Following last week’s article, someone wrote asking me to dissuade them from buying the new ultra-thin Apple Air laptop, to which they had become curiously attracted. Delighted to help. In fact anything I can do to deprogramme you from the Apple cult will be time well spent. With luck you may end up devoting yourself to something more purposeful and constructive, such as Scientology.
It’s not that I don’t like Macs. My problem is with what we marketing chaps call user-imagery. Your typical Mac-owner belongs to that class of people which believe the greatest pleasure to be derived from life is to spend it feeling quietly superior to everyone else. In short, a bit intellectually self-satisfied: as a group, it would include environmentalists, all readers of Guardian Media, the entire Newsnight team, anyone who won’t let their children drink Coke and everyone who bought The God Delusion in hardback.
To me this smug streak goes against the grain of the internet age, which should allow ‘anyone to contribute without being hindered by the obscurity of his condition’. But my objection to this skinny laptop is not just philosophical but utilitarian. Why does it need to be so damned thin? What possible advantage does this wafer-like form confer? I have no idea of the circumstances of my own death, but I am fairly sure I won’t find myself gazing up at my family through a mass of tubes to tell them, ‘I’ve had a good life for the most part, but I just can’t shake off the feeling that my laptop was always a bit fat.’
And here lies the problem with much technical progress. It is often driven by numerical targets pursued to the point of meaninglessness.
Often we don’t need thinner or faster or lighter, we need different. The best innovation happens not when someone tries to impress a pre-existing market but when they attract a new one.
A more important innovation in the laptop world comes in the shape of the Asus EEE 701 — robust, simple and so cheap you can leave it in the car without worrying (the military have reportedly placed a bulk order). It does 90 per cent of what you want at 20 per cent of the price.
Someone else has had the idea of designing technology for Luddites — the new TV-B-Gone (www.tvbgone.com) lets you remotely turn off other people’s televisions — in bars, airports, shops, homes and (see YouTube for this wizard jape) at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics show.
But the best recent example of this approach is the Nintendo Wii. Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius behind this platform, decided the arms race between the other two platforms (Xbox and PS3) focused too much on impressing existing hardcore gamers, pandering to their obsession with processing power and graphical realism. He decided on a different approach, using what he called his Wife-O-Meter. ‘Forget gamers,’ he seemed to say, ‘how can I create games which Mrs Miyamoto will want to play?’ The Wii was created to support not better graphics for a few nerdy obsessives, but better games for everyone.
I have to say he has a point. After all, if I want to play a really intricate, boring game with spectacular 3D graphics, I can just have a game of chess in the real world.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. A new sports column will begin soon.