Is the iBook a Bit Too ‘Feminine’ for He-Man Road Warriors?

July 1999: Hooooooooeee! Didn’t PC World’s John C. Dvorak stir up a proverbial hornet’s nest with his column “The iBook Disaster”?

Dvorak Edition pink iBook - the BarbiBookDvorak begins his screed by subtly stating:

“the only thing missing from the new Apple iBook is the Barbie logo. The system, which looks like a makeup case, promises to be a disaster once people come to their senses.”

Ouch! If you check out John’s article, I’ll caution you that it takes a little short of forever to download the page due to the massive volume of replies posted, many roasting Dvorak for being “sexist,” “homophobic,” questioning his intelligence, threatening him with physical violence, etc. (Quite a few readers agreed with him too.)

Thing is, while John lays it on pretty thick in the piece, especially with the “girly machine” stuff, I can’t say that I entirely disagree with him. I took a bit of polite heat from several readers in my first iBook column for MacOpinion, in which I was apparently not wildly enthusiastic enough about iBook to suit them. My criticisms (and/or faint praise) were focused on the iBook’s stingy port inventory, lack of expandability, and limited connectivity. Some readers thought I didn’t “get it” about the iBook, and perhaps I don’t, but from a specifications point of view, it is not consonant with my style of minimalism.

Newton eMate 320But then there’s the styling. Full disclosure here: I prefer the squared-off functionality of the PowerBook 5300/1400/3400c to the curviness of the WallStreet and the 500 series ‘Books, and I thought the Newton-derived Apple eMate was plug-ugly, which will give you an idea of where I’m coming from here. I admit to admiring the styling of the IBM ThinkPad and various “thin” PC laptops as well. These are points that can’t be sensibly argued. You either like the looks of something or you don’t. My tastes in laptop styling are not necessarily superior to those of folks who like snoopy, curvy lines, they’re just different.

Steve Jobs unveils iBookSo, you can deduce that if I’m not aesthetically smitten by the understated voluptuousness of WallStreet and Lombard, I’m going to be even less enamored of the Rubens-esque contours of iBook. Indeed, when I saw a photo in my local newspaper last Friday of Steve Jobs holding an iBook aloft, the shape reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite think of what.

John Dvorak has jogged my memory. The iBook does look sort of like a humongous, somewhat retro, women’s cosmetics “compact.” (although there’s nothing compact size-wise about iBook – its bigger than WallStreet and almost as heavy). Unfortunately, one of John’s readers compared iBook’s shape to that of a “giant, portable toilet seat,” and I’m having trouble getting that imagery out of my head as well.

But as Dvorak puts it: “You expect to see lipstick, rouge, and a tray of eyeshadow inside when you open it up. You don’t expect to see a 12-inch LCD; you expect to see a 12-inch mirror.”

5 iMac colorsNow, I hasten to interject here that John Dvorak is not your typical beige-worshipping PC troglodyte, even though he writes for PC World. In past columns, he has praised the iMac’s multi-colored motif and prodded PC manufacturers to broaden their color palette horizons. I expect that John is even more appreciative of bright colored computers than I am. My tastes run to midnight black, gunmetal, and other metallics – or barely-there subtle pastel shades.

I think it’s all those suggestive curves that John finds misplaced on a computer.

Obviously, Dvorak thinks the iBook is the antithesis of being a masculine statement, but he doesn’t think women will like it much either. “It looks too juvenile – something a kid, a little girl, would like. Something you’d get at Toys ‘R’ Us,” he asserts. Well, Apple has targeted iBook at the student market, and Steve Jobs has two highly successful kids’ movies under his Pixar belt, so maybe that sort of appeal is exactly what he was going after.

“I challenge anyone out there to pull out this makeup case in public and not feel embarrassed,” writes Dvorak.

Well, I’m not quite that insecure in my masculinity, but I expect he’s on to something there. I may be wrong, but I don’t anticipate the iBook being a hit with the Marlboro Man set or in executive suites for that matter, not to mention the college frat house – which Dvorak pointedly does.

However, it’s arguable that the first two of those markets at least are not what Apple was going after with iBook anyway. A ‘Book bigger than the already hulking WallStreet and weighing in at 6.7 pounds, with very limited connectivity, was never going to be the darling of the business- travelling and boardroom people anyway, whatever its color.

The frat house? That may pose more of a problem, given Apple’s stated target market for this rig.

Is the iBook “effeminate” and “sissified” as Dvorak asserts? The foldaway handle does recall a handbag, although it should prove functionally useful given iBook’s road-hugging weight. Still, if iBook delivers the goods, value and functionality-wise, as a computer, lots of people wouldn’t care what it looked like.

blueberry iBook      tangerine iBook

Does it? You tell me. Personally, I was hoping for both more and less. My vision for a consumer PowerBook would be something like a revived PowerBook 1400 form factor, brightly colored if you wish, with a respectable complement of ports including either SCSI or FireWire, the STN passive matrix screen from the MainStreet Series 1 G3 ‘Book to keep costs down, and a price below $1,300. But what do I know? As Hiawatha Bray put it in The Boston Globe last week: “Apple has learned well the bitter lessons of the past few years; they’re not into loss leaders.”

Oddly enough, the specification and connectivity issues are a point that Dvorak and I vigorously disagree on. I would have liked to see at least two USB ports instead of one, a SCSI port, and a removable-device expansion bay, as well as at least one PC Card slot. Dvorak says he doesn’t care about these things, even noting that “the connectivity for the system seems well thought out.” He thinks the price is OK too.

It’s the looks that bother him, along with the chorus of cheers iBook got at Macworld Expo. “Do they spray mind-numbing gas in these auditoriums where Steve Jobs speaks?” he asks rhetorically. “Is his ‘reality distortion field’ really that powerful?” Is it? Beats me.

Which brings us to John’s prediction that the iBook will be a marketing “disaster”. I doubt it, given the enthusiastic initial welcome it’s received. I still want a less than four pound, not more than an inch thick, “executive” PowerBook in a tastefully subdued color with lots of connectivity and expandability, but an Apple dealer friend tells me that iBook orders are flooding in, sight unseen. I think the iBook will sell well, although it’s not high on my own wish-list.

PowerBook 100 Series

PowerBook 170

Which I do find a bit troubling. The iBook is the first PowerBook model ever that I don’t find myself really interested in having for my own. The 100 series ‘Books were amazing in their day. The 500s blew me away initially, although I got tired of their Star Trek styling pretty quick (while I still find my 5300 pleasant to look at), and they were a great laptop.

I am typing this on a 5300 – ’nuff said. I still love the 1400 and the 3400 and the original G3, and the WallStreet is probably the all-around best PowerBook yet, despite the fact that I’m not crazy about its looks. Lombard is a tremendous machine too.

But iBook? Maybe I’ll warm to it over time, but so far it doesn’t turn my crank.

keywords: #ibook #barbibook #johncdvorak

© 1999 Charles W. Moore. Originally published on MacOpinion.