By Harry McCracken | Friday, October 17, 2008 at 12:44 pm
Apple has a storied history of being the first company to introduce an array of new technologies in its computers, or among the very first, at least. It all started with color graphics in 1977’s Apple II and continuied features such as graphical user interfaces, Firewire, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and light-up keyboards–and items such as the buttonless touchpads on its new laptops. But it’s just as core to the company’s character that it’s often the first company to kill a technology if it appears to be heading for the dustbin of computing history.
Which is causing a bit of a firestorm this week: The new MacBook has no FireWire port, and some Apple fans are very, very unhappy about that. In our T-Poll on the topic, 49% of respondents are pretty ticked off, and 85% think FireWire still has life in it; only 10 percent applaud Apple’s decision.
It looks like Steve Jobs isn’t terribly sympathetic: He allegedly sent a brief e-mail to an unhappy customer pointing out that USB has been standard equipment on new HD camcorders for several years. Which is true, but may not pacify folks with camcorders that are FireWire only. Or who like FireWire’s speed for external hard drives. Or who just have trouble giving up technologies that they know and love.
(Side note: Some pundits snipe at Jobs for the fact that his e-mails in response to Apple customers are usually extremely brief. Me, I’m impressed that he finds the time to send ‘em at all–and what the e-mails lack in diplomacy, they make up for in honesty.)
Like I say, Apple would clearly prefer to move too fast rather than too slowly when it comes to eliminating technologies that may be past their prime. I don’t know if anyone from the company has ever explained its rationale, but I presume it stems from a desire to save money; t remove components and therefore reduce weight and bulk; and maybe simply to simply remove clutter from the clusters of ports on its computers. I know of no instances in which feedback from angry customers caused it to reverse its decisions. Nor of any where most PC manufacturers didn’t eventually follow its lead.
Shall we review the evidence?
The first most famous thing about Apple’s original iMac was its radically new industrial design in a world of beige PC boxes. The second most famous thing? It had no floppy-disk drive, which at the time seemed sacrilegious. (Jobs had tried to kill the floppy before: His first NeXT workstation dispensed with it in favor of an drive that took $100 magneto-optical discs, but a later NeXT machine brought back the floppy drive.) British computer magazine PC Pro was part of a chorus of doubters:
The lack of a floppy drive is more of a concern. Many people use floppies as a cheap way of transporting and safekeeping files. Apple’s argument is that the built-in modem and Ethernet adaptor make the floppy disk redundant. If you want to transfer a file from system to system, you can do that via email or across a network. That’s true, but some of us still find a floppy disk more convenient. If your network falls down or your modem connection fails, it can be the only way of getting a vital document from one system to another, and it’s not as if a floppy drive would have been an expensive addition.
Aftermath: This time, Jobs didn’t bend when people demanded their floppy drives back; eventually, Apple eliminated them from all MAcs. PC manufacturers were slower to murder the floppy, but murder it they did: In 2003, Dell made headlines when it stopped including floppy drives in Dimension desktops as standard equipment. But “murder” might not be the right word considering that Dell still offers floppy drives as a build-to-order option on at least some of its computers, a decade into the iMac era. Hey, you can still buy a 5.25″ floppy drive if you really need it.
Once upon a time, Macs had SCSI interfaces and everything from scanners to printers were attached via them. The iMac had no such port, and while I don’t know if anyone became violently angry over that, it did cause headaches for folks who tried to connect their old SCSI devices to iMacs via USB-to-SCSI adapters and found it didn’t work very well.
Aftermath: SCSI was always somewhat exotic on PCs, although many flatbed scanners used it in the pre-USB age, and sometimes included an external SCSI card in the box. It long ago disappeared from the desktop, but lives on in the form of iSCSI, a very popular standard for attaching hard drives to networks in data centers.
The iMac also ditched the RS-232 RS-422 serial port. (On PCs, serial ports were used to connect keyboards and mice; on Macs, their primary purpose was to connect Macs together and to attach printers.) Its loss didn’t inspire the passion that the iMac’s omission of a floppy drive did, but it was noticed and mourned. From a 1998 thread in the misc.invest.stocks newsgroup:
Since the iMac does not come with a serial port, connecting it to older Macs is in fact a major problem, and something Apple investors should know, as it may limit adoption of the iMac by older Mac users. In fact, this seems to be the case: a lot of existing Mac users are waiting for USB-to-serial adapters to come out before purchasing the iMac. Personally, I wish Apple had included at least one traditional serial port with the iMac so people could use existing peripherals such as printers, etc. But Apple decided to screw the short-term
customer in an effort to force industry adoption of USB, for the benefit of users in the long run.
Aftermath: On PCs, the RS-232 serial port and its soulmate, the parallel port, were eventually known as “legacy” ports–which was a codeword for “you’re obsolete but people would squawk if we killed you right now.” Today, serial is mostly dead, but not entirely so–here’s an HP desktop that still has it, for instance.
ADB was once the connector Macs used to hook up keyboards and mice; its disappearance on the PowerBook 150 caused some controversy, but it really began to say its bye-byes when it was missing on the original iMac in 1998; by the end of 1999, it was missing from most Macs. As far as I know, the Mac community didn’t descend on Cupertino with pitchforks and torches as a result. But reading up on ADB at Wikipedia, I just learned something I didn’t know: It was created by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak in the mid-1980s. Is it too late to be angry about Apple killing what was possibly the last bit of technology in its products personally invented by Woz?
Aftermath: Until 2005, PowerBooks and iBooks still used ADB internally to connect their keyboards and mice, possibly making them the last Apple computers with direct contributions from Woz.
In 2005, Apple phased out dial-up modems from Macs. It didn’t create a firestorm. But some campers were less than happy over the move. A gripe from AppleFritter:
I understand that technology must advance, and that in order to advance, certain companies (like Apple) must force their hand and just stop selling computers with modems. I don’t think that time is now, though. I think that they should wait until a clear majority of the people of the U.S. have access to broadband. 51%, that’s all I’m asking.
Aftermath: Forty-nine bucks will still get you an external 56-Kbps Apple modem, proving that there are such things as Mac users who want dial-up. I’d love to know how many Apple sells a year, and when it will discontinue the product. Meanwhile, dial-up is still present on many (but by no means all) Windows-based PCs to this day.
Also in 2005, Apple released the first full-sized iPods without FireWire support–FireWire having been a major selling point for the original iPod back in 2001, since most other audio players at the time supported only the sluggish USB 1.1. ZDNet’s Jason D. O’Grady was shocked. And amazed:
I am simply shocked and amazed that Apple has abandoned FireWire on the just-announced fifth generation iPods with video. I understand why there’s no FireWire on the iPod shuffle (no port) and even why it’s off the nano (tiny form-factor, lower cost) but why in blazes did Apple leave FireWire off the new video iPod?
Don’t believe me? Take a close look at the iPod specs page and their Autosync page – there’s no mention of FireWire anywhere, just USB 2.0. Apple has even gone to the trouble of demoting their FireWire Web page from a top level page (www.apple.com/firewire/) to a page buried on their developer Web site under device drivers(developer.apple.com/devicedrivers/firewire/index.html) on or around October 12th, according to Google’s cache.
Apple invented FireWire as “one of the fastest peripheral standards ever developed” and wonEmmy and Grammy awards for the technology’s impact on the television and music industries. It’s inexcusable to leave FireWre off an iPod that you’re supposed to sync videos to, it just doesn’t make sense.
Aftermath: iPods have become very popular video devices despite the lack of FireWire–USB 2.0 is fast enough, it would seem. Meanwhile, I believe iPods still have a tiny bit of FireWire legacy left to them–enough to let them charge if you plug them into a FireWire port via an old FireWire synching cable. This circuitry is also used by some iPod/iPhone docks and chargers. But the iPhone 3G eliminated this capability, causing headaches for manufacturers of iPhone accessories and rendering add-ons already owned by 3G buyers obsolete.
I’m not sure if any technologies or features in current Macs are on Apple’s hit list, though if I had to predict, I’d guess that it may be the first company to eliminate DVD drives and argue that high-def downloads (such as those from, oh, iTunes) have eliminated the need for optical drives. Any other thoughts on which features in current Macs may be toast within the next couple of years?