Truthfully and with total honesty I intended this writing to be exclusively a review on the PowerBook Pismo, but the coffee was particularly strong and my mind threw a curveball as it let out my thoughts on technology and Apple’s design today. I ultimately decided to include these thoughts. What do I have to lose?
The PowerBook Pismo was released February 2000, during the peak of the Translucent Era of Apple. Despite not being translucent, it is saturated with curves and clean material transitions of plastics and rubbers, which are design motifs of that era. The reason why Apple didn’t turn in the classic black for colorful translucency was to keep the professional character of the PowerBook, sacrificing consistency in return for a more defined user. Remember, this computer was targeted towards people wearing suits and ties running little but an e-mail client, Excel files, and Word documents.
Released in 2000 and running on a G3 processor, a gigabyte of memory, ten gigabytes of hard drive space, a DVD Drive, and Mac OS 9, the PowerBook Pismo has an interesting place in Apple history. The last generation of the “Classic” Mac OS’s, OS 9 was before Apple switched to it’s current family of operating system based on the UNIX platform, OS X (now MacOS). Through some research, I discovered that there is (surprisingly) a web browser that is still supported with regular updates, known as Classilla. The developers are smart; aware that the hardware running OS 9 aren’t able to keep up with modern web standards, Classilla renders the web as mobile webpages, the same format modern tablets and phones use.
Using the Pismo pretty regularly for a week for things such as web browsing, e-mail, watching DVDs, and writing this review on it was a pretty fun experience, though that is due to the experience of using such an ancient device, not the product itself. I cannot see this computer being used for anything more than an entertaining trip down Nostalgia Avenue™. The airport card does not support modern wireless standards, it is terribly slow for anything but very basic tasks, the screen quality makes me appreciate even the worst of today’s LCDs, and OS 9 made me realize how many features of modern operating systems I take for granted, such as a UI that accommodates multitasking, quality rendering of fonts, and stability.
One of the most unique features of this notebook is expandability. Not only is the memory, hard drive, and processor upgradeable, but the computer also has two “bays”. One bay generally contained a battery, and the other a disc drive, however, there were third party accessories that added other functionalities. These bays made for some interesting combinations, such as the ability to use two hard drives at once for when you might need more file storage when you are working at a desk, or two batteries at once when you might be on a plane and need the longest battery life possible. This modularity added to the expandability of the Pismo, and this is interesting because today’s computers are increasingly giving up expandability for more compact form factors.
This leads me to come up with a theory on why expandability in technology has seemingly gone on life support: as technology advances in a category of products, it is inevitable. When a category of technology products is freshly born, whether it is automobiles, computers, whatever, there is a much faster advancement of capabilities. For example, in terms of just the transferring of data in computers, various forms of magnetic disc storage were consolidated into floppy discs, which was then replaced by smaller floppy discs, which was replaced by CDs, which was replaced by DVDs, which was (as of this writing) replaced by the internet. These were just the winners of the technology wars; for every one winner, there were many more losers. One thing to note, however, is that after every generation of winner, there is less and less competition. It is like a reverse pyramid, where at the beginning of a technology war, there may be a lot of different competitors for a technology, but after every round of victories, there are less and less competitors. As the computer category has matured, the increase of power in computers in terms of processors, memory, and graphics capabilities has simultaneously slowed down. When a person bought a computer twenty years ago, they bought it with the understanding that they would have to put even more money to replace components in the computer as new technologies came out. The demand for increased functionality meant faster computers were needed. People demanded higher resolution photos. People demanded the ability to run multiple programs at once. People demanded improved graphics in games. Each generation of computers saw huge jumps in hardware capabilities to accommodate these demands. Now, however, there is very little demand for improved functionality, therefore slowing the rate of technological improvement. Everyone but a very small category of professionals can buy an average computer nowadays and be perfectly satisfied with it for years without upgrading a single component, therefore the demand for expandability is all but dead. The demand for capability drives the rate at which technology advances. It is basic economics; we the consumers create the demand, and demand is a predecessor to supply.
The smartphone as we know it is an anomaly to this trend; even in the early Blackberry days, it was never upgradeable nor modular. Yet, there is a consumer demand for better cameras and the ability to run more demanding applications after every generation. This is also partly fueled by the upgrade cycles that carriers subsidize. Even after a brand new iPhone comes out, people aren’t saying to themselves,” this phone will keep me happy for a long time.” Instead, while consumers are certainly satisfied with the new iPhone they purchase, they are simultaneously looking towards how much better the camera in the next generation will be. Until smartphone cameras reaches a point where consumers forget this thinking, the rate at which camera technology evolves will be strong. This is a reason why I see potential in Google’s Project Ara, a phone that is essentially just a motherboard where every component is both modular and upgradeable. While it may be a little late, it is a risk that may shake up the industry.
And while today’s MacBook Pro design is far superior to the PowerBook, the Pismo’s joyful curves was a design of the times in which it was created. While the transition of Apple from the Translucent Era to the Aluminum Era saw a trade in of personality of its products for timelessness, a recent addition of color options in the iPhone and MacBook alongside the release of the Apple Watch has begun a new evolution for Apple. Apple is now incorporating a layer of fashion on top of masterful, timeless design, and I’m incredibly excited to see what the future holds for Apple.