Mac OS X: The Lion in Winter

First of all, mea culpa: I was completely wrong about Apple’s pricing strategy for Mac OS X 10.7. That doesn’t bother me — it doesn’t even surprise me that much. I don’t believe Steve Jobs and company are incapable of error, but I do believe they know much more about running their business than I ever will.

But the fact that OS X 10.7 is being released to the public for the measly price of $29.99 (side note: what’s with the double-decimal pricing?) is a huge deal, and not merely because it will likely be the most successful — that is, the most immediately widespread — OS release Apple has ever had. It symbolically closes an era that began 16 years ago with Windows 95: the era of the retail software event. Back then, the country went crazy for Windows 95 in a way that hasn’t been seen since, well, the iPhone came out. People lined up for it, bought it in droves, gossiped and kibitzed and complained about it. A lot of people liked it, a lot didn’t (at least at first), but everybody had an opinion. Windows 95 was more than the tech story of the year: it was the heart of the tech universe, a symbol of how much more than mere technology computer software was becoming. And it was Microsoft’s baby.

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Mac OS X 10.7: How much for that Lion?

AppleInsider tells us that Apple is considering underpricing the next version of Mac OS X, due this summer:

This source, who has an unproven track record, claims that Apple higher-ups were pushing for an aggressive price point on Lion — an approach the company already employed with great success when Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard launched in late 2009. Snow Leopard debuted with a $29 price tag, and that strategy resulted in sales that doubled the previous record-setting launch of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.

The article goes on to note that Apple software released through the Mac App Store is often significantly cheaper than the same software’s boxed retail version, so there is a further precedent should Apple decide to go this route.

I plan to upgrade to Lion no matter what it costs, so I’d be delighted to get it for $20 rather than the customary $129. However, there are a couple of reasons why I won’t think this will happen:

1. Cheap now, cheap forever

It’s easy to make a product expensive and then gradually reduce the price. It’s much harder to start cheap and then get more expensive. Apple may not be forever inclined to effectively give away major releases of their operating system. It’s generally a bad idea to “train” the market to expect high value at cheap prices. Which leads me to the next reason:

2. Perceived value

Have you ever shopped for wine and found yourself selecting the second-least-expensive bottle? We like things to be cheap, but not too cheap, especially when it’s something to be enjoyed; we don’t like to feel as though we’re skimping on our own pleasure. Apple, of course, is all about perceived value, and their computers are marketed not just as powerful tools but as fun to use in themselves. Along with industrial design and a certain aspirational, clever-but-not-hip advertising approach, price has been one of the chief means by which Apple sets its products apart in the market. It’s not that the products are overpriced, for they usually compare quite favorably, even aggressively, with products of similar calibre. It’s that Apple doesn’t make cheap stuff. Even the entry-level Apple products, like the iPod shuffle, have a certain robustness and elegance that communicates that they were made with care — and not cheaply. (Apple got away with underpricing Snow Leopard by explicitly managing expectations. It was clear from the get-go that there was not a lot of user-directed innovation in that release.)

So I am guessing that Mac OS X 10.7 Lion will appear on Apple retail shelves for the customary $129, with the App Store version (it seems increasingly certain there will be one) offered at a modestly reduced price, say $79. If you’re selling “the world’s most advanced operating system,” after all, you ought to charge what it’s actually worth.

The Beatles Meet Cassius Clay, February 1964

Today Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish linked to a new tumblr called awesome people hanging out together. It lives up to its name. There are classic photos everyone knows, and quite a few I had no inkling of. It’s cool to see Jimi Hendrix greeting Janis Joplin (I can’t link to the photo itself) backstage — for all I know it’s the first time they ever met. Maybe the only time. Or Michael Jackson pretending to punch Mr. T — honestly, can you will yourself not to click that link?

One thing I was expecting to find, and did, was this:

There are lots of pictures of the Beatles clowning around with Cassius Clay, as he was still known then, and this one and the variations of it are the best known. It might not occur to you on seeing it that the Beatles and Clay had no idea who each other were. The photo opp was arranged by their respective handlers, who had some inkling of what it might mean to bring these two phenomena together: the British invaders who were taking over American popular music, and the African-American dynamo who, not content to redefine the sport of boxing, went on to create the template for mass-media sports celebrity — he had already started doing it when this shot was taken.

We see this photo now and marvel that it happened, that these five people ever occupied the same space together. It’s like an improbably real version of those cheesy prints that show Bogart, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe hanging out in the same pool hall. The Beatles and Muhammad Ali, to give him his proper name, are titans, figures who stand outside of popular history. It looked a little different to viewers back then. The Beatles were a teenybopper fad in February 1964, when they went to visit Clay as he trained for his first title fight. No one, perhaps not even the Beatles themselves, realized how pivotal their presence would be as the 60s took their strange, epochal course. And Clay was something of a nine-day-wonder himself, a braggart expected to have his clock cleaned by Sonny Liston. Probably a lot of people simply wanted it to happen, wanted to see the loudmouth get his comeuppance, just as a lot of people waited, and waited, for the Beatles to fall on their faces and prove how shallow and fleeting their presence in the culture really was.

But the Beatles went on to prove that rock music could expand beyond anyone’s preconceptions, taking politics, manners and culture along with it. And Ali proved not only that he was a great fighter — indeed, that he was as great as he said he was, which hardly seemed possible — but that a sports figure could be just as culturally radical, just as transformational, as any artist, politician, philosopher or pop musician.

It hadn’t happened yet. No one was seeing it coming. This is a photo of the moment before the plunge — before everything changed.

Bob Dylan, Ron Rosenbaum and the Bobulators

On May 24, Bob Dylan will be 70. To kick off what is sure to be a tidal wave of retrospective articles, Ron Rosenbaum published this essay on Slate.com, imploring us to give Dylan the most worthwhile gift of all:

… to extricate Bob from the treacly, reductive, crushing embrace of the Bobolators. (My name for those writers and cultists who still make Dylan into a plaster saint, incapable of imperfection, the way Shakespeare’s indiscriminate “bardolators”—one of my targets in The Shakespeare Wars—refuse to believe it possible The Bard ever wrote a flawed line or a poorly chosen word.)

Similarly, the Bobolators diminish The Bob’s genuine achievements by putting everything he’s done on the same transcendentally elevated plane. With their embarrassing obeisance, their demand for reverence, their indiscriminate flattery, they obscure the electrifying musical—and cultural—impact he’s actually had.

Perhaps I should begin by confessing that Rosenbaum is a writer who I find grating even when I agree with him. Take the example above. First there is that term “Bobolator.” On first glance, it is easily misread as “Bobulator,” like a human calculator of all things Dylanesque. Once you’ve arrived at the correct spelling, how to pronounce it? The most natural and immediate pronunciation is BOB-oh-later, which sounds like an overpriced fishing gadget; or, if you’re a gorilla buff, BO-bo-later. Reading the rest of the paragraph, we find the reference to “bardolators” — presumably a coinage of Rosenbaum’s, and which leads us to conclude that “Bobolator” is a pun on “idolator” and thus pronounced bahb-AH-lah-ter. Except that doesn’t flow off the tongue quite so trippingly, and I for one am apt to simply read it as BOB-oh-later, despite ostensibly knowing better.

And this is just the first paragraph. Leaving aside for the moment the straw man argument Rosenbaum sets up here, was there not an easier way into this subject than by means of a labored coinage that reads strangely and has the surely-not-coincidental effect of reinforcing its creator’s cutting wit and contrariness? People who invent pet names for other people and things always get my hackles up; usually they want you to ask them what they mean, the better to show off their cleverness and originality. I once knew a woman who, in the midst of a conversation on theater, kept referring to Kenneth Branagh as Roman. I put the name in italics because that is how she pronounced it — if you’ve ever heard someone talk like that, you know what I mean. It’s a distinct inflection whose unmistakable subtext is, Do you not wonder why I use this word, when the rest of you are all using a different, more common word? Does it not make me an object of even greater fascination? Usually I refuse to indulge masturbatory crap like that; on this occasion I gave in, and found out that Roman was the name of Branagh’s character in Dead Again, which at the time (1993) I had not seen. Why she insisted on using that name, rather than Mike (his other role in that film), or even Henry the Fifth, she did not explain. It didn’t matter — the only point was to make people notice her. She might just as easily have called him Orson.

See, this is how it is with Rosenbaum for me. Points that I might find perfectly unobjectionable are wrapped up in excess verbiage, intellectually overwrought and/or propped up with attacks on straw man caricatures, so I’m too busy picking nits to fully get behind his arguments. For example, is there a more deserving object of attack in pop music than Billy Joel? So why then does Rosenbaum’s take-down of the man seem to whiff it so much? I mean, sarcastically making fun of Joel for attempting to be “deep”? Every hack entertainer does that; that’s what makes them hack entertainers. (To be fair, his identification of “It’s Still Rock ‘n Roll to Me” as the epitome of Joelian dreck is dead-on.) I wanted to love this essay; I wanted to paper my office walls with it. As it is, too much of it amounts to a child blowing raspberries. I’m sure it felt better to write it than it does to read it.

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My New iPod. (Please, Apple?)

Recently my 160 GB iPod classic began showing signs of advanced age. I would fully charge it, play it a bit, leave it to the side for a day and return to find the battery nearly depleted, sometimes so low it wouldn’t turn on. I began to think it was time, that this device had finally reached the point where it could be allowed to retire gracefully.

I bought this iPod, my third, shortly after the “classic” designation was first introduced. I was thrilled: this was the first iPod large enough to hold the entirety of my music collection, freeing me from the burden of curating playlists and trying to second-guess what my tastes would be on a given day. (I have largely re-assumed this burden with my 32 GB iPhone, but that is another matter.) It did not trouble me at the time that, merely by calling its former flagship product a “classic,” Apple was signaling that the iPod’s glory days as a music device were behind it. A classic is something beyond the need for evolution or change, something that provides the same pleasures over and over, something — if I may get momentarily pretentious — more associated with memories than hopes.

So, back to my ailing iPod classic. I had some extra money and, what’s more, an impeccable justification for replacing my current model. Except I dragged my feet. I looked at the refurbished models on the Apple website and noted with approval that I could save quite a bit of money buying used. Gradually it dawned on me that I didn’t want to buy a new iPod. Not because of sentimental attachment to the current one — though I love Apple technology, the devices themselves are completely fungible to me, and I have no hesitation in dumping my current object of affection for something new and improved. The problem is that the current iPod classic really isn’t improved from the model I bought in 2008. Today’s classic supports Genius playlists and … I’m not really sure what else. There is certainly no difference of any substance. I can’t think of another Apple product so little improved over so long a time. But then, why improve a “classic”?

I see the logic. Apple is about iOS devices: the iPad, the iPhone and its bastard offspring, the iPod touch. The iOS platform is Apple’s chance to directly influence the evolution of an entire new computing paradigm, in a way they didn’t quite do with the Macintosh. They’d be crazy not to put all of their eggs in that basket. And let’s face it: mp3 players are so five years ago.

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