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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | MAC SMART

The 'i' in iMac Doesn't Stand for Inferior . . . or Floppy Drive

May 11, 1998|CHARLES PILLER

If you're going to gamble, be bold. Last week, in announcing the iMac--Apple's new all-in-one computer for the home and education markets--interim Chief Executive Steve Jobs lived that principle.

After ignoring the home market for a couple of years, the Mac is back with a vengeance. The iMac boasts ample power, great features, competitive pricing and a radically new look--curvy, translucent, blue and white.

To my eye, it's far from beautiful, but what matters is this: The iMac is so different from the norm that people will pay attention. And if Apple needs anything these days, it's attention as an innovator.

If the reality matches the promise--something we'll know only after reviewers get their hands on the iMac between now and August, when the product becomes available--I'm likely to buy one for my 10-year-old. (The last computer I got him, the venerable Quadra 605, was also a great deal for its time.)

When Apple releases an interesting new computer, I often compare it with Windows PCs on the basis of price, performance and features. It's hard to place a dollar value on the Mac OS, and identical systems don't exist, of course. But you can come close.

Normally Apple charges a hefty premium--albeit often for superior products. This time I compared the iMac with the closest competitors from Dell (the Dimension XPS D) and Gateway (the GP6-233). Using their online stores, I was able to build models that closely matched the iMac, feature for feature.

Both of the Windows PCs use a 233-megahertz Pentium II processor, which is slower than the 233 MHz G3 in the iMac for most purposes but plenty speedy for all but the most demanding multimedia and graphics applications.

But this time Apple turned the tables on price. The iMac will sell for $1,299, while the Dell goes for $1,779 and the Gateway for $1,592.

So if the iMac is such a great deal, why is it a bold gamble? And how will Apple make money on it? One dreaded word answers both questions: compromises.

Both Windows machines come with 56K modems, expansion slots (for adding specialized graphics or networking cards) and three-year warranties, compared with the iMac's 33.6K modem, zero expansion slots and one-year warranty. And the iMac lacks a floppy drive.

Wait, did I really say "no floppy"? I did. This is probably the biggest gamble. Third-party vendors will no doubt develop a floppy that will attach via one of the iMac's universal serial bus ports for connecting peripheral devices. (USB is a successor to a range of ports used previously on PCs and Macs.) My guess is that Apple is wrong about home users--most will still want a floppy (or zip drive) and will have to buy an add-on.

But remember, this machine is also for the schools--and is probably a better match for them than for home users. Schools will like the all-in-one design--fewer parts to keep track of and set up--and the built-in high-speed networking. They may not miss floppies much, instead setting up backup on central server computers.

I expect Apple marketing to reflect the idea that the network is everything. The "i" in iMac stands for Internet. Apple has to make consumers buy into this idea to get them to ignore the absence of a floppy.

But diverging so far from the norm spells danger, as Jobs learned in an earlier roll of the dice with storage devices. The original Next computers used an optical drive instead of a hard drive; unfortunately, the sluggish optical was one reason Next flopped as a hardware vendor.

The slow modem might also hurt a box that wants to be known as the Internet Mac; I wouldn't be surprised if Apple started shipping the iMac with a 56K modem before the winter holiday buying season. Buyers may demand it.

The lack of expansion capabilities probably won't hurt the iMac's prospects much. This "appliance-like" machine (in the words of Mitch Mandich, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide sales) is certainly not for everybody. But most home and school users will find the included features more than adequate.

*

Until now, most of what we've seen from Jobs has been standard corporate fare: He slashed the payroll, focused the company on core projects and all but killed the clone market in an effort to return Apple to profitability and get the company back on track as a market leader.

The iMac is Jobs' first real technology statement as interim CEO. It's classic Steve Jobs--a gamble. But it looks like a good bet to me.

Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at charles.piller@latimes.com.

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