Killing Tools Before They are Ready to Die

on April 15, 2015

image g3

Before the iMac appeared in 1998, the back of a Mac was crowded with ports. Among them was an Apple Desktop Port for the keyboard and mouse, a Local Network Port to connect with printers, scanners, or other Macs, and a SCSI port for external storage. The iMac featured a couple of USB 1.0 ports. The floppy drive, a previously vital component of any Mac or PC, disappeared too. This was the first major source of what would become the Apple-led change to new technology, a history current reviewers continue to ignore.

The iMac design set off a considerable howling from critics, who felt the switch of ports and storage was the end of the world. Consider what a knowledgeable tech writer (ahem…myself) wrote at length in BusinessWeek:

Unfortunately, the very simplicity that makes iMac appealing to some buyers is a drawback for others. If you don’t have a lot of data or software on floppy disks and don’t need to use them to share information with others, you may never miss the floppy drive that Apple chose to leave off. But if you need removable storage, you’ll have to spend $150 for an add-on unit–and put up with an external drive and cable that makes a bit of a mess of the iMac’s elegance.

Apple’s choice of the new universal serial bus (USB) as iMac’s only way of attaching accessories allows owners to use the flood of devices designed for Windows 98–provided that the necessary Mac software is available. But current Mac printers will only work with the iMac through adapters, and existing external disk drives and scanners that use a regular Mac’s SCSI interface won’t work at all.

The biggest drawback of the iMac’s design is the lack of expandability. The only thing you can add inside the case is memory. While the iMac could benefit from an extra 32 megabytes of RAM, the difficulty of installation means that this job is best left to a pro. There’s no provision for a digital videodisk drive, though one could be designed as a substitute for the built-in CD-ROM. USB, meanwhile, is not fast enough for external hard drives or CD recorders. The 233-megahertz G3 processor is certainly fast enough to use with video editing software, but there’s no way to link your camcorder to the iMac.

Of course, the assumption that time was needed to meet the new requirements was correct, but the transformation was a lot shorter than most of us expected—and didn’t just affect the Mac. Intel had been doing everything in its power to force the adoption of USB for a couple of years, including on PCs where it was rarely used. Apple’s USB-only commitment help produce a conversion of printers, scanners, and storage devices for the common connection. Floppies, which were increasingly too small, fell out of use. Apple’s one mistake, a CD-ROM, was quickly surpassed by a DVD-ROM.

It took a long time to get rid of the old standards. Windows PC kept aged floppies, mouse and keyboard ports, and even RS-232 serial ports, for years. But they increasingly went unused as USB ports, CD-Rs, and the network replaced the originals.

table

Apple kept making the same “mistake”. The company was lambasted for not including a replaceable battery and an SD storage card in the first iPhone in 2007. Samsung, in fact, kept criticizing the decision until this year, when it eliminated that key feature on the Galaxy S6. The iPad, introduced in 2010, was vehemently criticized for its lack of support for Flash video, a criticism maintained until a substitution of others overcoming the technical and security flaws of Flash led to its overwhelming replacement. And there was no shortage of complaints in the design of the MacBook Air, particularly the elimination of the RJ-45 ethernet port.

Given that history, there should be no surprise many reviews were critical of the elimination of traditional features on the new 12” MacBook. As Joanna Stern of The Wall Street Journal wrote:

But as ahead of its time as the MacBook is, there’s a slight problem: You have to use it right now. Here in 2015, the majority of us still require two or three ports for connecting our hard drives, displays, phones and other devices to our computer—not to mention a dedicated power plug.

It’s an improvement over the past, when critics argued that Apple decisions were perpetually out of line, by merely saying they are too early. In fact, Apple is likely to prove users will move along faster than critics think—and some of the changes will move on to other laptop designs.

I realize I found myself rarely missing the ports on my MacBook Air 13″. ((Cable-locking Kensington ports, found on earlier MacBooks, were probably left off the Air because the slot just didn’t fit. Kensington has now announced a shrunken slot and new locks, with Lenovo as the initial customer.)) With the MacBook Air, I think I plugged in a CD player a couple of times to load software that is now more likely to come as a download and I had a dongle to (rarely) connect to projectors. I never got around to buying an intended USB-to-ethernet dongle because I never actually needed a cable connection. The only thing I am likely to miss on the new MacBook is transferring photos to an external hard drive when shooting a lot of pictures with a real camera, but today that would be more likely to be sent to the cloud. If the rare occasion when I need a power and USB connection at the same time comes along, a multiport USB-C dongle will do the job. The $79 charge from Apple is steep, but I suspect some competition will come along for less.

I doubt my position is all that unusual. Most people who use computers don’t really need extensive features and, for those who need power or lots of internal storage or a big screen, the MacBook is not a good choice—nor was the Air. A major reason Windows PCs have retained features that are rarely used is that enterprise models, which also often shape the design of consumer products too, must comply with corporate feature component checklists to be considered. Features tend to remain on those lists for years after they are needed.

The MacBook will disappoint those who feel a need for features including multiple ports that can be used simultaneously. But those who discovered the virtues of the super-thin, super-light Air are going to find the new model even better.