iMac, iHate

I am writing this column on my brand-new, gleamingly clean, blueberry-colored iMac. Can you tell? Does my prose have a new, late-'90s, perky feel? Does it seem really fast?Yes, I got sucked in: me and about 950,000 other Americans so far. I got tempted by last year's Jeff Goldblum ads, which made the iMac look so hip and so easy, and I got seduced by this year's snappy array of colors ("flavors," as Apple is calling them), and, savvy shopper that I am, the more I saw of that sleek, smooth, space-age design, the more I began to think: "Oooooh, a pretty computer. I want it."Eighteen hundred dollars later, here it sits before me. An egg-shaped machine, cupped on either side by translucent blue. A snazzy-looking, slightly curved keyboard. A perfectly round, translucent blue-and-white mouse. All very symmetrical, all very tactile and inviting. And ... and ... iHate it.Actually, the iMac itself is fine; at least I think it is (I've had it for exactly two days). As promised, it's very easy: it took me less than an hour to set the whole thing up, to load software and transfer files from my old computer and plug in all the little peripherals. It's also, as promised, very clutter-free (instead of that tangle of cords in the back, the iMac has only one plug, one modem line, and a hidden compartment that neatly organizes other cords), and it's wildly fast, allowing you to zoom around -- scroll up or down, log on or log off, move from file to file -- in nanoseconds.These are all good things for a computer dolt like me. I am precisely the kind of consumer Apple has in mind when it designs new systems, a bit of a Luddite at heart who wouldn't know a Pentium chip from a potato chip. Turn it on, start typing: that's all I want. Start talking extra serial ports and USB connections and "bundling," and I begin to panic. This is why I've always used and favored Macs -- they're easy and user-friendly -- and it's why the iMac, which promised to be even easier and more user-friendly, appealed to me.So why do ihate it? For one thing, there's the matter of change: I hate the minor adjustments, the feel of a new keyboard, the different look of the whole thing -- new (and notably unattractive) background colors on the screen; new gadgets to get used to (floppy drive, Zip drive); and, for me, new software, which makes me feel hugely disoriented, as if I'm suddenly working in a new country. I also hate the little undercurrent of guilt I feel about abandoning the old computer, which served me long and well: at the moment, it's sitting forlornly in the corner and I feel I've somehow betrayed it, which sounds ridiculous but gives me the creeps all the same.Beyond that, I'm just not sure I'm iMac material. I began to worry about this several weeks before my own pre-ordered 1999 iMac arrived, while watching an episode of Felicity, the WB channel's newest angst-ridden drama about twentysomethings in college. Felicity's boyfriend Noel had returned from Christmas break with a brand new iMac in tow, and when Felicity saw it, she said, "Ooooh! You got an iMac? Cool!" I sat there and thought, "Uh-oh: iMac as flash-in-the-pan marketing phenom; iMac as the technological equivalent of a Swatch watch." The little scene made me think about what a thoughtless, easily seduced, gullible consumer I can be, especially when it comes to things I don't understand, and it made me feel somehow demographically inappropriate, as though I'd gone shopping for shoes and ended up with a pair of platforms. Apple, whose market share has declined severely in the past decade (it now sells a paltry 4 percent of all PCs), is banking largely on the youth market for iMac sales -- college students, first-time buyers, families with children. And watching Felicity coo over the shiny aquamarine iMac, I felt a little stab of vain insecurity, as though I ought to be a more sophisticated and fluent computer user by now, a person who didn't think a "gigabyte" was the name of a foreign snack food, who'd base decisions on something a little more substantial than color.This feeling was reinforced when the iMac actually arrived and I took it out of the box. The machine may be fast and easy, but there's something fake-looking about it: it lacks a certain seriousness, a sense of technological heft. The translucent blue casing is very strong -- it's made of polycarbonate, the same stuff used to make bulletproof glass -- but it looks kind of cheesy and cheap. Same with the round, translucent mouse, which reminds me a little of a yo-yo. Then there's this "flavor" business: the 1999 iMacs are available in tangerine, lime, strawberry, grape, and blueberry; billboards announce "iCandy"; the new ads are cute and peppy, featuring the full array of colored iMacs whirling and floating about to the Rolling Stones song "She Comes in Colors." All of this is supposed to add to the iMac's image as accessible and tactile and fun, but it leaves me with an odd feeling of dissonance: I use the computer to work, after all, not to play, and I feel a little silly in front of this perky little machine, like a plumber who's opened his toolbox and discovered it's full of toy wrenches.iMacs have been criticized for precisely this reason: sure, they're user-friendly, and they're probably fine for people (like me) who are daunted by too much technology, but they're also faddish. They favor form over function, and they'll look outdated in about 10 minutes. Calling the iMac little more than "a victory for colorful packaging," Scott Rosenberg noted in Salon magazine that "buying a computer is more like buying a sofa: you want something you won't be sick of in six months."I'd amend that sentiment slightly and say that buying a computer these days is more like buying a car, something that gets subtly tied up with image and sense of self. A computer is actually a very intimate machine: acquiring a new one requires getting used to a new face, a new voice, a new set of physical motions and tactile sensations. For those of us who spend vast amounts of time staring into them, computers also develop personalities, quirks and idiosyncrasies that become comfortable if only because they're known: they can be obstinate or helpful, irksome or friendly, serious or nonserious. My former computer, a Macintosh Performa 475 that I bought way back in 1992, was an old man of a machine: a little sluggish, a little erratic, but solid and heavy and workmanlike. The iMac, by comparison, feels like a teenage boy: a little over-amped, heavy on flash and attitude. Mac aficionado that I am, I suppose I will grow to love it, to appreciate those youthful qualities, the power and speed and efficiency. I suppose I won't miss the old system for long, either, which was far slower than this one, and far less reliable: it froze up on me periodically, crashed in the middle of Web searches; in its last months, it even began to moan softly when I turned it off, like an old, exhausted dog. But will I really be an iMac girl? For now, I'm holding onto the receipt.Caroline Knapp's latest book is Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs (Bantam Doubleday Dell).This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.


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