Clones To Warm A Mac Fan's Heart

A slew of new models and software widen the options for aficionados

With all the much-publicized problems Apple Computer has had in recent months, it's hardly surprising that I'm frequently asked some variant of the question: "Does it make sense for me to buy a Macintosh?"

At a time when today's hot product is tomorrow's technology relic, it's dangerous to give a categorical reply. But I can say with some confidence that a Mac or a Mac clone bought today is likely to serve you as long and as well as a Windows PC. If you prefer the Mac, and lots of people still find it easier to set up and use, go for it.

RAY OF HOPE. I feel more comfortable with this assessment thanks to a recent visit to the MacWorld Expo trade show. The major ray of hope for the fans was the offerings from companies other than Apple. Power Computing's new PowerBase line of licensed Mac clones, available in mid-September, starts at $1,495 for a 180 megahertz PowerPC processor, 16 megabytes of RAM, and a 1.2 gigabyte hard disk. At the top of the line, its $5,000 PowerTower Pro 604e/225 runs at a sizzling 225 Mhz and is more powerful than anything offered by Apple.

Power Computing, which does only consumer mail-order and corporate sales, will soon provide retail competition. Taiwan-based Umax will offer its Supermac line through the same stores that now sell Macs, with models and prices comparable with the Power Computing products. The clones have erased the price gap with Windows machines.

The Mac is also getting some help from a very strange quarter: Microsoft, whose Windows 95 wiped out much of the Mac's ease-of-use advantage. The biggest threat to the Mac's future has been the reluctance of software publishers to update or write programs for the system. Microsoft will soon begin public testing of the Mac version of its Internet Explorer 3.0 Web browser, which was released for Windows on Aug. 12.

Microsoft is also committed to deliver its Office 97 suite for the Mac soon after the scheduled yearend introduction of the Windows product. And, company officials promise, the package will be nothing like the last Mac release of Office, which outraged Apple enthusiasts by being a pale imitation of the Windows version. Corel is finishing up a new release of WordPerfect for the Mac, while Mac stalwarts such as Adobe Systems and Macromedia are pushing out new products as well.

Software retailers are still reluctant to give much shelf space to Mac titles. But unlike Betamax owners, who eventually abandoned their VCRs because they couldn't rent tapes, Mac owners have alternatives. There's a healthy mail-order business in Mac software, and many programs are being distributed online.

MULTIMEDIA EDGE. The Mac still outshines Windows as a tool for creating multimedia content, an activity that's building a mass market as techniques such as digital photography and video editing become easier and cheaper. The new Mac Performa 6400 offers, as a $459 option, the Avid Cinema card, which turns the computer into a powerful but easy-to-use editor for home videos. But Apple designed the 6400 to use 15 in. or smaller monitors at a time when the popularity of 17 in. units is growing. And its price, starting at $2,400, is high relative to the clones.

There are still serious problems in Mac-land. Only Apple makes laptops, and its PowerBooks are overpriced and underpowered compared with the Windows competition. A badly needed overhaul of Mac OS, the basic operating software of Macs and clones, is probably still a year off. Also, Apple is losing money and market share. Still, the outlook is brightening. And for those of us who value the Mac both for its own virtues and the diversity it brings to computing, that's very good news.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.