Does Apple have the magic touch?

The company's deep talent lies in making technology that's easy to love -- which is exactly what the digital world needs now.

COMMENTARY--I wish more consumer technology companies would be like Apple Computer. No, I'm not one of those fawning, half-crazed Apple fanatics (OK, maybe just a little bit). It's simply that the company, for all of its considerable problems and quirks, has a knack for making easy-to-use devices that get the gadget gland pumping overtime. And in a world teeming with poorly designed computer products and clunky consumer electronics, we could use a little more of the Apple touch.

For those who need a refresher, Apple's track record is one of consistently providing new design innovations that less creative companies are quick to imitate. Apple was the first to popularize the graphical user interface that's now found on every Windows desktop. More recently, Apple helped establish 802.11 as the de facto standard for wireless networking by installing AirPort antennas in every computer it ships. The original iMac's funky-colored casings inspired copycats far and wide. Even when Apple products have bombed in the marketplace, it's often because they were introduced too early. The Newton PDA of the early 1990s clearly anticipated the Palm, and Apple's discontinued QuickTake camera was the first consumer digital camera to hit the market, in 1994.

Today, Apple is hard at work transforming the personal computer into a "digital hub" for other devices. Apple's iMovie, iPhoto, and iTunes software, for example, are intuitive applications that make it easy to manage and manipulate digital media on a computer. These tools stretch beyond the PC desktop to embrace new devices like the iPod, a portable MP3 player that has taken the consumer electronics industry by surprise.

The nifty little iPod marries a simple software interface with a clean, ultra-utilitarian design. The iPod's playlist software creates a searchable database of songs, in much the same way that iTunes works on the Apple desktop. Its scroll wheel works like an accelerated touchpad. The device also comes with a FireWire connection -- a lightning-quick cable link to the desktop -- allowing a music lover to download an entire CD in less than 10 seconds (while recharging the battery at the same time). There were plenty of MP3 players available before the iPod came along, but most suffer from poor battery life or limited memory. The iPod is tiny, it weighs just 6.5 ounces, it's simple to use, and it offers 10 hours of battery life, yet its 5-gigabyte drive can store 1,000 songs. And it's an instant hit: Apple sold 125,000 of these little white wonders during the Christmas season last year.

So why stop there? Plenty of digital devices -- from cell phones to set-top boxes -- could be Apple-ized. Consider the countless attempts to combine mobile phones with electronic organizers: No one has yet been able to create an all-in-one wireless device that truly clicks with consumers. The current attempts are inferior to stand-alone phones or PDAs -- they're either too big and awkward or impractical. Yet if someone got it right, the all-in-one wireless device has the potential to make communication infinitely less complex.

The emerging digital video recorder market also seems like wide-open territory for Apple. Despite the many advantages of TiVo and ReplayTV, which can store TV programs on a searchable hard drive, they're still just glorified VCRs. Their interfaces are fine on a TV, but they don't interact well with other computing devices, which limits their usefulness. Why not give us an iTV that records television, plays DVDs, and makes it easy to share your favorite downloads with friends on their PCs or PDAs?

The kinds of market-acceptance problems plaguing these devices -- which suggest just how hard it is to translate new technologies into objects that people covet and crave -- have Apple's name written all over them. It's easy to envision a suite of products like the iPod -- iPhones, iTVs, iStereos. I don't know whether Apple plans to address any of these emerging markets, but I wish it would. As computing power inevitably migrates into a whole host of non-PC machines, someone needs to figure out how to make all that software and hardware interact better with us humans.

As an editor at large for Business 2.0, Erick Schonfeld contributes to the editorial development of the magazine, writes feature stories, and pens a weekly online column. Schonfeld is also a contributing editor for Fortune, where he has written about technology and investing for the past seven years.