Feb 11

Apple & Hendrix: intangibles matter

For some ridiculous period of time, I’ve been peeking in on a debate that’s raged in an online discussion group since someone first dared to start the topic, “Mac or PC?”

Unsurprisingly, more than 2,300 reader comments have now failed to resolve the question. Though seriously outnumbered in this design-oriented forum, those pesky PC users have not yet rushed off to the Apple Store, credit card in hand. Instead, they’ve tweaked the Mac users for being blindly loyal, not understanding that computers are just tools or that PCs deliver greater flexibility at a lesser price.

Some of what they say is actually true. However, these people ignore the existence of measures that don’t show up in spec charts and invoices.

These are the intangibles. Invisible to some, yet clear as a bell to others.  Worthless to some, worth any price to others. Intangibles not only caused the PC/Mac wars, they’ve caused just about every rift since good taste had its first fight with bad taste. They are the reason this debate will never, ever die.

Forgive me while I step outside the category to illustrate the point. I direct you to an article that ran in The New York Times last summer. It was written in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Electric Lady Studios — the recording studio built by Jimi Hendrix, where some of the greatest recordings in rock history (past and present) was captured.

I’m sure most people aren’t aware, or have long forgotten, that Jimi built this as the studio of his dreams — where the technology and ambience would inspire musicians to create some real magic. And this was long before Apple invented the word magic.

Rather than mimic the bigger, more sterile studios in use at the time, Jimi built a studio that reflected his values. It was psychedelic, with odd lighting and arty murals featuring “sci-fi erotica,” all designed to help musicians be more creative.

Hendrix actually died less than a month after the studio’s opening, but the list of artists who have been attracted to this place is pretty amazing: from the Stones, Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin, to Coldplay, Rhianna and Sheryl Crow.

Interestingly, despite the fact that bigger studios with great technology and engineers have folded in recent years, Electric Lady remains a creative beacon.

Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s “favored engineer,” sums up the difference in a word: “vibe.” The studio’s goal, he explains, “was to create an environment where Jimi could feel really happy, and feel that he could create anything.”

At other points in this article, the studio is described as a “mix of high-tech equipment and mellow atmosphere” and “a friendly place to make art.”

In another article, studio designer John Storyk says that Jimi personally instructed him to “have things soft, curved and with changing lights.”

It was all part of the vibe. Clearly a ton of big-name musicians believe in it. But we may safely assume there are many out there who do not.

The vibe is something you either appreciate, or you don’t.

There’s a parallel between choosing a studio and choosing a computer — technically, a personal studio. Some make their decision based on the cold, hard facts. Others seek out the environment that will help them do their thing better — or a computer that will simply provide a happier place to work.

If you can’t appreciate the intangibles, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means you have different priorities. There’s room in this world for people who think both ways.

For the PC users in that discussion group who believe OS’s are OS’s, apps are apps, and computers are just tools, Mac users will always appear to be first-class fools.

That’s interesting. Because I imagine that these very same people can appreciate the special magic of the music that Electric Lady made possible.

Tags: , ,

  • Great post — you’ve captured the reason why I tend to stay far away from “the great debate”. As soon as I hear a PC advocate talking about cost per gigahertz, I know we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  • Riz

    “That’s interesting. Because I imagine that these very same people can appreciate the special magic of the music that Electric Lady made possible.”

    Which explains that your analogy does not really work. It is not Electric Lady Studios that put the ‘magic’ into Hendrix’s music. It was Jimi who did that.

    You don’t hear anything different from the songs recorded there by Rhianna and Sheryl Crow from the ones recorded elsewhere. They are all the same, non-magical, computer generated, auto-tuned loops of yodeling.

    You either have it or you don’t. A Mac will not make you have ‘it’.

    I own a Macbook Pro because I think it is the best laptop out there, but I run Windows 7 on it via BootCamp because I think it is the better OS than OSX. Where does that put me? A Mac user or a PC user? A hermaphrodite?

    I like to think that I can see the magic but I am not blinded by it.

  • neilw

    This post is incredibly similar to something I’d been brewing for a while, regarding the futility of platform advocacy in general, but especially with regard to Apple-anything vs. non-Apple anything.

    At the fringes, there are those on the Apple side who believe that almost anything non-Apple is ugly and crappy and therefore useless, functionality be damned. On the other side, the Apple haters view anything Apple as overpriced toys, and Apple users as “sheep”. These views largely boil down to the relative value one places on intangibles. These fringe factions inevitably turn almost any platform discussion into pointless noise, despite the fact that there might be many who can debate the points reasonably.

    This tendency can be further abstracted, though, beyond Apple-related discussions. In general, people have a very hard time accepting that others have different values, and that those values might be equally valid in their context. Further, people’s values tend to solidify around the choices they’ve already made.

    And so we had Mac users in the pre-OSX days arguing why they didn’t need pre-emptive multitasking. PC users in the pre-Windows days arguing why GUIs were not for “real work”. Amiga users arguing why they didn’t need memory protection. Early iOS users explaining why they didn’t need cut and paste, and then later ridiculing WP7 for releasing without it. It goes on and on.

    Again, it might only be a minority who think like this, but they tend to be the most vocal, and in public forums like on the web they drown out the more reasoned voices.

  • bradisrj

    @Riz – glad you are happy with your choices. For the record, you are a PC user with really good hardware.

    As you say, for both talent and creativity, tools and environment don’t make someone have “it” – but someone with IT often find the right tools and environment help them use their “voice” better and/or easier.

    As far as the magic goes, imho, you do not really see it. And since you don’t, it doesn’t matter.

  • Bmcfadden

    Intersting discussion of “vibe” — in other words, that which we cannot speak of in words. Things we just feel and sometimes cannot explain.

    I picked up a Samsung Galaxy Tab the other day based on reporting it was the “first credible competition to the iPad”. In les than two minutes I had to set it down. It exuded a cheesy vibe on every level from the display to the UI to the apps … If this thing is credible competition, I have no worries that iPad will dominate for years to come.

  • ken segall

    I had no intention of judging the talent of one performer vs. another, only of demonstrating that a wide variety of musicians have recorded at Electric Lady because they like the vibe there. It helps them do what they do better — even if what they do happens to turn your stomach. I was not implying that having a Mac would make you talented, only that Mac’s tangibles and intangibles create a platform that provide some people with a happier experience.

    Well expressed. I could not agree more!

  • Keith

    I can appreciate where you’re coming from.

    But I disagree a bit.

    I’m a Mac user at home. And I use Windows in my office (like everybody else). But I use a Nexus One for my smartphone….and I am really in a quandry whether to go iPad 2 or Moto Xoom (wifi only) right now.

    So why a Nexus One? Because I honestly find Android easier to use than an iPhone (though it’s debatable if Android is better on a tablet).

    Now the implication is that Apple products make it easier for you to be creative. Yes and no. Apple does offer better creative software. The iWorks and iLife suites are amazing. That said, an OS that’s intrusive or cumbersome is just annoying. The way iOS does notifications, the lack of widgets, lack of customization, etc. is just annoying. Forget being creative. Those minor inconveniences take away from being productive. That’s the reason I like Android. Once setup, I get the information I want right away. No opening and closing a bunch of apps. No pop-ups. The browser is just better. I love the way it reflows text when you re-size. Scrolling side to side on an iPhone is annoying as hell.

    But a lot of Apple users will defend these shortcomings and the lack of freedom as being better for the user experience…..that is until they get them. Remember how nobody really “needed” multi-tasking or cut/copy/paste? Until the iPhone got it. No iOS fans will mock any smartphone OS that’s deficient in these areas.

    This is why I don’t necessarily buy this argument that we are more creative and you “just don’t get it”. Sometimes there’s some truth to it. But quite often, I find a lot of that is an attempt to rationalize away, the part of the user experience that is lacking. Ironically, many Android users are saying the same thing these days to Apple fans, “you just don’t get it.” Remember the good old days, when Apple wasn’t mainstream and you actually were unique if you used an Apple product?

    Oh well. To each his own. I would never suggest knocking anything until you’ve tried it….this is why I am waiting to go hands-on on both tablets so I can decide. Use what works for you. People who blindly buy Apple are just as bad as people who blindly buy Dell.

  • KenC

    Nice! I liken it to the difference between Pixar films and Dreamworks. Pixar films are full of the intangibles, but there is a whole world full of people who could care less about the intangibles and like Dreamworks animated films just as much if not more, and cannot fathom what might be so special about the Pixar intangibles.

  • Sorry to reawaken an old post, but just wanted to repsond to Kieth’s comment. I’m not sure if the author was implying that OSX is more creative than Windows, or if *he* finds OSX more creative. Personally, I use Mac at home because my wife finds it easier, Linux running on Mac hardware at work, and an HTC Desire S. What do I like about Linux over OSX? Again, it’s the intangibles. But for me, the smoothness of the OSX UI is not important. Rather, I like how Linux feels snappier, how I have much more control over the UI to make it suit how I can use it most efficiently and creatively, the fact that I can install all the software I need by running a single command (which, as a software developer, is actually something I do very often), and many other things. These are all intangibles. The way I see it, you have multiple permutations of platforms, some of which can be shown to be tangibly better than others (for example, price per CPU cycle). However, each platform has its own intangible benefits, and which one is intangibly better is entirely up to the values (which are influenced by needs) of the user.