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Michael Hiltzik: The two faces of Apple

September 21, 2010 |  5:55 pm

Is there a more schizophrenic company in America than Apple? On the one hand, it's the manufacturer of the most user-friendly personal computers on Earth, machines that almost never crash and seem to be able to fix themselves when they do, tools that augment human creativity in ways that would make Doug Engelbart proud. (Can you tell I recently became a Mac convert after a lifetime in Microsoft hell?)

Then there's the control-freak Apple, which designed the iPhone and the iPad as bright, flashing cash registers. You would be hard-pressed to create something of lasting value on these devices with a gun to your head, but you sure can buy a lot of neat stuff with them.

As my Wednesday column observes, until recently, the iPod was closer in phrenology to the Mac than the iPhone. You couldn't create with it, but you could consume music you owned without Apple interfering, if you so chose. The latest refresh of the iPod line takes it ever further from that model. In fact, it makes clear that the old iPod is dead in everything but spirit. You can buy a 160-GB Classic, but it's now marketed merely as your only choice if you want to carry your entire music library around (it's the "take-everything-everywhere iPod," Apple says). That used to be the whole pointof an iPod.

The column starts below:

It seems to be a law of nature that, just like toothpaste and government tax codes, great consumer technologies eventually become so overgrown with options or "improvements" that the original versions are indiscernible.

Microsoft has Word, its flagship word-processing program, which is so encrusted today with tools and features of less-than-universal utility that figuring out how to type a simple paragraph can take hours of consultation with the Help feature.

Apple has the iPod.

The original iPod, introduced by Steve Jobs in October 2001, was a marvel of elegant design. The capacity of the $399 product was 5 gigabytes, enough to accommodate 1,000 songs at the crude standards of data compression of the time.

Jobs pitched the device as a breakthrough "that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go." That was a major source of its appeal. Travelers in the pre-iPod era had to sit down before leaving home and choose a selection of CDs or cassette tapes to pack with their portable players or Sony Walkmen — only to discover, inevitably, that the one CD they really wanted to listen to was still in the pile back home.

It's hard to avoid the feeling now that Apple has abandoned that principle.

Read the whole column.

--Michael Hiltzik