By Mark Frauenfelder
Well, so much for my fifteen minutes. It was fun while it lasted. My picture appeared on the inside front cover of Time, Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker, and a few other magazines. My TV commercial ran on a bunch of different shows. For a few short weeks, I was a kind of a celebrity around town.
For some reason, a lot of people sort of recognized me from my TV commercial whenever I ate at one of my favorite restaurants, a place called Art's Delicatessen on Ventura Blvd in Studio City. It could be because the place is usually full of actors, so people are always kind of looking around trying to figure out who's who. Sometimes, it's easy to place the faces, but harder to remember the names or the shows they were in. My friends and I are always whispering to each other: "There's that old skinny guy who always plays a corporate villain," or "I think she was one of the moms on Beverly Hills 90210." I've seen people approach poor old actors trying to enjoy their matzo brie in peace and ask them, "what show were you on?" followed by the kicker that any old actor loves to hear, "whatever happened to you?"
But that's not what people asked me. I wasn't on TV long enough to register very deeply in their minds. I was a surface celebrity, the kind that evaporates from people's consciousness in a matter of seconds, leaving the barest trace of neurochemical residue. So I got questions along the lines of "You're a waiter at a restaurant I eat at a lot, aren't you? Which restaurant do you work at?" Another guy standing near the cash register looked me up and down and asked, "Have any Windows users bitch-slapped you yet?" A few people wanted to know if I was a friend of the "Dude, you're getting a Dell" dude.
A few members of the press wrote articles protesting my physical appearance. They were upset that Apple had decided to forgo the use of surgically enhanced or genetically high-bred people to help them sell computers.
In his PC Magazine column, John C. Dvorak described all of the people in the switchers campaign as "goofy looking schlubs," and singled me out as a guy who, quote "looks as if he wants to wash a camel with cream cheese." Unquote. I thought that was an outrageous thing to say. True, but outrageous. No, actually, I've always been a llama and peanut butter guy, myself.
Then there's The Register's Andrew Orlowski, who wrote "Apple couldn't have picked a starker collection of life's losers with which to promote the Macintosh." He described us switchers as "scarred, terrified refugees from life… people so freaky that if one sat next to you on the bus, you'd suddenly find yourself wondering if walking home might be an altogether less traumatic option." He pegged me as a "the kind of twitchy, self-loathing bore from whom women flee." Fortunately, I'm a much faster runner than my wife.
I also got email. My email address didn't show up in print ads, but my name shows up in a Google search. Naturally, I got a lot of hate mail from PC fanatics in the Wintel/Mac Holy war. I was called a doofus, a jerk, a liar, a shill, a fake, a plant, a stooge, an idiot, and a sorry specimen of human protoplasm. I didn't bother trying to write snappy comebacks to these angry people. I just thanked them for sharing and invited them to write again if they needed to blow off steam. I've learned that the best way to quench flames is to pour honey on them. But the volume of hate mail I got from the PC faithful was just a trickle compared to the number of letters I got from lustful men asking me if I could give them Ellen Feiss's email address. I gave these guys Andrew Orlowski's email address. I hope they had a nice conversation.
All in all, however, my fifteen minutes of fame was a blast. My mother thinks I'm a hero. And I got free copies of all the magazines that my picture appeared in. I'd do it again in a flash.
The real reason I'm here today, though, is to talk about gadgets. Especially ones that plug into Macs. I've got a lot of gadgets. I usually carry around an iPod, my cell phone, my Handspring Visor Edge, a Rim Blackberry pager, and a digital camera. Most of these things I can plug into my Macintosh, either to suck bits out of it, or pump bits into it.
I love my gadgets. I acquired my passion from my dad, and engineer who liked to carry slide rules, mechanical calculators, compasses, and wristwatches that kept their accuracy with a teensy weensy tuning fork that you could actually hear as it hummed at a frequency of 360 oscillations per second.
Today, gadgets are a lot more powerfully, especially those that update their memory and functionally by accessing a computer or server. This is where the Macintosh comes in. Macintosh has been making a big deal lately out of being a kind of digital hub for all your devices – your PDA, your digital camera, your video camera, your MP3 player. There's a good reason for this. They don't want you to think you don't need a computer any longer. They look at countries like Japan and Finland where people use their handhelds and personal communicators to take care of all their Internet and digital needs and they shudder, because these things take the desktop PC out of the equation. So they pound the message home – the Mac is the mother ship for all your gadgets. And to sweeten the deal, they've made a bunch of amazing gadget-friendly applications that they give away for free, like iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and iCal.
Personally, I think it's a good idea. I like the idea of connecting gadgets to my Macintosh. Not because I like having to remove my 128 Megabyte memory card from my digital camera, stick it into a little gadget with a USB cord dangling from it, download the pictures to my hard disk, then run a freeware application that does something to the Jpegs that allows them to be recognizable by iPhoto. And not because I like having to plug my iPod into my computer everytime I want to delete a song from it that didn't get ripped properly, or is redundant, or just sucks. And not because I like watching my address labels get screwed up when I sync my Handspring to Entourage. Actually, I kind of like doing all that stuff. My wife likes crossword puzzles, I like performing mindless repetitive housekeeping chores on my Mac.
I also love using beautiful and intelligently designed things, and my iMac and iBook are right up there with my Kamaka soprano ukulele and my Rosle stainless steel garlic press. I wish I could plug them into my Macintosh, too.
The next few slides I have are of gadgets I'd love to be able to plug into my Macintosh, but which don't yet exist. Here they are.
Here's two great things that would go great together: weather.com and snow domes. I trust you know about weather.com -- it's a site where you can enter a zip code and get the local forecast for the next 10 days. It's a great service, I use it all the time. And snow domes are those plastic hemispheres filled with water and plastic flakes that look like snow. You shake them up and watch the flakes fall on a little scene of a city or snowman or something like that. What I'd like to see is a snowdome that has a USB cable poking out of it. You plug it in your Mac and a window pops up, asking you to enter a zip code. Then your Mac downloads the forecast from Weather.com and sends it to the Organic Light Emitting Laser Diode Holographic Display inside the snow dome. Instantly, you get a view of the city corresponding to the zip code you entered, along with a visual depiction of the weather forecast – gray thunderclouds, softly falling snow, concussion-grade hailstones, whatever. By turning the knob marked from one to ten, you can see the weather conditions for the next ten days. When you aren't using the snow dome to check the weather, the screen saver function will kick in, showing either the storm activity on the moons of Jupiter, or an artificial life goldfish bowl.
When I buy produce, I like knowing what I'm getting. It's easy to predict how crisp an apple will be by squeezing it, or how ripe an avocado is by pinching it. It takes a little more training to determine the freshness of a cantaloupe by thumping it with your knuckles, but I finally got the hang of it. But I'll be damned if I can figure out how to tell how sweet a grapefruit is without actually tasting it. There have been too many times I've bought a fat, heavy, pink grapefruit, only to cut it open and bite into something that tastes like styptic powder. That's why I've come up with the Grapefruit Acidity Detector. It's a cylindrical doo-dad about the size of a cigarette. You take it, and your iBook, with you to the supermarket. Inside the devices, there's a hollow needle. When you plug the cable into your iBook and press the button, a heating coil inside the cylinder draws current from the iBook's battery and sterilizes the needle by heating it until it's red hot. Then an electrostatic cooling circuit brings the needle back to room temperature. When the LED blinks green, you press the tip of the cylinder into the grapefruit, and the needle plunges into the fruit, sucking out a little of the juice. The pH level system in the cartridge sends the data to the iBook, which analyzes the data and displays the acidity of the fruit in one of a variety of user-customizable ways. It also records the name of the store in a database, so you can keep track of which supermarkets offer the sweetest grapefruits. When you buy the grapefruit acidity detector, it will come with 100 sterile circular bandages with lifelike grapefruit skin texture on them so you can cover the little hole that the needle makes. That way, the grocer won't be upset when he sees you standing there with your iBook and iFruit, poking holes in his produce.
My friend Cory Doctorow, who is one of the Keynote speakers at this conference, has a new novel coming out, called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. People who've read advance copies are hailing it as the science fiction breakout of the decade, comparing its cultural significance to Neuromancer and Snow Crash. I agree. There are so many mind-bending concepts in the book that anyone who reads it will walk away with a Doctorow's wonderful worldview indelibly stamped into his or her sense organs. In the futuristic world of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the characters are jacked into the Net 24/7 by a wireless signal connected to their nervous system. When you meet someone, you can instantly see a number that indicates his or her reputation in the world. Cory calls it a Whuffie level. Having a lot of whuffie is like getting your Slashdot posting rated a 5. The iRep is a reputation analyzer that works with your Mac. It's basically a portable biometrics detector, a little gadget that you wear like a button on your shirt. It scans the iris pattern of the person you are standing in front of, sends a Bluetooth signal to your iBook, which consults a database of all the people who have signed up to participate in the rating network, and looks up how many whuffie points the person has. The your iBook then sends a Bluetooth signal to the mobile phone in your pocket, and makes it vibrate between 0 and 5 times, just like a Slashdot rating. If it sends a series of 3 short vibration bursts, it means the person isn't a participant of the whuffie network – an anonymous coward, in other words, and that you should do business with this person at your own peril.
I have a friend who stays in hotels about 30 times a year. He hates the food served in hotels, but he's usually too busy to get in his rental car and hunt down a decent restaurant. So he packs his suitcase with Powerbars. He lives on them. Poor guy. For him, I've come up with the iChef. It's about the size of a toaster. It's got 5 chambers inside, which hold special cartridges, kind of like toner cartridges, except they contain raw materials to make food. There are cartridges for protein, for carbohydrates, and for fat. There's one cartridge for "mouthfeel texturizers," and there's another that contains hundreds of different aromatic oils. What you do is download a FoodMaker Recipe file from the Net, press a key, and in a matter of minutes, a disk about the size of a hockey puck slides out of a slot on the FoodMaker machine. It could be linguini with pomodoro sauce, pistachio nut ice cream, tandoori chicken, anything you's like. While you are eating whatever it is, a full color photograph of the food will be displayed on the screen of your iMac so you can look at it. The only problem I see with the FoodMaker is in the trading of copyrighted recipes over P2P networks. The copyright enforcement arm of the Culinary Institute of America will end up convincing legislators to allow them to hack the P2P networks and corrupt the FoodMaker Recipe Files so that everything turns into foul tasting crap, unless the FoodMaker has digital rights management firmware built into it. But Apple would never allow that, would they?
But why stop with food? I'd like a device that could make anything. If you're as old as I am, you might remember a toy that Mattel made called the ThingMaker. It came with a bunch of metal molds and a little hotplate. You'd squirt the molds full of Plastigoop, which looked like colored Elmer's Glue, then cook it for a while on the hotplate. The PlastiGoop had a great smell, especially when it was cooking. It was probably cancer-causing. Then you'd remove the mold from the hotplate and cool it in a tray of cold water, and peel the rubber parts out of the mold. You could buy all sorts of different kinds of molds -- little dragons, insects, army men, flowers, shrunken heads, skeletons, disguises. Man, it was a great toy. They don't sell it anymore. At least not in the format it originally was sold in the 1960s. A company called Toymax sells a new version of the ThingMaker, but the hotplate has been replaced with an ugly plastic oven and the PlastiGoop smells awful. I bought one for my nephew recently and I help him make some bugs. I was so disappointed in it I logged onto ebay in searchof the real thing. I learned that the classic version of Plastigoop is hard to come by. One guy was selling a 7 1/2 fluid oz bottle of Green Plastigoop that was 7/8 full. The description stated, quote: "Goop is semi- hard but all you need to do is add hot water to it." The high bid was $35. That was when I got to thinking about a new kind of ThingMaker, one that I could plug into my iMac. The iThingMaker doesn't limit you to making only things you have molds for. You can make any 3D object you want, as long as it can pass through the 3-inch diameter output port on the side of the device. You could stop buying things, and just buy plans for things and the Plastigoop to make them. You'd start out by filling the reservoir with something that smelled just like the old Plastigoop, and then you'd log onto your favorite P2P network and download the instructions for anything you wanted to make – a boomerang, dentures, a carrying case for your iPod, whatever, and hit the "make" button. And after enjoying the aroma of the baking plastic for a few minutes, your thing slides out of the hole in the side. A subsequent version of the iThingMaker would include a semiconductor fabrication module so you could make gadgets that you could plug into your iMac. It would become a gadget-spewing cornucopia. I can hardly wait.
Well, that's it. If any of you want to talk to me about turning these fantasy ideas into reality, send me an email. Thanks for listening!