Posted tagged ‘iPod’

Shutting it all out

January 17, 2012

Last year I was asked to deliver a lecture to a group of students. As I began my talk, displaying my usual skills of eloquence and persuasiveness, I couldn’t help noticing that a young person in the front row was wearing those little white earphones we have come to see everywhere ever since Apple launched the iPod. Not only was he definitely focused on what must have been his music, his fingers were drumming along on the desk, and there were small but visible nods of his head to accompany the beat. And then I noticed that another student, further back, also had earphones, though in her case I couldn’t tell whether she was equally distracted by music.

I shrugged and got on with it. It’s life. But it’s not just in the classroom. If you walk down any major city street, you will see dozens of people who are more or less oblivious to their surroundings and who are somewhere else entirely, wherever their music is taking them. It’s a modern equivalent of the account by the 19th century German satirical poet, Wilhelm Busch, of an English traveller walking along while looking through a telescope. Busch has him saying:

‘Warum soll ich nicht beim Gehen – sprach er – in die Ferne sehen?
Schön ist es auch anderswo, und hier bin ich sowieso.’

['Why shouldn't I, he said, look into the distance while walking?
It's beautiful elsewhere too, and I'm here anyway']

In fact, Busch’s ‘Mister Pief’ ends up falling into a swamp because he doesn’t see where he’s going. Today’s earphone addicts run similar risks, or worse ones. A recent report found that there has been a significant increase in deaths or serious injuries to pedestrians wearing earphones. Looking occasionally at the conduct of road users with their white earpieces, you can see why.

Personally I love the iPod and its successors, and I will often sit at home with earphones listening to music. But that’s where it should be done. The rest of the time, we should live where we are, and experience what’s there. Including my lectures.

Apple, Google, Microsoft and all that – fighting the technology wars?

June 14, 2010

People sometimes like to see the development of technology not just in terms of what works best, or even what looks best, but also in terms of dramatic (and maybe romantic) struggles between various forces of good and evil. The received wisdom about computing, for example, has been that the more boring but commercially smart Microsoft defeated the more exciting and noble but commercially out-gunned Apple, establishing the dominance of Windows-driven PCs in the process. Steve Jobs was driven into exile in Elba (or maybe it was NeXT).

But hey, Jobs escaped and gathered his troops – or maybe I mean he created the iPod and then the iPhone – and before you could blink Apple had become a super-company defeating the purveyors of uniformity. And now with the iPad Apple may even be re-defining the concept of computing, and the whole idea of the PC (and with it its previously all-pervasive operating system) may be on its way out. Steve Jobs may be about to become the master of all he surveys.

Or hang on a minute, do I hear the distant sounds of battle, is Jobs heading towards his Waterloo? And who will be the winner there? Could it be Google with its Android operating system for mobile devices? Could it be that the Jobs restoration was only temporary, that history is about to repeat itself, and that the hardware-with-propietory-software model that Apple employes could lose out once again to the more flexible but also more boring model, this time offered by Google?

That, at any rate, is what some of the technology commentators are now beginning to suggest, as in this Newsweek article. Others agree that the battle is imminent, but may be less sure as to who is going to win it. For myself, I rather doubt the compelling force of the analysis. Apple’s position in the market now is very different from what it was in the late 1980s in personal computers. While Android-run devices may indeed be proliferating, their standing in public awareness does not match that of Apple. The iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad have re-defined not just technological preferences but a whole fashion sense. I doubt that this is going to go away. The power of design and fashion within consumer technology is much greater now than it was then, and Apple has mastered this more than any other company.

Apple may not have everything to itself – surely a good thing – but I don’t see it losing another technology war. At least not yet.

Apple reflections

June 24, 2009

Today’s UK Guardian newspaper carried an article on Steve Jobs and Apple, reflecting on the driven nature of the company’s CEO. There are of course many people in Apple Inc, and indeed many whose contribution to the company’s fortunes and the quality of its products has been vital. But few companies are so closely identified with their CEO as this one is, and reports on his health and outlook on life have an immediate impact on its share price and on the confidence of its customers. Right now the talk is on whether he has recovered from his illness and is ready to return to the company.

As some readers of this blog will know, everything you read here is written and managed on Apple equipment. Right now I am sitting at my iMac; a few hours ago I was considering readers’ comments and publishing them, and responding to some of them, on my iPhone. Shortly I shall be taking my dog on a final late night walk, and while I do so I shall be listening to a particular podcast on a science policy theme on my iPod. I am wholly committed to Apple, and shudder when occasionally I find myself having to handle the equipment of other companies. And yet, if I am honest, there is nothing that this iMac does that could not be done equally well on, say, a Dell, or even a computer that someone could assemble for me in their garage from parts bought in any computer shop. And recently I gave an HP netbook as a present to a family member, and in trying it out beforehand was impressed with its features. But there is something in the Apple range that keeps me loyal, even if I could not always explain what that something is.

Some of it is the design. I loved the original Apple Macintosh in the mid-1980s. But in the Jobs-less era from the late 1980s and into the 1990s I grew disenchanted; the various LCs and Performas or whatever the models were called still had the neat Apple operating system, but the machines looked like any old IBM-compatible box, and I just lost interest and bought a PC. Only when Jobs returned and with him the unique style did I also restore the Apple brand to my home and office.

Perhaps the ‘something’ that makes me an Apple man is this: when all is said and done, Apple is more a concept than a piece of technology. What you buy into is the feel of the equipment and the philosophy of the community that has gathered around it. Not for nothing is Apple the company that popularised the desktop icon (yes, I know – it was developed by Xerox, but Apple brought it to your office). The whole Apple concept is iconic, awash with symbolism and ritual.

I may be jumping a little far now, but there is something of interest here for any modern organisation, including a university. DCU’s mission, for example, is strongly linked with a sense of identity, and with the idea that it doesn’t just offer a suite of educational programmes and research projects, but a particular concept of what we are in our time and our place. And I suspect that our success somewhat depends on our being able to convey this distinctive image, both to ourselves and to others. That isn’t a trivial or superficial thing: identity and community are everything, and I would like to think that access to DCU is also access to a particular outward-looking community.

I wish Steve Jobs well, and hope he returns to Apple at the end of the month, refreshed and invigorated. I’ll be watching.

Apple without Jobs? Is this conceivable?

January 15, 2009

For Apple fans, a heart-stopping moment: there are reports this morning that Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, is taking ‘leave of absence’ while he receives treatment for his fairly mysterious illness, described initially as a ‘hormone imbalance’ and now as ‘something more complex’. Predictable, Apple shares have dropped in value, and the internet is alive with rumour and speculation. The first thing to say, I think, is that I wish Steve Jobs well and hope he has a very speedy recovery. I hope he resumes the reins of Apple in the summer as promised.

As is being observed everywhere, this is not the first such leave of absence. In fact, he went on ‘leave’ for 12 years in 1985, and then in 2005 when he was being treated for pancreatic cancer. During his long absence from the mid 1980s the company went through a series of CEOs, designs and plans, and while I don’t claim to be absolutely typical of its market, I left the Apple world behind by the early 1990s when its computer products had lost the innovative edge technically and, aesthetically, began to resemble ‘ordinary’ PCs more and more. And not long after Steve’s return, I returned also, restoring the Macintosh on my desktop and accumulating iPods and iPhones.

Steve Jobs is not a technological wizard, but he is a total genius when it comes to identifying market demand and wrapping the technology in design that sets trends. He is the face and the voice and the music of Apple. Whatever happens to him right now, there will be a time when he is gone, and Apple will need to demonstrate that it can still find the magic without him. Maybe this leave of absence is a good testing ground for that.

For the moment, however, I wish Steve a full and speedy recovery, and a return to Apple in robust health.


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