On First Thought

I recently stumbled upon a 1984 New York Times review of the original Mac, and it was fascinating to see a person’s first reactions to a computer that has become so incredibly influential over the years. This made me search out first reviews of a few other Apple products, including the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. I’ve always found these first reviews to be incredibly interesting, and a way to go back and see what people at the time thought of products that would become so historically significant. What I found was that most reviewers couldn’t see the revolution that was happening right before their eyes and instead were stuck in the past and mostly focused on relatively insignificant concerns.


Mac

Erik Sandberg-Diment’s original Mac review is interesting for his apparent lack of understanding as to how revolutionary the graphical user interface (GUI) would become to the computer industry. His review spends a lot of time discussing the bag the Mac comes in and he bemoans the fact there is no numeric keypad. He does point out some design details that would become a part of the Apple design ethos over the years, such as the beautiful screen (for its time) and lack of an internal fan. However, it’s not until the very end of the article that he talks about the GUI, and his description as to how it works is rather amusing in hindsight:

You find either a word or an icon or pictogram on the screen representing what you want the computer to do, then slide the mouse on your desk to move the cursor into position over that screen object, then press the button on the mouse to activate that particular part of the program.

For instance, there is a menu bar at the top of the screen with the words ”file,” ”edit,” ”U,” ”special,” and so on. Slide the cursor over to ”file,” click the mouse button, and a window beneath the word opens up with such commands as ”open,” ”duplicate,” ”get info,” ”close” and ”print.” To print what is in a file, all you do, essentially, is bring the cursor down to ”print,” press the mouse button and release.

It seems like how you would describe using a computer to your 90 year old grandmother, although at the time no one had ever used a GUI before. He goes on to recognize that the GUI is a fundamental difference between the Mac and all past computers, but doesn’t seem to recognize that all computers will adopt this interface in the future. It’s interesting that many people in 1984 still believed that text-based computing would continue into the future and having a GUI might not be a superior alternative.

iMac

Peter Lewis’s article previewing the original 1998 Bondi Blue iMac is interesting as on the one hand he seems to understand that it could be revolutionary, but on the other hand continues to cling to past technologies. He emphasizes the radical design departure of the iMac, which was something that just couldn’t be ignored at the time. However, when it comes to floppy disks, he was behind the times:

The iMac has a modest hard disk drive (four gigabytes, half the capacity of many new computers), but it lacks a built-in floppy disk drive or other removable media, like disks, for backing up files. A few customers may be able to work effectively without some way to transport data physically, by backing up files to a network server or to the Internet, but most of the consumers Apple is trying to appeal to live in a world where floppy disks are important.

This was a common critique of the iMac at the time, but history has vindicated Apple in its decision to remove the floppy disk. The iMac became a huge bestseller and the floppy disk became a thing of the past in the computer industry soon afterwards. This is a common refrain I see in the first reviews of most of Apple’s products, critiques that Apple is leaving out an important piece of legacy technology. However, Apple has always been willing to get rid of legacy technology if it believed it was dragging down the overall experience, and usually the industry followed their lead.

iPod

M.Wiley reviewed the original iPod in 2001 and seems to also miss the forest for the trees. He praises the iPod as a elegantly designed MP3 player with a beautiful screen, controls, and interface. Yet he fails to grasp how the device’s simplicity would appeal to the mass market and instead complains about its lack of more obscure features:

So what’s not to like? Well, as much as I love the iPod, it simply lacks many next-gen, and even some last-gen, features found on other jukebox players. Firstly, and whether or not this bothers you is pure preference, there is no onboard equalizer. I use EQs very, very rarely, but I know from letters I get that many of you use them frequently. What the iPod can do is remember the EQ setting associated with the song in iTunes 2. While this isn’t a true EQ, it will do the trick in a pinch.

The iPod also lacks an FM tuner and voice recording. This was just as surprising as the missing EQ, partially because these are common features, but more so because they are incredibly useful. Tsk tsk, Apple.

I think the problem here, as with some of the other first reviews, is the reviewers are not looking at these products in terms of the mass market. They are tech reviewers, and tech reviewers like specs and features. However, these products are revolutionary because of their overall design and simplicity, not their feature sets. No normal person looked at an iPod and complained that it didn’t have built in EQ settings; they only saw it was a small, beautiful, and easy to use device that could store all their music. Apple went for that market, at the expense of hardcore techies, and history has proven them correct.

iPhone

David Pogue’s review of the original iPhone in 2007 seems to show that tech reviewers were starting to understand Apple more than in the past. Maybe the massive success of the iPod made them realize that Apple’s emphasis on design and simplicity was something that could make their products extremely popular with the mass-market. Pogue acknowledges that the iPhone is a revolutionary device that is completely different from any other cell phone out there.

The phone is so sleek and thin, it makes Treos and BlackBerrys look obese. The glass gets smudgy, a sleeve wipes it clean, but it doesn’t scratch easily. I’ve walked around with an iPhone in my pocket for two weeks, naked and unprotected (the iPhone, that is, not me), and there’s not a mark on it.

But the bigger achievement is the software. It’s fast, beautiful, menu-free, and dead simple to operate. You can’t get lost, because the solitary physical button below the screen always opens the Home page, arrayed with icons for the iPhone’s 16 functions.

However, he falls for the usual tech reviewer emphasis on features and is critical of a number of things the iPhone can’t do:

There’s no memory-card slot, no chat program, no voice dialing. You can’t install new programs from anyone but Apple; other companies can create only iPhone-tailored mini-programs on the Web. The browser can’t handle Java or Flash, which deprives you of millions of Web videos.

He does have a valid criticism with the lack of the ability to install third-party apps, which was a major deficiency of the original iPhone. However, he is too focused on the lack of overly techie features such as memory-cards and Flash player, which regular consumers have never seemed to care about. Overall though, he seems to be understanding more than past reviewers what Apple was trying to accomplish and that the device could be a revolutionary game changer in the industry.

iPad

David Pogue returned to review the original iPad in 2010, and I think his review is actually rather brilliant. He seems to have finally realized how wrong tech reviewers have gotten Apple products in the past by focusing on techie features and specs, and split the review into two parts. The first part is the traditional tech review in which he does nitpick the iPad’s lack of certain features:

But as any Slashdot.org reader can tell you, the iPad can’t play Flash video. Apple has this thing against Flash, the Web’s most popular video format; says it’s buggy, it’s not secure and depletes the battery. Well, fine, but meanwhile, thousands of Web sites show up with empty white squares on the iPad — places where videos or animations are supposed to play.

The bottom line is that you can get a laptop for much less money — with a full keyboard, DVD drive, U.S.B. jacks, camera-card slot, camera, the works. Besides: If you’ve already got a laptop and a smartphone, who’s going to carry around a third machine?

If Pogue had stopped there, his review in hindsight would be rather embarrassing and shown a complete misunderstanding of the iPad and what made it revolutionary. However, he had a second section of his review which he called, “Review for Everyone Else,” in which he recognizes how revolutionary the iPad could become:

The iPad is so fast and light, the multitouch screen so bright and responsive, the software so easy to navigate, that it really does qualify as a new category of gadget. Some have suggested that it might make a good goof-proof computer for technophobes, the aged and the young; they’re absolutely right.

And the techies are right about another thing: the iPad is not a laptop. It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on. For most people, manipulating these digital materials directly by touching them is a completely new experience — and a deeply satisfying one.

This is where I think he actually gets Apple and what they were trying to accomplish. It wasn’t about the specific geeky features or specs, it was about the experience people had when using the device. The iPad went on the become hugely successful because it was such a simple and elegant device to use, and the mass market was drawn to that. Pogue redeemed himself with his ‘everyone else’ section and showed a tech reviewer could finally pick up on the fact that standard tech reviews about features and specs were not truly understanding Apple and why its products were so revolutionary.


It’s very interesting to read these reviews and see how people have reacted to Apple’s products over the years. Apple has always pushed the tech industry with its revolutionary products, but most of the time the first reviews missed these seismic changes, instead focusing on rather inconsequential features. Luckily, most consumers didn’t listen to these reviews and bought Apple products anyway, because Apple was speaking to them, not the reviewers.

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14 thoughts on “On First Thought

  1. I remember that first Mac in 1984. i bought it and immediately had it upgraded to a "Fat Mac" with quadruple the memory, a whopping half Meg! The noisy dot matrix ImageWriter Printer precisely matched what was on the screen. The press categorically made fun of it as an overpriced toy that could not be taken seriously. I remember friends at work making fun of it while getting all excited drawing circles on their PC using cursor keys. I went home and drew circles with a mouse.Overall the "press" is still slamming Apple for making overpriced inferior products and I am still buying them to this day. I actually feel uncomfortable with the iPhone’s popularity. After 30 years going with the underdog just because I like their products better, it somehow doesn’t feel right.

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  2. That it didn’t have Flash was a perfectly valid concern back then. Web video was Flash, and tons of games were Flash. A huge number of sites used Flash extensively or even exclusively. Yes, these sites generally sucked, but there’s no denying that you were closed off from them.

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  3. Re: Flash, there was a YouTube app from the start. That gave access to a lot of the videos you wanted to watch anyway. And most Flash games were completely incompatible with a touch interface.But more than that, no other mass market phone supported Flash in 2007. So, if the iPhone was missing it, so was EVERY OTHER PHONE OF CONSEQUENCE.

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  4. "However, Apple has always been willing to get rid of legacy technology if it believed it was dragging down the overall experience, and usually the industry followed their lead."I think it’d be more accurate to say that Apple has been very good at picking just which "legacy technologies dragging down the overall experience" were truly necessary.Printing, for example, is arguably a legacy technology that Apple has repeatedly shown minimal interest in, but even Apple isn’t ready to drop it entirely from their systems. It hasn’t yet hit the threshold of "unnecessary".

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  5. It seems vaguely unfair to look at the reviews of products now acknowledged to have been "game changers" without a selection of products that have not received the same acclaim. Reviews of the Apple TV, the MacBook Air and the G4 Cube should tell us as much if not more about what a reviewer understands about where new products fit into the markets they aim to enter, how they will compete and differentiate.Hindsight is 20/20 after all.

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    1. But that wasn’t the point. The point is these particular Apple products (Macintosh, iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad) altered the technology landscape yet reviewers missed the boat at first glance.

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      1. Is that a profound point, really? How many revolutionary things, in any sphere, are widely heralded at their unveiling? How many revolutionary technology products from companies other than Apple did reviewers correctly identify?Reading this, the question I kept asking myself is whether I would have recognized the significances of these developments back then. Today many of us have been converted by a strong history of innovation and numerous critical analyses of the strengths of both Apple and its products; would we have been so insightful 30 years ago? 20? 10? Are we as insightful about great products coming from companies without Apple’s pedigree and reputation?I honestly don’t know.

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  6. The "legacy PC" folks would often refer to Macintosh with the acronym WIMP: Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer. That stopped after a while, though.

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  7. It’s all well and good to laugh, in hindsight, about reviewers who felt the need for a legacy technology in Apple’s first attempt– before a replacement ecosystem has been built up. In many cases these devices succeeded in spite of, rather than because, they ditched old or competing technology.Take FM radio. I still use it. Every day. Just not on Apple devices. And that’s a pain. My wife’s $25 cell phone has an FM tuner; none of the Apple devices do. When we had a cold snap a few weeks ago, and the DSL and cellular internet got flaky, the radio still told us how long the weather would last.Not all of us live in sunny southern California, where it never snows, there are no Internet/cellular dead zones, and nobody listens to the radio.

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  8. It helps to consider the timing of these reviews, especially for the iMac and iPod. Apple was still on the ropes at the time and tech journalists were still using "beleaguered" a lot when describing the company.Obviously not the case in ’84 for the Mac, but mainstream tech writers – as you pointed out – didn’t understand what the GUI was going to mean. The writer notes that the PC Jr lowered the financial bar and ultimately failed like the Lisa failed on the high end. Historically you can see how IBM/Apple sought to change the game by opening up computing to a wider audience.The Mac did that as did the PC clone. Turns out there were more users who wanted Wintel for its openness, upgradability and compatibility with their work machines … unless you were an artsy Mac type.Finally with the David Pogue reviews … well, he gets it. David has been a friend of Apple for a long time, a MacWorld Expo veteran, and an all-around great guy, even if he does look eerily like Norman Bates.Apple will always have a counter-culture aura to it. "Features and compatibility" will forever be lobbed at Apple products by those who spend the majority of their time with Dell, Acer, HP, Microsoft, Lenovo, Sony, etc. products. And they do have a legitimate point. It’s just that it’s not as BIG a point as they think it is.

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    1. Funny, because reading the comments of Wall Street analysts today, who were talking about Apple’s blockbuster quarter in which it sold record numbers of iPhones/iPads and cleared over $13 billion, they still seem to think Apple is "beleaguered".

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  9. If you check Walt Mossberg’s early iPhone reviews, he never missed the chance to point out that it iPhone "lacked" a physical keyboard, as if there were some sort of keyboard shortage and Apple just decided to leave that part out. He never would acknowledge that the combination of multi-touch screen and virtual keyboard was at the heart of iPhone’s differentiation.

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