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COLUMN

Where Have All the Colors Gone?

Philip Burrowes

Last week, Apple introduced a new computer designed especially for educators (and only for sale through academic channels, much like its “LC” computers of the 1990s). Dubbed the eMac, it sports the only new Apple CRT displays, as Apple has otherwise moved exclusively to LCD production.

Coincidentally, because its case has a solid, silverish-color it looks a lot like the “snow” iMacs from the past year, one of the last Apples to sport the old tubes. An optional “Tilt and Swivel” stand allows it to be turned 360 degrees and tilted slightly up and down, recalling the new LCD-iMacs’ much-ballyhooed adjustability. Even the name recalls an earlier Apple product, the eMate. Still Thinking Different?

Well, the eMac is a product for the education market, so there’s little reason for it to be innovative; the “e” may as well stand for “economical.” Such self-derivation is becoming dreadfully commonplace at One Infinite Loop, however. The iBook, for example, started out as an oversized eMate, was advertised as “iMac. To Go,” and eventually turned into an unreasonable facsimile of the titanium-lined G4 Powerbook. Even the old iMac, which was considered at least superficially distinct, was just one in a long line of all-in-one computers (such as the original Macintosh, not to mention the Lisa). Its nominal successor, the LCD iMac, is also not so far removed from the Twentieth Anniversary Mac’s razor-thin shape.

Mere brand consolidation, one may argue. If one item is successful to the extent that it becomes an integral portion of a company’s image, then why not diffuse that success over the entire product line?

This is why Apple’s MP3 player is called the iPod, why their towers went from beige to “Bondi Blue” to their current “Quicksilver,” and why the new iMac’s television spots are reminiscent of Pixar’s Luxo Jr. animated shorts: it’s called banking on success. Nor have these image manufactures been accompanied by static hardware and software development, which is what is really important. Apple could have gone along with G3 processors in their computers and the average i-consumer wouldn’t know the difference, but they’ve upgraded their entire desktop line to the G4 with nary a price increase.

Granted, this was done partially to accommodate the more demanding system software that Apple has been rolling out for over a year now, but that in and of itself is testament to the company’s commitment to the self-amelioration, right? Okay, it’s still not as complete as people would like it to be, and third-party software development has lagged even further (AOL 5.0 -- count ’em, 5.0). Its premise is also derivative, since Apple likes to pretend it’s UNIX just enough that AT&T won’t say anything, that (in the same vein) it’s BSD just enough that people will develop it for fun and non-profit, and it actually is NeXTSTEP enough to make Steve Jobs (not to mention OmniGroup) feel vindicated.

None of this gets around the fact that OS X is more colorful than any of the computers it’s likely running on. Gone are the flower prints, translucent displays, or faux-cubic shapes of the old days (last year). In their stead are a host of various shades of gray. Hypnotically lustrous, metallic grays, to be sure, but gray nonetheless. Even the peripherals, like the Cinema/Studio displays and AirPort, are no longer tasting the rainbow.

Thought that was just for Skittles? Don’t you see? It’s all connected. New Mint Skittles have a very muted color scheme similar to the Apple line. Mystery Flavor Skittles (and Starburst) don’t have any color. Gatorade’s “Ice” and “Propel” products are both as clear as the water they actually are. Apple alone isn’t losing its innovative edge; there’s an inter-industry conspiracy to steal the colorful creativity out of competitors.

Of course, it’s all going to Kool-Aid. Yes, Kool-Aid. The Big Man is pimping a line of “Magic Twist” sugar-water which changes color on the way from powder to punch. Don’t dare reveal what it ends up tasting like; he’ll demand you stay quiet because it’s a “secret.” What’s the secret? Here’s a hint; it tastes like what Apple Jacks supposedly don’t.

Should Apple fans have seen this coming when the company’s logo switched from rainbow to solid-colored midway through the Think Different campaign of the late 90s? Could anyone have ascertained that all along a giant, anthropomorphic pitcher was pulling the strings behind everyone’s favorite toaster-computer producer? No, because that would just be stupid. Just like anybody who buys a computer because of how it looks.