Apples New Magic Bullet?

Matthew Rothenberg makes one more prediction for January: Apple will take the wraps off Power Mac G4 systems based on Motorola's powerful new Apollo chip.

Prognosticating about Apple Computers next moves, like hunting bear, can be a treacherous two-way street: Sometimes you get the drop on new Macs, and sometimes new Macs get the drop on you.

In that vein, I think I emerged from the product announcements at last weeks Macworld Expo/San Francisco slightly the worse for wear.

Sure, my column of Expo predictions voiced the status-quo view that the star performer at CEO Steve Jobs keynote speech (at least for consumers and the mass media) would be a radically redesigned flat-panel iMac that broke away from the CRT-driven industrial design of the original all-in-one consumer desktop system.

And OK, I was correct on a few other subjects: Apple delivered iPhoto, a spiffy digital consumer photo-processing tool for Mac OS X. Jobs invited Adobe Systems onstage to demonstrate the forthcoming, Mac OS X-native Photoshop 7; he also boasted about the performance of Apples new brick-and-mortar retail chain, despite the woeful economy, and he promised a new spate of stores in 2002.

But when it came to other announcements (both real and imagined) Im afraid I missed a couple of significant developments and pointed toward a couple of others that didnt materialize.

I predicted that the New Wave iMac would be built (like its predecessors) around a PowerPC G3 processor. Instead, Apple graduated the consumer system to the PowerPC G4, up to now the exclusive purview of the companys professional laptop and desktop hardware.

I predicted that the hardware enhancements at last weeks show would focus on the desktop, not on Mac notebooks. I failed to foretell the arrival of a new top-of-the-line iBook that features a 14-inch screen, up from 12.1 inches for the previous models.

I predicted -- adamantly -- that Apple would come out with a new range of professional-strength Power Mac towers that swept past the 1GHz barrier and trebled the current 133MHz limit on the system bus. That announcement didnt materialize.

I was far more cautious in my prediction about whole new categories of Mac hardware making it out of the gate at this show. Nevertheless, the unprecedented pre-Expo hype generated by Apple marketing prompted me to suggest that the company (emboldened by the yuletide success of its iPod MP3 player) just might introduce another portable consumer device that draws on Apples industrial design and wireless networking savvy as well as its as-yet-unexploited handwriting-recognition capabilities. Scratch that possibility, too.

Reality gap

Apples promises to go "way beyond" the fondest imaginings of Mac rumor sites inspired fans and frauds alike to propose Expo announcements ranging from Mac OS X for Intel processors; to a buyout of beleaguered PDA-meister Palm Inc.; to the iWalk, an elaborately detailed (and apparently bogus) Mac handheld styled after the iPod.

In fact, most respondents to my last column criticized me for being too cautious in my predictions. After all, Apple was promising "to boldly go where no PC has gone before," to quote just one of the companys many pregame slogans. Surely, these correspondents reasoned, Apple wouldnt make such a fuss over a mere Mac redesign, be it ever so postmodern.

Apple has long criticized the Mac media for creating unrealistic expectations about its Next Big Thing -- or, when accurate, stealing the new companys thunder. This time around, however, the gap between the Mac communitys expectations and the product reality was clearly Apples doing. For better (in the case of the original iMac) or worse (in the case of the physically striking but slow-selling Power Mac G4 Cube), Jobs Apple has an almost mystical vision of the power of innovative hardware design.

Meanwhile, the cult of secrecy Jobs has cultivated since his return offers Apple few opportunities to field-test its newest innovations before placing them upon the altar of public opinion.

So whats the prognosis for the new iMac? On that score, Im extremely optimistic. The devices radical new design, marked boost in processing power and surprisingly affordable pricing could be just what the doctor ordered at a moment when consumer confidence is rising from the darkness of late 2001. Early retail reports indicate that pre-orders are handily outstripping those of the Cube, hinting that this new Mac, at least, may connect with a user base beyond diehard enthusiasts. (At the entry level, Apple has wisely decided to continue offering the old-school iMac to price-conscious consumers; the CRT-based system starts at $799, a good $500 less than the cheapest of the new iMacs.)

As the keeper of the last commercial desktop platform to challenge Windows OS hegemony, Apple must consistently make its new product introductions bigger and glitzier than any other PC vendors. Considering the spike in public interest and the apparent surge in sales, the new iMac has apparently succeeded on that front; now, we can only hope that the economy rises up to meet it halfway.

What about those Power Macs?

The new iMac does raise another important question that went unanswered at last weeks show: The top-of-the-line consumer systems 800MHz G4 chip comes close to the specs of Apples fastest single-processor tower (867MHz) -- a situation that has not gone unnoticed by the companys long-suffering hard core of multimedia and publishing professionals.

If it hopes to retain these users often-tested loyalty, Apple must make some very fast adjustments: Its pro systems must outstrip its consumer line, let alone offer a credible response to the steadily rising performance of Intel- and AMD-based systems, which have already passed the 2GHz mark.

Thats why Im happy to make one more prediction for January: While those blazing new G4 towers didnt make the cut at Jobs consumer-focused Expo presentation, Apple will move to adjust the imbalance of power in its product grid before the month is out.

As last weeks events demonstrate, my crystal ball is far from flawless. Nevertheless, my best information indicates that within the next few weeks, Apple will convene a special media event to take the wraps off new Power Mac G4 systems based on Motorolas powerful new Apollo chip -- a system that will probably ship in February. If the pro hardware is everything that early testers have reported, Apple will decisively answer the lingering concerns of its high-end users and mute the derision of Windows partisans.

When it comes to scoring the cover of Time, a sunflower-shaped iMac undoubtedly makes a juicy photo-op; the rebirth of Apples professional line may do even bigger things to enhance the Mac picture for 2002.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is best practices editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline magazine.