Sad Mac

I have some cred in the Mac world, even if I don't currently own one of those pretty white machines that look like they escaped from the set of 2001 or THX 1138. I was at the AppleFest in southern California the year they announced the Mac – oh yes, kiddies, I was a 14-year-old Mac freak. I touched the sacred mouse and viewed the sacred interface before you did.

So it was with some amount of nostalgia that I stepped into the gleaming chambers of the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco last week for the world's biggest Apple freak show, MacWorld. Actually, I only managed to scam a pass to the exhibit hall, but that's all I had 21 years ago at AppleFest, so there was a kind of symmetry to the whole thing. Not much has changed since those days, except the iconography (no more tan machines and groovy rainbow logos). Everybody was buzzing about the new gizmos and Steve Jobs' speech, just as they were more than two decades ago.

Except this time around, nobody was taking old Steve seriously. Sure, the diehard fans went to pay obeisance, but the all-important media presence just wasn't there. "I barely listened to the speech," a journalist from a major Mac-related publication told me. "I was too deep into the gossip sites." Another journalist I ran into said he was more interested in the "blogger's lunch" than in Papa Apple's pearls of wisdom.

The sad thing is that the media's lack of interest in what Apple has to say about itself is entirely a result of the company's recent public relations blunders. Apple is suing and trying to sue several people who allegedly leaked information about upcoming, much coveted gadgets for the Mac: a FireWire mixing board and a small, low-cost computer called the Mac Mini, which was announced on Tuesday during the show. Bloggers for Mac fan sites like AppleInsider, PowerPage, and ThinkSecret got early mockups of the devices from insiders and posted them. Claiming trade-secret violation, among other things, Apple is on the litigation warpath to silence these sites.

Most companies would pay millions for a word-of-mouth advertising campaign like the one these bloggers launched. Their posts whetted fans' appetites for new Apple-icious wonders. Early stories about the Mac Mini even convinced me to switch back to Mac after dallying in the valley of the shadow of Windows for a couple years (of course I'm keeping the RedHat laptop, the Mandrake box, and the FreeBSD box – I'm not crazy). As various bloggers have pointed out, the Mac Mini is the ultimate "switch from Windows" setup: it comes without a monitor, keyboard, and other peripherals, so it's easy to take all the kickass thingies I was using with my Windows box, plug them into the Mini, and return to Mac-itude. It's PC style without PC poopiness. And yet I never would have paid attention to the Mac Mini at all if it hadn't been for the gossip sites.

But for some reason, Apple hates its fans. The company once known for using its considerable marketing clout to appeal to countercultural types has gone far beyond being sold out – I mean, messing with people who post to fan sites exclusively devoted to pimping your shit is actively evil. It's like when Paramount threatens to sue Star Trek fans for posting their favorite characters' pictures on the web.

The thing is, I expect evil from entertainment companies. But Apple? Apple of "rip, mix, burn" and "think different" and "our company founders were once acid-dropping phone phreaks"? Whoa. There should be a warranty on corporate propaganda – then the bloggers Apple is harassing could sue the company for breach of ideological contract.

Despite Apple's new strategy of alienating its fans and destroying its own best, unpaid advertising campaigns, there's one thing that's never changed about the company's image. Like that long-ago AppleFest, MacWorld this year was packed with kids – smart, excited, imaginative kids who weren't afraid to ask questions. These are kids like I was, using Macs to learn how technology can help them create new, cool projects.

Apple's fighting a losing battle if it really thinks these kids are going to toe its corporate line. I know I didn't. I wonder what ever happened to my pirated version of MacPaint, anyway?

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