadgets, from ballpoint pens to alarm clocks. And as the first of a series of successful Apple products under the leadership of returned CEO Steve Jobs and industrial designer Jonathan Ive, it saved Apple.

The following year, Apple released its iBook notebook, again in a curvy colourful case with USB built-in. That model popularized WiFi, again a technology that had been around for a while but was not widely used.

As with the original iMac, Apple's lead was not in creating something new, but in successfully prodding both the public and a reluctant PC industry to adopt useful technologies that were out there but being ignored. LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver, September 30-October 6, 2008; issue 988

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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