Column: Battle for mindshare reaches outer space

The war for the hearts and minds of Mac users is not just on the desktop--it has gone interstellar.

The war for the hearts and minds of Mac users is not just on the desktop--it has gone interstellar. The movie Independence Day was launched in America on July 4 to much hoopla and one company which bought into the hype was Apple--it launched a major marketing campaign in conjunction with the movie in the hopes of generating more sales.

Anyone who has watched the film with a critical eye to the computer technology involved would have noticed an Apple Powerbook being used extensively by Jeff Goldblum’s character. In fact, if you watch almost any film or TV programme you’ll usually see Apple hardware featuring. Even the rapidly ageing teenagers on Beverly Hills 90210 try to get themselves cyber-dates using an Apple machine.

So perhaps a lot of Americans use Apple? Proportionately, yes, but in reality Apple has signed product placement deals with many large film and made-for-TV production companies, ensuring that any computers you see on the set are Apple ones.

These moves are just one more gambit in the technology war between Apple and Microsoft.

I recently sat in a movie theatre waiting for ID4 (as it is also known) to begin. Suddenly there was a lull in the pre-movie audience chatter. Pictures of Adolf Hitler and Nazi troops flashed across the screen--tanks, destruction, war. Was this some kind of party political broadcast from the New Zealand Fascist party, a late contender for the elections? No, instead the line “Close Combat. Just like war, except you don’t die,” came over the speaker system. “Microsoft Knows Games.”

“Wow. Microsoft really is a Nazi company,” whispered someone behind me. I had to admit the connotations of the ad were unfortunate for Microsoft--MS or SS? The advertisement could leave some doubt in the public’s mind.

Then the movie started.

A friend had told me the whole movie was really an Apple loyalty message to its customers. I was sceptical at first, but things started to fall into place. Take, for example, the scene where a whole lot of Los Angeles new age adherents stand on top of a skyscraper to welcome the alien ships.

One of the buildings they were standing on was IBM's. One of the people in close-up on top of the building had a placard which read “Please take me away from here.”

OS/2 users appealing for help to the Microsoft empire thinly disguised as predatory aliens? I think so--the aliens destroyed the IBM building and its supplicants soon after.

If bad guys were metaphors for Microsoft, and the IBMers desperate refugees, then the Mac OS was the definite hero in this scenario.

Jeff Goldblum looked up numbers on the Internet from his Dad’s car with his PowerBook. He operated it on a plane (which is something airlines get really sick of reminding people not to do during takeoff). He even hacked into the evil alien operating system from space when all earth’s satellite and communications links were down--and all without so much as a battery recharge.

If you go along with the aliens-as-Microsoft theory, whole chunks of the turgid dialogue are suddenly filled with new--well, actual--meaning.

The US president, on the side of the ultimately victorious Mac users, faces off with the evil alien (its eyes looking rather like Bill Gates’ glasses).

Prez: “What do you want us to do?”

Alien: “Die.”

Prez: “We have much to learn from each other. Can there ever be a peace?”

Alien: “No. There will be no peace.”

Later, after the alien tries a sort of Vulcan mind-meld on him, the president explains the alien empire’s intentions: “I saw the alien’s thoughts. I saw what they do. They go from planet to planet stripping its natural resources and moving on.”

What with those ads featuring the Wehrmacht before the film and then this coded conversation it all seems to click--I start to wonder whether Seattle and the world’s desktop computing industry is no longer enough for Bill.

The prez’s inspiring speech before the final dawn offensive seems to be almost a direct appeal by Apple to the movie-going, computer-using audience: “We are battling not just for our independence. We are fighting to survive not just this war but against total annihilation! We want to live!”

In the end the Mac users do triumph over the evil alien empire because they haven’t changed the mothership entry passwords for the past 40 years and because Goldblum uses his Powerbook to upload a virus to the Alien operating system ... which is where some of the reasons why people are leaving the Mac platform in the corporate world are revealed to the audience.

Jeff and Will Smith have to wait around, in imminent danger, for quite some time while the virus is connecting and loading. One shot showed Jeff’s Mac connecting, another showed it waiting. The heroes are left in danger of imminent death while the Powerbook keeps churning ... still transferring data ... 64% completed ... Then there was a third shot of Jeff’s Mac when it had finished. Considering almost nothing else in the movie had a hint of realism when it came to technology and computing, I just wonder why they had to put that all-too-real touch in?

If an Apple laptop can connect to an alien host and transfer virus programs in the vacuum of space, how come in real life an Apple file still can’t even talk freely to a PC? Why did I spend several hours last week trying to open Mac files I put on the corporate LAN on a PC, only to be told the files don’t exist? Why did I have to copy them all over again and save them in special formats?

Because it knew. Both operating systems knew I was just trying to view files across platforms--it might as well have been across the barricades in Northern Ireland.

I decided it was all just a paranoid fantasy until writing this piece using Word 6.0 on a PC--the spellchecker came up with “powerboat” as alternative spelling for PowerBook. The casualties of war--even spelling is fair game.

I give up. I think the IT War has given me an unspecified syndrome. I’ll have to be like Will Smith’s character and kiss enough booty to get a NASA transfer.

(Keenan is a Computerworld journalist.)

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