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Dealing with the younger generation.

Why don’t you ever write about Apple?” The look was accusatory. The speaker was also in my personal space, if you know what I mean. I’m accustomed to occasionally meeting people who read this column. Most of them sort of mumble about it. Some point out that I used to wear a funny hat in the accompanying photo. “That’s great,” I usually say. Most flames I get via e-mail. Inches away, in person, they are something else.

The editor of this publication uses Macs. I don’t recall him flaming me for lack of Apple coverage, but then, he’s passing into and through midlife, and his opinions are becoming tempered (most of the time). The young lady standing in front of me had the obvious energy of youth behind her convictions.

“I used to write about Apple, years ago,” I said. I took a step backwards. I didn’t expect what I’d said to mollify her. It didn’t.

“That just makes it worse. Excuse me, but that sounds like a fuddy-duddy talking. You’re not a fuddy-duddy, are you?” What an odd question–with a barbed verbal hook in it, too. I remember feeling sort of trapped at this point, uncertain about the nature of my accuser as well as my own degree of complicity. She was also back in my personal space.

I don’t like leaners, people who deliberately lean into you when they’re trying to make a point. They believe the force of their argument is enhanced by physical pressure. This was different, though; I didn’t feel she was encroaching as a tactic. She was just very engaged. At least I hoped that was the case.

When you’re in a conversation with a stranger and things are heading beyond polite chitchat, there is a bail-out-or-buy-in point. You have to decide whether extracting yourself is the right thing to do, or risk committing to what will probably be a lengthy conversation. Before I replied, my inner voice said, “She has a point. You haven’t written about Apple in years. Why not?”

As the conversation began, we were standing in a green-court area between buildings. It was very early spring, when temperatures above 60 degrees send people out in short-sleeve shirts to catch a few rays. No harm in spending a few minutes. “Look,” I said, “I haven’t written about Apple, for a few reasons. Do you know why?” (The best defense is a good offense.) I loved her reaction. She kind of turned her head side to side and angled it to stare at me, like some raptors do when they size up prey but are wary.

Sally, as her name turned out to be, is a college student. I didn’t ask, but I suppose she’s about 19 or 20 years old. She’s a computer science major.

“Why do you like Apple so much?” I asked. No need to prime the pump, but I wanted to understand her position clearly.

She fixed me with both blue eyes. “You always seem to write for the user, the people who use computers. Apple designs computers for the users. They aren’t for the faceless, corporate entity. That’s why I like Apple computers. Why don’t you like them?”

A verbal tennis match if there ever was one, and I hadn’t been talking to her for more than two minutes. “And you want to work in IT?” I said.

“Who said I wanted to work in IT?”

I replied, “You’re getting a degree in computer science; that usually leads to a job in IT, unless you want to become an academic.”

She betrayed a note of frustration. “What does that have to do with Apple?”

“Quite a lot. Apple tried–several times–to be an IT company. Never really made it. Apple did other things, like schools. There was a time when Apple dominated the American primary school system. Kids, maybe like you, started using Apple computers in labs at a very early age and continued using them until at least high school and maybe college. Somewhere in there, the kids would start to hit the real world. They would get jobs in industry or even IT. Unless they were graphics artists or publishers, there would hardly be a Mac to be seen. Business is and was an IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Unix, and Sun world. Right?”

“Of course, but that misses the point of why I like Apple computers. Speaking of the real world, have you ever used an iMac?” she asked. She must’ve seen a smile creep onto my face. I can’t help it; the image of that flat-panel display floating around what looks like a pedestal for a lamp just makes me smile.

She said, “Well, at least you’ve seen it, but have you really used it?”

I had to admit that I hadn’t. In fact, I haven’t really used an Apple computer in at least a year. In my own defense, I’ll say that I cut my computer teeth on the Macintosh. Actually, my first computer was an Osborne portable (don’t get me started down that memory lane); but I soon acquired an Apple II and then a Mac. I love graphics, ergo I loved the Mac. However, that was more than 15 years ago.

I looked at her and realized that more than years of experience were at stake here. I sighed. “You’re right. It’s been a long time since I really used a Mac. I gave up on Apple. I thought Apple gave up on me, I suppose because I started working in big companies and writing about corporate computing all the time. That’s where the work was. Apple wasn’t there, and as far as I could tell they would never be there.”

For the first time since we started talking, Sally seemed to drop her missionary attitude, or whatever it was. She pulled off her backpack, opened the top and pulled out a new iPod. “See this?” she asked.

“Uh-huh, an iPod.”

She smiled and said, “It’s the hottest thing in computing right now because it can not only record and play music but also be used as an extra disk drive–and lots of other things.” She added with a significant look, “Style and substance.”

I winced. “You know about that.” I said. “Figures that you would. Yes, there were times when I thought Apple–Steve Jobs to be more specific–was a lot more interested in style than substance. Art forms as marketing, or marketing as an art form.”

She laughed. “That’s one of your patented phrases, isn’t it?” I shrugged; I do like to turn phrases like that. Style and substance, eh?

“Do you know how many really different ideas survive in the computer industry?” I let her continue. “A lot fewer than in Hollywood–and that’s not a lot. I know that Steve Jobs and the people he hires have this thing about design–style–which is no sin, by the way. But when you get down to it, I love the Mac software. I love the things I can do with a Mac so easily, just like I can do things with this iPod.”

We were sitting on the edge of a flower wall, and she jumped up again and put the iPod back into her backpack. I got this sense that somehow she felt vulnerable. I think we both did. I certainly felt like maybe I was missing something I used to respond to–innovation, the attempt to be different and to remember that we’re all individuals struggling to use this tool called a computer.

I had a twinge. Just as Sally was about to leave, that voice in my head was thinking about saying things like this to her: Apple does precious little real R&D, except maybe in software. Apple gear costs too much, but then the value isn’t just in the hardware specs. Apple makes things easy by dictating that everything that goes into their systems conforms, which seems like the total opposite of an open community. What would the computer world be like if there was no Apple Computer, or there never had been one? I can ask the same question about Microsoft. Would Oracle, IBM, or Sun have made the world differently?

Conundrums, oppositions, ambiguities–I had no desire to introduce these things into her enthusiasm. We shook hands. I thanked her.

Maybe my editor hasn’t aged as much as I thought. Maybe I have aged more.

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