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The Force is with you

The Force is with you

Against his principles, Matthew JC. Powell decides to get something off his chest . . .

Yes, I know, I vowed I wouldn't do it, but I'm going to write about Star Wars again. If you're sick of it, cast your eyes down to the amusing stylings of Mr Cringely, below, and accept my apologies.

The reason I'm going back on my word and betraying the fundamental principles by which I live my life arises from a conversation I had last week with the production editor of ARN (so blame him). Alan remarked to me that, given my generally populist tastes, it was incongruous that I should prefer not to use Windows. He reasoned that someone who likes the Beatles (like everyone does) and Star Wars (like everyone does) should merrily use Microsoft operating systems (like everyone does). Instead, I prefer to use MacOS, and resort to Windows 95 or NT only when necessary. I've dabbled in Windows 98, but haven't "used" it for any real work, so it doesn't count. And I have a Linux installation disk (a couple, actually) but haven't been game yet.

The argument about the Beatles is a moot one, because the extent of my fandom places me well outside the norm. Sure, everyone likes the Beatles, at least a little bit, but how many of you bought Ringo's latest album (The Vertical Man) last year? How many of you didn't even know Ringo was still releasing albums?

Star Wars is a trickier one, since lots of people are indeed pretty fanatical about that one, even now. Jar Jar notwithstanding, the latest instalment looks to become the third biggest moneymaker in cinema behind only Titanic and the original Star Wars. All up, the four movies have grossed well over two billion dollars - you can't get very much more mainstream than that. But the way I see it, Star Wars and the Mac have a lot in common, such that liking Star Wars is more than compatible with preferring the Mac.

And no, it's not just because both the Mac and Star Wars have just recently had their first updates since 1984.

For a start, both Lucasfilm and Apple started in the late 1970s in northern California, the worldwide capital of somewhat off-beam attitudes. Both of them began at the outset with notions of independence from the mainstream: Lucasfilm by its mere location away from Hollywood, Apple by its lack of compatibility with anything else.

Both found, before very long, that they had to make alliances with the mainstream if they were to have any chance of success. Lucas took his ridiculous Star Wars idea to numerous Hollywood studios before eventually managing to sell it to 20th Century Fox, and Apple recognised the need to get developers like Microsoft working on the Mac early on. Both Lucasfilm and Apple benefited enormously, and quickly, from these early alliances. And both, just as quickly, looked to break away from them.

After 1983, Lucasfilm sold its product to the highest bidder, generally with little success. The Indiana Jones things were successful for Paramount, but Universal may not want to look at Lucas again after Howard the Duck. The one truly independent film he made during the 1980s, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, disappeared without a trace. Lucasfilm became an R&D company, working on special effects technology for other people's films. It built a mighty reputation for its technology and innovation, but no one expected it to be successful with its own films again.

Which brings me back to Apple. Once relations with Microsoft had broken down, Apple's problems began to mount. The industry moved away from it, Microsoft became even more powerful as an enemy than it had been as an ally, and the early success of the Mac began to seem very distant. Its determination to be independent became a liability. The company maintained a strong reputation for its technology and innovation, but no one expected it to be successful again.

Then it renewed its friendship with MS, went back to its strength with industrial design, and is enjoying a renaissance. Whether that will last or not is the subject of some other column.

Likewise, when Lucasfilm decided to release another movie, it knew that independence would not work. As much as it had built in terms of technological ability and commercial power, it didn't have what the studios could give it - a strong distribution channel. It went back to Fox, and the result is playing in a theatre near you.

So next time someone says the channel's awfully dull, tell them that without the channel, Star Wars would be just like Tucker.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au


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