Netbooks: Is Apple Leaping the Uncanny Valley?

Fans of Brad Pitt’s virtuoso performance as the man who ages backwards in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button might wish to pause a moment before lauding him for the quality of his work.

That’s not to denigrate his performance, of course; many critics believe that it was superb. But fans might wish to confirm that they’re praising the right performer.

Truth be told, much of what appears to be a Pitt performance should actually be credited to software programmers who inserted Pitt’s eyes and face on a digitally manipulated image of a decrepit old man, as well as a newborn infant.

Many believe that the software programmers stole the show by leaping across the uncanny valley. And in a different way, Apple might now be planning to do the same in the technology industry.

The Uncanny Valley

Japanese robotics inventor Masahiro Mori coined the phrase “uncanny valley” back in the 1970s. He was referring to the fact that people tend to be fond of robots that don’t look very human, and tend to like them more as their appearances become more human, but only up to a point. Sooner or later, the robots become so humanoid that people suddenly notice that their eyes are glassy and their skin is unnaturally white.

Then, suddenly, they say that the robots are creepy. Spooky. Chilling. And they feel repulsed by them.

Robot designers, of course, have no intention of quitting when they reach the uncanny valley; instead, they continue to improve the lifelike realism of their characters, hoping to keep working until the robots can no longer be differentiated from humanity. But humanity need not worry, they haven’t yet reached this stage of robotic realism … at least not yet!

Visual entertainment media companies have long wrestled with the same problem. For instance, the special effects in the original 1933 film King Kong were primitive by modern standards, but were nevertheless embraced for their “remarkable” effectiveness. Interestingly, though, the far more technologically sophisticated 2005 film version was panned by some for its “horrible” effects.

Hollywood knew that it would be a “challenge” to convince the audience to accept Brad Pitt in his roles as the decrepit old man and newborn infant versions of Benjamin Button. But they had nothing to fear; their software engineers had succeeded so well at rendering these images in a lifelike manner, the audience barely remembered that Pitt is currently in the prime of his life.

The Curious Case of Apple’s Netbook Strategy

So how is the uncanny valley phenomenon related to netbooks, those little devices that look like miniature laptops and mimic their functions, but that don’t possess hard drives and thus lack many of the features and capabilities of “real” computers?

Just a few days ago, Apple’s COO Tim Cook ridiculed the netbook, saying that “it’s a stretch to call them a personal computer,” in much the same way that moviegoers once thought that it was a stretch to call the 2005 version of King Kong a real ape. Interestingly, though, Apple once created the world’s first tiny handheld computer. Its Newton was a cute but grossly underpowered version of a laptop computer; it was so popular among a small group of devotees that it still maintains a small cult following today.

Although Apple discontinued the Newton over ten years ago, today’s netbooks are becoming more and more similar to laptop computers with every passing day. Their screens are growing larger, their keyboards are becoming roomier, and their operating systems are evolving into better representations of full-fledged Windows programs. It might have been reasonable to assume that Apple’s historical fondness for the Newton and current success with the iPhone might have translated into a desire to manufacture netbooks, but Cook’s outright hostility makes one wonder whether Apple has fallen into an uncanny valley of its own.

True Revulsion, or a Head Fake?

During most of the 1990s, Apple promoted the Newton as a “personal digital assistant,” capable of accessing email, holding electronic files, and recognizing handwriting. But it clearly provided no match for the power and functionality of a laptop computer.

And yet in many ways, the spirit of the Newton lives on in the Apple iPhone.  Furthermore, the netbook lines of competitor technology companies appear to be stealing large chunks of business from high end mobile telephones and low end laptop computers. So what is one to make of Tim Cook’s ostensible revulsion for the netbook concept?

One point of view is to take him at his word, and to assume that consumers will soon fall into his uncanny valley as well. If you subscribe to this belief, you are inherently assuming that netbook designers will never be able to travel that proverbial final mile and overcome the product’s inherent weaknesses to make them fully interchangeable with low end laptop computers.

On the other hand, an alternative point of view is to assume that Cook is manipulating his competitors with a clever head fake. Perhaps Apple is hard at work, developing its own competitive line of netbooks, and it is simply biding its time until consumers reach a point where they are ready to leap over the uncanny valley.

Are you buying Apple stock or selling it short? Before you make your investment decision, you might be wise to decide for yourself whether you subscribe to one point of view or another, and whether you believe the netbook will ever become a true mass market device. The answers to those questions might well determine the future of the computer industry.