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ATPM 12.07
July 2006


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by Mark Tennent,

Wherefore Art Now, Jonathan?

It may come as a surprise, but the first computers in the world came in three basic colors: pink, brown, and yellow, with a little variation in the shades depending on where they came from. At the start of the last century, real men did it with machines like the Burroughs. Although the machine was made of steel and tin and its operators grew one arm longer than the other from repetitive pulling on the lever, it was the men—not the machines—who were known as “computers.”

The rise of the electronic computer such as Colossus, built by British telephone engineer Tommy Flowers, and funded mainly from his own pocket, saw the computer as a machine taking on the term as well as its operator. The visible glowing valves were a little taste of things to come. Even as recently as the 1960s, the Apollo space missions landed men on the moon using math worked out by rooms of pinkish, brownish, yellowish “computers” on their slide rules. These mechanical analog computers were invented nearly four hundred years earlier by Edmund Gunter of Oxford, England who devised a single logarithmic scale. His contemporary, William Oughtred put two of the Gunter scales together to make the first slide rule.

In the 1980s, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak often credited with devising the world’s first personal computer, besieged the world with beige. Then in 1987, Apple had one of those mind-boggling changes of heart and switched to computer cases made from the finest silver-grey. Meanwhile in the world of IBM and its Personal System/2, also released in 1987, beige was still the color of choice. This situation continued for many years, with computer manufacturers slowly joining Apple in the grey lobby.

As with all things, change had to come. Apple’s computers had been through hard times, written off by many as too slow and unreliable as various machines came and went. Then along comes Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive’s candy colored Pop Art iMacs and all was well in the Mac universe again. Apple also changed the form factor of the cases, rounding off the bottom and rear encasing the cathode ray tube. Prior to this, most, if not all, monitors finished flat. Other Macs had followed more traditional computer shapes apart from the first Mac portable, a heavy and barely portable machine, and the unique design of the 20th Anniversary commemorative Mac. The latter was an all-in-one computer whose design wouldn’t be seen again until the latest iMacs.

Jobs and Ive also introduced transparency. Our clients would stare at the Apple Studio Displays, where all the workings were seen through the clear cases. They would crane their heads to see round the back as if something were hidden there and pondered on what the little lamps did. The cables also had transparent plastic sleeves. At the time, I wondered whether it would be possible for computer cases to be transparent as well, and for little LED lamps to burn brighter as various areas of the computer did harder work. The cables could have pulsing LEDs along their length to show that data was passing through. Computing with Macs was for a time a little like Tommy Flowers’ Colossus, with all the inner workings glowing.

In 2000 Apple introduced the much loved Cube. This innovative design was a forerunner of today’s Mac mini. At Christmas 2000, Apple asked me to evangelize to prospective customers at a UK computer warehouse. The Mac area was streets ahead of the other PCs in the store and attracted a lot of attention. Children were drawn to iMovie and soon demonstrated Apple’s famed ease of use. Given the choice, I think they would have bought Macs, but their parents would have none of it and purchased ugly and incredibly slow (by comparison) PCs. However, one thing that drew everyone’s attention was the Cube. It was tiny and most thought it was the power supply for a computer hidden somewhere else. This may explain why it wasn’t a big seller—people didn’t understand it. Although I was not actually involved in selling the machines, it was incredibly frustrating for me when a wealthy worker from a North Sea oil rig came to buy a Cube and two Snow iMacs, then the top of range. The warehouse didn’t have any in stock so I had to direct him to the Apple Approved Dealer opposite.

If Apple has been through beige, grey, candy colors, transparent, white and black, there doesn’t seem much left for them to offer in terms of color, so will they have to innovate in form instead? To date, their Bauhausian designs have made form follow function—unlike their competitors who seem to do the reverse and bolt on extraneous lumps of multi-colored plastic in emulation of Apple’s design, letting function follow form. There have been other attempts at look-alike computers following Apple’s lead but none seems to have sold that well, apart from laptops which all follow Apple’s designs, including moving to metal cases.

What next then? Palladian iPods? Cubist…er…cubes? Dadaist desktops? Gaudian G5s? Or even Gehry G5s, much admired by the likes of Brad Pitt, with scrunched-up and distorted shapes—that’s Gehry’s designs not Pitt.

Or more likely, back to beige.

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