By Charles Haddad
I'm not a gambling man, but I'm betting that Apple has found the wave it needs to ride out of its current financial doldrums. What's powering that wave is the company's new titanium PowerBook, or TiBook as fans are calling it. And, judging by my e-mail and message-board postings around the Web, the TiBook is already developing quite a following. Longtime PowerBook users worldwide are drooling over this shiny silver inch-thick laptop -- and for good reason. Finally, Apple has produced a PowerBook that's both powerful and lightweight (see Technology & You, 3/6/01, "Apple's New Laptop Is a Peach"). The TiBook weighs in at a little over five pounds, or up to two pounds lighter than previous PowerBooks.
Apple isn't leading the pack here. Sony and other PC makers have produced thin, lightweight laptops for years. Nonetheless, the weight reduction is greatly welcomed by back-sore PowerBook users. Indeed, these folks for years have nudged Apple to slash the weight of its portables. With the company now responding, it's sure to ignite considerable pent-up demand. And this has always been the secret to Apple's success in the past decade or so. It wins big when loyal users upgrade. It happened in the home market with the iMac. The TiBook will make it happen again in the portable market.
Weight isn't the TiBook's only appeal. Equally important is its wide screen. At 15.2 inches, it's more than an inch wider than current PowerBook screens. And, boy, what a difference that inch makes. Video editors and graphic designers will find it a joy to use, especially since a growing number of them are doing their work on the road.
Poke your head into any Starbucks in your neighborhood -- and chances are you'll find someone editing film or designing a Web page on a laptop. At my old employer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, photographers are using digital cameras and processing their pictures in the field on PowerBooks and then e-mailing them back to the newspaper. Such anecdotal evidence suggests a potential big market for a lightweight PowerBook with a wide screen that displays sharp images.
While the TiBook looks like a slam dunk, Apple could still miss the net. Indeed, I hear grumbling already among users that the wait for a TiBook has extended up to 40 days. Such delays are a painful reminder of Apple's former bad habit from the mid-1990s of continually underestimating demand for its products. But I don't think that will happen this time because Steve Jobs has remade the company's manufacturing and distribution system from the ground up.
Manufacturing is closely tied to demand, especially from online sales. Apple can now make and deliver a computer ordered online within three days. That's greased lightning compared to the turnaround time in the bad old days before Jobs's return. No wonder ordering online, much to consternation of stores, has become such a popular way to buy Macs.
I hope I'm right about delays being short-lived. The last thing Apple needs right now is to anger loyal customers with long waits in receiving a coveted new PowerBook. Let's keep our fingers cross that this problem will be all but forgotten in a couple of weeks.
Unfortunately, building too few TiBooks isn't the only way Apple can go wrong here. It could build a shoddy product. This, too, Apple has done in the past. Remember the infamous PowerBook that spontaneously combusted and helped ignite the fuse that cut short the rein of Apple CEO Michael "The Diesel" Spindler?
Nothing of that nature has been reported for the TiBook, but tales of some mechanical problems are growing. Some users say a spark of static electricity near the keyboard, especially around the function keys, causes the TiBook to stop responding to any commands. Luckily, a simple reboot gets it working properly again.
More troubling is a problem with the eject mechanism on the TiBook's DVD drive. Some users are reporting that the drive is misaligned and won't spit out disks, especially during emergency shutdowns. The good news is that Apple has acknowledged the problem and is offering to repair without charge misaligned drives. The bad news is that you have ship your TiBook back to Apple, and repairs can take up to seven days.
Such problems aren't uncommon among new machines. That's why I always wait a couple of months if I'm interested in buying a new model of Mac. In this age of on-the-fly manufacturing, Apple can usually quickly correct minor problems on the factory floor. The second and third runs of a new product are typical better than the first one.
That's why I'm hopeful Apple will quickly right any mechanical problems with its TiBooks. The company under Jobs truly is focused on quality. He understands better than anyone, given his perfectionist bent, that any Mac has to be of the highest quality. Given that, I'm betting that the TiBook will indeed be a home run and push the company back into the black while keeping fans loyal.
Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online