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Tech 101 | Dave Wilson

Apple's Pricey iMac Design Falls Flat

Mac Focus Jim Heid finds much to like in the redesigned iMac T4

January 10, 2002|Dave Wilson

"Count the days. Count the minutes. Count on being blown away," screamed Apple Computer Inc.'s Web site in the days leading up to the Macworld Expo in San Francisco this week.

Given Apple's history of downplaying its announcements, people got pretty jazzed. Typically, Apple pooh-poohs all the rumors that circulate leading up the show. Then Steve Jobs rambles for an hour or so on opening day. Toward the end of the presentation, he says, "Oh, just one more thing," and whips out something extraordinary, like a computer that you run with a mouse instead of typing arcane commands on a keyboard. And the crowd goes wild.

So you can imagine what people were expecting when Apple made a big deal out of this year's show.

And what was the payoff? A computer you control entirely with your voice? A box that runs all the gizmos in your household? A new hand-held?

Um, no. Actually, it was a computer with a flat-panel display. Mounted on a swivel arm. It's the perfect system ... if you're confined to a hospital bed. You can set it next to the TV mounted on a swivel arm.

"This is the best thing we have ever done," Jobs said.

Huh? Better than the systems that literally revolutionized computing and became the model for nearly all the user interfaces in use today?

Mike Detwiler, a computer consultant in Rockville, Md., watched the presentation, which was simulcast via the Internet. "I thought this was going to be awesome because historically they've always undersold it," he said.

He kept waiting for the big announcement from Jobs. "I was really surprised when it was over and nothing really amazing was out there."

The new iMac does continue Apple's tradition of risky, innovative design, with the arm attached to a white base about the size of an inverted mixing bowl. Unfortunately, the system bears a striking resemblance to a desktop lamp.

Apple's gotten some serious mileage out of the way its computers look and feel, which has attracted new users in sufficient numbers to keep the company's share of the desktop computer market stable at just under 5% for the last couple of years.

But Apple hasn't attracted vast hordes of novice computer users, and very few people who have started using Microsoft's Windows can break those chains and walk into Apple's camp.

Today's economic conditions make Apple's "cool design sells computers" strategy even more problematic. When the fruit-colored, semitransparent iMac debuted in 1998, it was cute and hip and the economy was roaring along. People were happy to spend a little bit more on a computer that was a fashion statement as much as anything else.

But times have changed. We're all terribly serious now. The new flat-display iMac is cute and hip to some--others find it clunky and unattractive--but at a starting price of $1,299, still well above the price of a speedy, fully loaded Windows box.

That's bad news for Apple. "We've seen a dramatic change in attitudes this year," said Roger L. Kay, an analyst with IDC. "People are much more sensitive to price these days."

Apple isn't going to go out of business, even if the lack of Macworld drama was a misstep. With about 30 million Apple users, the company can turn a tidy profit from people who need to replace aging machines.

But the company has no real model for growth. Microsoft's monopoly power precludes any massive shift away from Windows, so how can Apple sell more boxes?

The best thing Apple can do is to make computers that seamlessly integrate into a Windows network.

An Apple machine can indeed become, as Jobs hopes, the central hub in a digitized home. But today's Apple computers, despite excellent engineering and a new Unix operating system, can be remarkably fragile in a Windows environment.

And because we're stuck working in a Windows environment for some time, that's going to be a problem if you want people to consider buying an Apple box for the home.

We're rapidly approaching a time when home networks, integrating our computers, televisions, stereos and other home electronics, will be linked together.

Apple can play a key role in that development. But not if the company's computers can't peacefully coexist with Windows installations, which won't be disappearing anytime soon.

Kicky new cases for computers aren't going to blow anybody away these days. What Apple really needs to do is build a box that can prop up Microsoft's creaky architecture.

*

Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist. He can be reached at dave.wilson @latimes.com.

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