I'm certainly no guardian of political correctness, arguing against terms such as "history", referring to God as She, or disabling the Men & Motors channel from my Sky subscription. But I do find it odd that in this day and age we're still lumping together "women and children" as if they're somehow a soft bundle of vulnerable weakness. In the same way, women are the butt of men's jokes when it comes to technology. Even my mildly chauvinistic core rankles when Apple product managers describe a new piece of hardware or iLife application as so easy to use that even their grandmother can use it. I can relate to the fact that many old folk find gadgets with more than one button as terrifying as a group of hooded teenagers climbing over their garden wall. But if my 75-year-old mother-in-law can book flights online, why is it that Cupertino grandmothers are less tech-savvy than the granddads? I suspect they are not.
Are women too dim to understand function keys and multi-button mice, or are they too smart to waste their time worrying about Unix commands and IP addresses?
Despite repeated grandma gaffs, it's hard to knock Apple for making only male-centric products. Sure, many of its previous products have been resolutely male in their conception. The Power Mac G4 Cube first appeared to be female-friendly in its compact cuteness, but its see-through plastics sat perfectly next to the matt-black furniture and chrome of the classic bachelor pad. But Apple is certainly one of the companies attempting to increase its customer base by encouraging women to buy its products.
The original iMac – in all its rainbow colours – was often derided by Windows guys as a "girl's computer". If colour has gender, then beige is most certainly male. Similar scorn was levelled at OS X's pretty Aqua user interface. Green on black is manly. Gently pulsing blue is for girls.
Just as other traditionally male pastimes – such as the pub and football – have run towards the heterosexual pink pound, high-tech companies have realized that there's a lot of cash in purses these days. Pubs have been remodelled with comfy sofas, wine lists and more than one Ladies lavatory, and the yard of ale hanging above the bar has been replaced by a new range of garishly coloured alcopops. This has worked so successfully for pubs that many men are now scared of entering their local for fear of being thrown up on by inebriated Bacardi Breezer bimbettes.
So-called low-techs – such as white goods, hair dryers and vacuum-cleaners – have been aimed at women for years, but rarely are computers made especially attractive to people unable to grow beards. Women are scared of mice, right?
This, apparently, is all about to change. Gadget makers are wooing the lucrative female market with determination. Women's spending power is growing faster than men's, and in an industry downturn new money looks nicer than the old stuff. Intel has been involved with a project to develop interchangeable laptop skins that turn dull manly blacks and metals to frivolous dots and funky stripes. There are even plans to create LCD monitors that double up as handbags.
Nokia has just released a new range of "fashion phones" inspired by the "glamour of the roaring 20s". You can buy lipstick memory sticks and mobiles with mirrors in them. Millimetre-thick point-&-click digital cameras aren't ultraslim so they'll fit in a wallet; they're made that way to slip next to make-up compacts in handbags. But all this prettiness is just as condescending as implying that women aren't as capable as men when it comes to using a PC.
Stereotypical maleness is ingrained in many Apple engineers. Witness the obsession with brushed-metal UIs in Safari and the iLife apps. Power Macs are liquid-cooled towers of testosterone, and the once elegant LCD Cinema Displays now follow it and the PowerBooks in cool, cold aluminium. Go to your Dock to check-out the difference between Apple's blokey OS X icons and Adobe's natural nicies – now there's a company that understands its female customer base; it even named its top product Photo-shop.
But Apple still has the upper-hand over its PC counterparts when it comes to getting in touch with its femininity. The iPod mini has attracted many new female customers, not so much because you can buy one in pink – but via its neat, compact form factor. The fact that it's mostly men who collect tens of thousands of tracks and enjoy rearranging them into lists means the mini's relatively meagre 4GB capacity is a boon rather than a limitation to many women. And the price-point is closer to the reach of the market segment that drives the pop charts: 10 to 16-year-old girls.
Apple has proven that making software more intuitive isn't dumbing down – it's about using smarter, more-sophisticated solutions. Women certainly don't need those old OS 9 systemstupidizing functions such as Simple Finder or The Launcher; they're just less willing to fight through unnecessarily complex processes that many men find weirdly compelling. iLife and the Mac OS are undoubtedly more intuitive than Windows alternatives, and Tiger could push this lead further.
But will driving women to high-tech make the industry a better place or will it engender unsavoury male aspects in women? We should hope for the former – with neater, more compact and intuitive sophisticated products in place of huge slabs of metal covered by flashing LEDs. One terrible possibility is that just as pints and barstools have been replaced by cocktails and leather settees in pubs around the country, women will be transformed into Doom-playing neophytes in just as rapid a transformation.
We shouldn't go so far as replacing manuals with personuals, turning Panther and Tiger into lovable pussy cats, or making absolutely everything smaller and cuter looking. Without some guy in charge, Apple might never have had the cojunes to create the 17-inch PowerBook, play my-number'sbigger-than-your-number with Intel, or come up with product and code-names such as FireWire, Typhoon, Zorro and Mr T. If Apple can apply some of the pink thinking behind the iPod mini and original iMac – and, from a hardware point of view, that suggests offering greater colour choice – to its future Macs, and push the fact that its software is more intuitive than Windows, it has an opportunity to corner a vital market while Dell, HP and the rest play catch-up. Here's to the lady ones, the ones who see things differently.