Switched On: The contractor and the architect

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

With months before "universal" versions of key applications are available, Apple should have probably released a revamped consumer notebook before its new MacBook Pro; perhaps a more radical redesign awaits the venerable iBook. However, Mac users willing to delay some peak performance gratification have quite a treat ahead of them. The MacBook Pro is the finest computer Apple has ever released. Beyond the sleek, inviting form that enabled the PowerBook G4 to set the bar for elegant laptop design, the new computer boasts one long-awaited addition -- an integrated camera for videoconferencing -- and one ingenious lifesaver in the breakaway MagSafe power connector.

Ephemeral concerns about running Windows aside, Apple's entry onto the Intel platform may have many potential switchers scratching their confused crania. Is Apple's design prowess simply attributed to designing "the whole widget" as the company says? Is it as simple as minimalism or even restraint? Those are all factors, but a stronger influence is the difference of philosophies and perceived roles between Microsoft and Apple.

In fact, I've often found Microsoft's portrayal as the industry's "bad guy" a bit ironic because Microsoft really, really wants to please you; it may be the most earnest technology company in the industry. They've even hired this Scoble guy to blog all day long for you and, every time he takes a break they kill a kitten. The poor fellow recently got so bored that he played "20 Questions" in his comments getting people to guess that Project Origami is a relatively small tablet PC that runs XP and is optimized for entertainment and communication. But, um, it's all a big secret and I could be way off. Yeah, on second thought, it's probably a monster truck.

In any case, if that motley metal medley known as the PC is a fixer-upper, Microsoft wants to be your conscientious contractor. It proudly takes very seriously the responsibility of serving such a diverse customer base. Even as Microsoft talks about some of the more artistic touches in Windows Vista's Aero user interface such as elements that gradually fade in and out, it does so with the rationalization that it wants to remove any startling transitions from the experience. Good contractors can create an incredibly broad range of functional improvements that meet customers' requirements and work well with what they have. They may even surprise you with clever or elegant designs such as Tooltips or fast user switching, but rarely will they create art.

Apple, on the other hand, is the industry's architect. It understands what people want, generally, but it fuses those requirements with its own sense of design and direction. Its approach reminds me of a Chicago DJ my wife once described to me who, instead of playing requests that people said they wanted, would play what he deemed they needed to hear.

For example, people want expandability in a laptop. The MacBook Pro offers an ExpressCard slot for which there is little support today but, trust us, will give you what you need down the road. People want a 10-foot user interface. We'll give you Front Row, which eschews all that complicated TV recording stuff you don't need. And by the way, those applications that ran only under the classic Mac OS? We didn't want to say anything but... trés '90s.

On the other hand, here are some things you might not have known you wanted but you'll really appreciate -- a wrist rest free of ugly stickers and paint that rubs off and an ingenious power connector that could save you hours of downtime or costly repairs caused by a jarring tug. Fast access to handy applets will save you a lot of time and screen real estate since it puts widgets in their own mode.

Later this year, Microsoft will release Windows Vista, and it will make nearly everything about Windows better while preserving impressive backward compatibility. It must, because that's what Microsoft's customers said they wanted, and the company gallantly wants to make its customers happy. It will probably even do Mac OS 10.4 a notch better in some respects. On a capable PC, it will be a decent, maybe solid, house that most people will likely find comfortable and attractive. After all, not everyone cares about living in one designed in Cupertino that makes neighbors oooh and aaah as they drive by it.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at