Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fanboy Beta Hardware

CrunchGear's sharp-toothed and cantankerous review of the Apple thin laptop - whatever it was called - totally misses the point:

the Air is an extremely impressive piece of technology. The miniaturization, the optimization of space, the blatant disregard for current standards — it’s everything a revolutionary machine should be. Except it isn’t one. It’s a flight of Apple vanity that is completely impractical for anyone who needs to do more than the most basic functions with their computer.

A whole page of commentary follows, explaining why the Air is impractical. Like somewhere out there on the Web, there was some puzzled idiot who actually believed up until this minute that $3000 for a 1.8GHz processor and 60GB of hard drive space could somehow be practical. Now that idiot has been set straight. Wonderful.

My latest toy is equally impractical - it's shiny and cool but the software support is so minimal that as a consumer appliance it hardly even works - and the only way I'll be able to use it at all is if I code a driver for it.

So guess what I'm going to do? Duh. I'm going to code a driver for it.

The market for this device comes from the salivating that its big brother caused as a design prototype.

Both the Optimus Mini 3 and the new Apple wafertop are fanboy beta hardware. The iPhone came very, very close to being the same thing, and the iPod Touch obviously is the same thing. Fanboy beta hardware is for the people who get excited about something even though they know it isn't useful yet. Think of the Sony Aibo.

Yes, I need to spend $3000 on a robot dog, because otherwise. Because. Otherwise. Oh. Wait. There is no good reason to buy a Sony Aibo.

But there is a market for one.

Consider advances in manufacturing which make short runs more feasible financially. If you've got fanboys worldwide peeing their pants in excitement over something you haven't even finished yet, you don't wait until it's perfect. You take their money the minute they're willing to spend it. Because manufacturers are businesses with fans. Have you ever noticed how, with famous writers, their early books are perfectly spelled, tightly structured, and grammatically precise, while their later works apparently skipped the editing and proofreading phases completely? It's because the publishers already knew the books would sell.

Just because Apple's selling the whatever-it's-called doesn't mean it made very many of them. The world is not overflowing with people willing to spend that kind of money on what is essentially not a computer but a trailer for one - a preview of coming product attractions. But the world does have those people, and Steve Jobs is happy to take their money. It's as green as anyone else's. And you have to remember his philosophy - "real artists ship." All Steve Jobs is is Warhol plus electricity and math skills. A proof-of-concept which people are willing to spend serious cash to play with is high art in Jobs' book.

The CrunchGear thinbook attack/review misses the point completely. CrunchGear, of course, is a spinoff of TechCrunch, and like TechCrunch is basically run by and for monkeys who make their money by "managing" programmers. So they see something for sale, they assume its goal is to take over the world. Its goal is much simpler: cash, bragging rights, and the beauty of the thing itself. They're not trying to give you something practical. This is what Apple will have on every lap and desk a few years from now, and if you're wiggy enough in the brainpan to want to buy it before it becomes genuinely useful, Apple will not nobly decline to line their pockets with your cash.

The thing is, that's cool. Fanboy beta hardware exists because it makes fanboys happy. In 2008, hardware is a type of entertainment, like movies and music, and just like with movies and music, there are fanboys who love everything their favorite creators do, and there are vibrant underground scenes full of creative people who prefer to do it themselves. That's fine. That paired dynamic, the fanboys and the underground, is the engine that drives every other group of creators in our society, and it's the engine that drives hardware too.