Of all the quirks that set Apple Computer apart from other PC makers, few irk some members of the Windows majority like Apples dogged defense of the Mac look and feel.
Apples protracted – and ultimately unsuccessful – legal efforts to curb Windows as a Mac knockoff in the early 90s raised the hackles of PC users, many of whom saw the Microsoft suit as an anticompetitive and quixotic quest to control graphical user interface technology Apple itself had derived from Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center).
More recently, under CEO Steve Jobs, Apple has been tireless in rattling legal sabers at targets great and small that the company believes have impinged on its trademarks, or copied elements of Mac hardware or software design.
Apple legals crosshairs have swept across a Mac enthusiast site turning out Apple-themed electronic greeting cards, amateur developers of Windows “skins” that resemble Mac OS Xs shiny Aqua interface and manufacturers of Windows hardware that appear to echo Apples industrial design.
Ive got reservations about Apples eagerness to go after small fish apparently motivated by genuine enthusiasm for its brand; I have few qualms, though, about its handling of mock Macs.
Last week, Apple settled its suit against one of the latter: Future Power, whose E-Power system brought down the Mac makers wrath soon after its debut in June 1999.
According to Apple, design elements of Future Powers box – its curvy, blue-and-white chassis and compact, all-in-one architecture built around a 15-inch CRT display – owe more than a passing debt to the first iMac model that Apple shipped in August 1998.
Apple quickly brought suit against Future Power and its manufacturing partner, Daewoo Telecom of South Korea. Now, the companies have struck a deal: Future wont sell 15-inch E-Power systems until 2004, although the settlement leaves the way clear for the company to deliver a promised all-in-one Windows box built around a 17-inch screen.
Spectators have been predictably split over the news. While Mac users applaud Apples readiness to sic the dogs on those who would cop its style, many observers on the other side of the platform fence opine that the Future Power suit was simply another example of Apple putting style before substance.
Admittedly, I tend more toward the former camp, but I believe that the critics are both underestimating the importance of Apples design innovations and confusing Apple the style guru with Apple the technology company.
To my mind, Apple has driven the development of personal computing in two distinct, albeit interrelated, ways: As a technology company, Apple has pushed a computing experience that is self-contained and accessible to even the most casual user.
That effort has come at a stiff price over the quarter century since Apple was founded. The companys emphasis on user friendliness and vertical integration has come at the expense of interoperability with other platforms, and it has frequently put Apple at a disadvantage when it comes to competing on the basis of cost. And those limitations have in turn cut the Mac off from its original target market in major corporate sites, which have found it cheaper and easier to standardize on Wintel systems.
Apple from the outset has preached the importance of personal computing as a cultural force. Consider the abiding interests of both its founders: Steve Wozniak, who continues to champion the PC as an educational tool, and Steve Jobs, who quickly blurred the line between tech mogul and media star. Apple made sure its first Macs got into the hands of celebrities, promoted its systems into supporting roles in television and film productions and made its own commercial productions (such as the “1984” Superbowl spot) into stand-alone cultural events.
Under Apples Jobs-led resurgence in the mid-90s, the company pushed that cultural envelope by bringing the language of fashion to the world of hardware design. Starting with the iMac, Apple has turned out system after system to capture the imaginations of technophiles and interior designers alike and articulate the companys vision of its PC as a distinct physical presence in a users environments.
And what does this have to do with the underlying technology? Very little, except when form and function overlap. (The sleek, portable features of the PowerBook and iBook lines are a case in point.)
When Apple seeks legal protection of the “trade dress” that distinguishes the look of its computers from the rest of the pack, the company isnt covering up for a lack of technological savvy. Instead, its defending its unarguable position as the leading innovator in the physical appearance of personal computing.
Ive compared Apples suits against iMac knock-offs to Volkswagen seeking redress against a rival carmaker that copied the contours and colors of the New Beetle. No matter what differences obtain under the hood, the hypothetical copycat would be trading on consumer identification with VWs original work, and Volkswagen would be compelled to defend its intellectual property or risk losing its claim to it.
Tech veterans have every right to dismiss the importance of Apples design developments as tangential to the performance of the systems they contain, but thats not the point. Apple had the gumption to focus on consumer issues that other box makers didnt consider; it also has the right to seek the same sorts of legal protections that design innovators beyond the PC market take for granted.
Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is managing editor of Ziff Davis Internet.