Saturday, January 19, 2008

Apple: why I am still a fan but no longer a fanboy

There are times when I wonder whether Steve Jobs' leadership is really a good thing, long-term, for Apple. The MacBook Air happens to be my latest cause for bafflement.

Hey, it's not a bad computer, per se. It's very light and elegant, and certainly will look good when you whip it out in a cafe or on an airplane. And the idea of focusing almost exclusively on wireless networking is not a bad one, though I don't really want to be forced onto wireless (attention TJ Maxx shoppers). But I have never seen Apple ship something like this -- a total slap to 24 years worth of Apple power users. It's the underpowered junkheap in a nice case that the Mac development team went behind Steve's back to avoid shipping back in 1984.

Why am I paying $100 extra for the privilege of a DVD drive? Where is my FireWire connector so I can edit video? (And don't tell me to switch to AVCHD -- iMovie 8 is awful, group-of-pictures codecs are evil, and I don't have a venue for HD productions anyway.) And please, do not tell me that maybe the MacBook Air just isn't for me. Apple may have a tremendous amount of cachet, but they're still a niche player, and they don't have room in their product grid to create something that delivers new features but caters only to a certain section of their market.

Apple produces great hardware and great software. I've always thought that, even as the quality has slipped some in recent years. But that only gets you so far with those who actually know what they want -- I don't like being told that what I get is enough for me. (After all, there's a reason Macs ship with development tools -- as MacOS X is a Unix system, it would have a big credibility problem without them.) Unlike Windows, which is layer upon layer of designed-by-committee cruft, MacOS retains a fair amount of elegance. And I do want a MacBook -- a regular one, not the Air -- for my next computer. But after that, all bets are off -- I'm not averse to getting a PC laptop and installing Linux on it. The tools I need may be more baroque and less consistent on Linux, but they are there, and they do work for what I need. Don't drive your power users away, Apple. You need us as much as or more than you need the Brookstone crowd. (After all, who else was out there touting Applescript as a vast improvement over batch files a decade ago, or laughing at people because plug-and-play Nubus, PCI, and ADB peripherals meant that the control DOS users bragged about having was nothing more than the ability to repair grave defects inherent in the system?)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

You're a sellout, man!

I got the '08 catalog from Ramsey Electronics, and I must say, I'm a little disappointed.

Ramsey has always had the reputation for selling interesting and slightly sketchy electronics kits, and among other things has long been one of the suppliers of choice for American radio pirates (even earning themselves a raid from the FCC a number of years back). That stuff is still in there (though an old joke about one of their products, a robotic bug, is no longer in the catalog), and the catalog is actually quite a bit thicker than last year's. But, interestingly, not with more kits.

No, the big addition has been in the pro audio section. Lots of cool stuff -- high-end, rackmount CD and MP3 players, advanced recording equipment, even a full-on 24-track digital audio workstation for $800. It's all very impressive... and seems to have little or nothing to do with their traditional business.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I'm of a mixed mind regarding pirate radio to begin with; while I do support the need for low-power community radio, there are technical and political issues involved (FM Capture effect, inadequate sideband filtering on home-built gear, religious broadcasting spectrum grabs crowding out other broadcasters) that make an unregulated radio spectrum impossible. And anyone who's ever driven down the street while running an FM transmitter from an MP3 player or satellite radio knows what it's like when a transmitter from a nearby car scrambles your signal. And it's not as if that market is getting slighted -- they don't seem to have actually removed anything from the catalog.

But I do wonder if this is a symptom of the same problem as amateur chemists have -- in the interest of avoiding trouble with the DEA and the DHS, science supply companies have moved over the years to restrict the sale of chemicals and even glassware to those who don't work in scientific fields. Maybe Ramsey is doing something of the same thing -- as the government and hypersensitive litigators continue to try to chip away at freedom of speech, and as the FCC continues to allow large broadcasters such as Clear Channel, Salem, and Infinity to gulp up larger and larger quantities of broadcast spectrum, maybe Ramsey is paving the way for a shift in focus so they don't get raided again. It's pretty sad, especially as most of the new gear, impressive though it may be, is generally out of the cost range of the hobbyists they've catered to over the years.

It's pretty sad when corporate influence and scaremongering raise the barrier to entry on a mere hobby.