Where Wintel Fears To Tread

Apple's iMac design is gutsy and cutting-edge. But is it too radical a change?

After several years wandering in the wilderness, Apple is back. While it may never regain the influence it held in the early days of personal computing, Apple Computer is again turning out exciting products and breaking the mold. This is good news for people confronted with products that, even as they keep getting faster and cheaper, are almost as commoditylike as wheat.

The key evidence of Apple's comeback as a major force in design is, of course, the new iMac. Beyond its futuristic appearance, the teal-and-white iMac represents a clean break with the past. The conservative, Microsoft/Intel-dominated PC industry would never have tried such a departure.

Consider Apple's decision to omit a built-in floppy drive. The logic is that floppies are irrelevant because it's so easy to exchange files over a network. Apple may have gotten a bit ahead of itself here: Outside of corporations and college campuses, networks are still the exception. This decision is particularly likely to hurt Apple in the K-12 school market, where floppies are still widely used to store students' personal files. Except for the absence of a floppy drive, the iMac is otherwise perfect for schools.

In other respects, Apple's willingness to leave the past behind led to happier results. Apple threw out four systems it has used to connect accessories to Macintoshes and put all of its chips on the Intel-designed universal serial bus. USB is a single connector that can really make plug-and-play work for a seemingly endless array of devices, whether a mouse, a printer, a scanner, or a game controller. Now, every existing Mac peripheral is unusable on the iMac or, at best, requires some sort of adapter. But that's not much of a problem for the first-time buyers who are iMac's target audience, and USB is better and simpler than the older connectors.

Contrast the Microsoft/Intel handling of USB. PC makers have simply added the bus to the confusion of connectors already present on their machines. Most desktop PCs now have five types of ports for external accessories (not counting audio and video connectors) and two types of slots for internal cards.

Similarly, the decision to let Windows 98 (and Windows 95 before it) run just about every program for the IBM PC carried a price. People run old software that regularly crashes the system. Apple, on the other hand, has repeatedly forced software publishers to rewrite their programs for new hardware or new versions of the Mac operating system. And the next version, OS X, due out next year, may require the new G3 processor to run. That means the new operating system won't run Macs sold only a few months ago, although Apple promises that most new software will run on the current OS 8.1.

BAYWATCH. The Microsoft/Intel conservatism, which has been fabulously successful as a business strategy, is largely a response to the needs of big corporate customers. Companies want to protect their investments in hardware and software and hate radical change--a significant percentage of corporations still run Windows 3.1. With little to lose in the corporate world, and with control over both hardware and software, Apple has more freedom to innovate. For example, Intel and PC makers have been squabbling for a couple of years over the design of a laptop-like bay that would allow users to swap devices such as disk drives and DVD players in desktop computers.

Apple could show the way by putting such a device bay in its next desktops. That's the sort of innovation that can bring real benefits to consumers. The reborn Apple, in turn, could solidify its place in the market--and the hearts of its fans.

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