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AT LARGE: The real thing

AT LARGE: The real thing

I found myself in Melbourne recently. No, this is not indicative of some pseudo-spiritual, existentialist revelation. Rather, it is merely a statement of fact. Like many tech journalists, I lead an exciting, go-gettem jet-setter lifestyle, and from one day to the next, I literally do not know which of this nation's magnificent cities I will wake up in.

Also, like many tech journalists, I use the word "literally" with gleeful abandon and scant regard for its actual meaning.

Anyway, I was in Melbourne. Although I did not manage to come to any great neo-hippy realisations about myself, I did discover something interesting about Melbournians. They are not as easily distracted as Sydneysiders. A case in point: around the Albert Park area of the great southern capital, there are multiple line markings on the road. Some of these correspond to the routes normal drivers must use to guide them on their way to and from work on a normal day, without crashing headlong into people coming the other way. The others correspond to the routes much faster drivers in Formula 1 cars must use in charging around the city at breakneck speed. These drivers do not have to worry about people coming the other way. Thus, these lines criss-cross, overlap and intersect with the others in all manner of crazy ways.

But Melbournians are not distracted by them. They know which lines are theirs, and they drive accordingly.

Contrast this with Sydney, where we have only one extraneous line on the road. Snaking 42.1 kilometres around the city and some of the more interesting suburbs, it indicates where the runners should go on the Olympic and Paralympic marathons. I regularly see drivers weaving across lanes, often narrowly avoiding heading onto the wrong side of the road, hypnotically guided by the thin blue line.

Tech journalists, you'll find, are similarly easily distracted. In some ways, it's understandable, since we're now nearing the end of what must be defined as a "slow news year". Most of the big, promising stories earlier on have turned out to be kind of dull, and little has happened to brighten up a fairly bland landscape through the year.

Which is why, I suspect, so many journos have jumped back onto Apple's case. As I reported last week, the company has, with one poor earnings announcement, become a soap opera again, at least in the minds of the computer press. It's like a blue line on the road - they can't help themselves.

One of my fellow columnists (who will no doubt be in touch when he reads this) blames Apple's poor fortune on Mac OS X, calling it "New Coke syndrome". He reckons that Apple has alienated its core customer base by altering the operating system, in much the same way Coca-Cola did when it changed the formula of its bubbly sugar-water in 1985. Coca-Cola lost its number-one status amongst soft drinks and the company lost immense corporate credibility. Can Apple have made the same mistake?

It's an interesting comparison, but a flawed one. Back in 1985, Coke and Pepsi were neck-and-neck in terms of market share and in terms of how well their customers regarded their products. Coke was marginally in front on the first count, while Pepsi had an apparent lead on the second. In changing its formula, Coke made its product more similar to Pepsi, rather than more different. This, to my mind, was the mistake it made.

Now, the relative merits of Windows 98 and Mac OS 9 are pretty much line-ball. I've heard even severe Apple critics refer to its OS as "marginally superior". I have an opinion on this, of course, but won't share it here. Suffice it to say some of you would agree with me, and others would not. This is called "being controversial" and it's why we tech journalists get the big money. However, you would not have to be overly encumbered with the yoke of intellect to realise Apple is not in a commanding position, market sharewise.

And this is why Mac OS X is totally unlike New Coke. The company does not have a number-one spot to sacrifice. It also does not have a competitor regarded as superior to emulate. Mac OS X is not similar to Windows. It hasn't given up its moral high ground by admitting, as Coca-Cola did, that the other guy's product is pretty good after all.

I'm amazed they manage to stage marathons. As I understand it, the guy who ran the original marathon back in ancient times died at the end of his run. When the first meetings gathered to organise a modern Olympics, how did they convince anyone to try it again?

I know that has nothing to do with the article, but I'm a tech journalist.

Matthew JC. Powell is easily distracted. Help him concentrate on mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au


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