The VisionThing: Experience iBookgrüven

The other day, i learned that  Fahrvergnügen --the clever-sounding German slogan that Volkswagen has been using for years--is a real word, not just a creation of the folks who brought us the New Beetle. It means "driving pleasure," and it refers to that elusive moment when driving a car is no longer about utility, but rather about the simple joy of driving. A vehicle with Fahrvergnügen is a pleasure to drive, even when you have no place to go.

With the introduction of the new iBook (see " Big Thing, Small Package," Buzz , in this issue), Apple now dominates the portable-computer world in terms of price, performance and engineering. But even more important, Apple has cornered the market in Fahrvergnügen. Whether it's one of these new iBooks or the Titanium PowerBook G4, using a Mac portable is a pleasure that transcends getting the job done. Sure, most of the things I do on an iBook or Titanium PowerBook I could accomplish on a PC portable, but I wouldn't enjoy doing them nearly as much. That enjoyment has a real payoff: I'm using my portable more; and I'm also finding more ways to be productive with it.

This is why the popularity of portable Macs, measured as a percentage of all Macs sold, has tripled in the past year. And it's why I believe the day is coming when portables will be Apple's primary method of recruiting PC users to join the ranks of the Mac faithful.

Formula for Innovation

Innovation happens when you combine need, opportunity, and--for lack of a better term--the willingness to "think different." It's always been vital to innovate in the design and construction of portable computers, much more than with desktop PCs. And when it comes to personal computers, none are more personal than the portable. A desktop machine challenges you to work on its terms, but the portable begs to be your companion, to work where and when you want to. People who use portable computers look first and foremost for flexibility, and that flexibility demands innovative designs and technology.

Case in point: On a desktop computer, AirPort wireless networking is a convenience, saving the owner the trouble of having to run wires all over the house or office. On a PowerBook or an iBook, AirPort is a declaration of independence. It enhances flexibility, because it ensures that you can connect wherever and whenever you need to.

Portables need to be more rugged than desktops. They need to be smaller, which requires greater engineering finesse and more-expensive components. They need to work under a wide variety of conditions, which means they must have their own reliable source of power and an array of networking options, from modems to Ethernet. They even need to be able to handle assorted power sources, in places from the United States to Uganda, because a road warrior never knows where the road will lead next.

Design Rules

A key difference in the way Apple engineers a portable, in contrast to most PC companies, is that at Apple, technology doesn't drive design. Apple waits until current technology can serve its design goals. And when the technology is finally ready, Apple seizes the opportunity to fulfill plans it has been making, in some cases, for years.

This approach has sometimes left us Mac portable users feeling a little left out. For the past couple of years, we've watched Sony Vaio users get tiny, lightweight notebooks while we die-hard Mac fans had to lug around our luxurious-yet-large PowerBooks and iBooks.

All for one simple reason: Apple refused to ship a computer with anything less than a complete set of ports and capabilities, such as a DVD-ROM drive. And that meant no light, tiny, gorgeous Apple subnotebooks were in the offing.

So Apple waited. And we waited.

Apple's Innovation

When at last available technology allowed Apple to fulfill its design goals, the final part of the formula for producing a great portable computer came into play: innovation.

In the portable-computer world, innovation means more than delivering small, light, full-featured computers that are as much like desktop machines as possible. If that were all that mattered, we'd all be using Dells. No, there's also the gestalt of all those components--in the end, a computer should add up to more than the sum of its parts.

Different Beasts

Apple doesn't design a high-end laptop and then tear features off of it to make a consumer model. Nor does it build a cheap portable and then graft on extra features in order to market it to professionals. Instead, Apple chooses an audience, figures out what that audience requires, and then designs the best computer it can for that audience. That's why the iBook and the PowerBook G4, for all their similarities, are different beasts: they're meant for different audiences.

And because they're so different, they appeal to people with different needs. I already know a handful of Titanium PowerBook G4 owners who plan to buy iBooks to use as rough-and-ready portables in situations where compactness and toughness trump screen space and performance.

And let's not forget that a key part of innovation is realizing how even small touches can radically improve the quality of a product. Batteries should slip in and out eas-ily, and they should have power- level indicators you can see from the outside of the machine. The power button should be visible, without making you hunt for it on the back edge of the computer. Ports should be located in logical places, clearly labeled, and easy to access.

In other words, function should inform design.

Finally, because a portable is meant to be handled, the way it feels in your hands should be just as compelling as its spec sheet and its price tag. The new PowerBooks and iBooks want to be touched, and touching them is a pleasure. That's a good thing, because they'll get touched a lot during daily use.

Toasting the Competition

All these elements combine to create the computer industry's only portables with Fahrvergnügen. The new iBook in particular is a amazing, because it offers driving pleasure in a portable that is also inexpensive. Nothing enhances driving pleasure more than using a machine that feels cool, fast, and expensive--but actually costs much less than you'd expect for such an advanced piece of engineering.

For me, I get the ultimate reality check on these products by gauging the reaction of entrenched PC users I know. And they lust for Apple's new portables. Since the PowerBook G4's introduction, I've seen it seduce at least one PC-using friend of mine who'll never go back to the dark side. And in Macworld.com's forums, I've read countless testimonials from other PC users who also made the switch to the Mac--all thanks to the Titanium PowerBook G4.

It will be interesting to see whether the latest iBook will have the same effect. Because its cost is so low, I predict that even more PC users will become iBook users. The only question is, will the overall experience of owning an iBook be appealing enough to draw them to the Mac for good? I plan to test my theory on yet another friend who is a longtime PC user and clearly a member of the iBook's target audience. Once we get a cool new iBook in her hands, we can judge the power of iBookgrüven--as it brings her driving pleasure, Macintosh style.

ANDREW GORE is Macworld's editor in chief. To comment on this column, type Vision Thing in the Search box at Macworld.com.

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