Apples Portables on the Move

Now that the first significant revision to Apple's Unix-based OS has reached end users, the company is apparently ready to spruce up its hardware - and specifically its sleek consumer and professional portable lines.

Mobile Mac fans, rejoice: New Books are on the way.

Its brief flirtation with cloning notwithstanding, Apple Computer has always been under unique pressure compared with its counterparts on the Windows side of the fence.

As the sole promulgator of Mac hardware and software, the company has shouldered the burden of keeping both sides of the equation springtime-fresh no matter the season. Since Julys Macworld Expo in New York, Apple has been focusing its marketing might on the operating system (OS) front.

Even before the events of Sept. 11 compelled the company to pull the plug on Apple Expo in Paris, CEO Steve Jobs had warned Mac enthusiasts not to expect new hardware at the show. Indeed, Apples remaining September showcase - at Seybold Seminars in San Francisco - was aimed at pushing Mac OS X as a serious tool for publishing professionals.

Now that the first significant revision to Apples Unix-based OS has reached end users, the company is apparently ready to spruce up its hardware - and specifically its sleek consumer and professional portable lines.

While the Power Mac G4 and iMac desktops received greater and lesser tweaks, respectively, at the New York expo, neither the Titanium PowerBook G4 nor the minimalist iBook Mach 2 has gotten a refresh since their splashy introductions early this year. And considering that the neomodernist portables have provided Apple a significant sales lift in a truly woeful year for the PC market, its high time Apple fed these golden geese.

The Mac rumor mill is churning steadily on details of the alleged new models, which retail sources indicate Apple plans to unveil within the next week.

The most complete description to date appeared on MacNN ( The site said that Apple will introduce two new professional PowerBooks and three iBooks on Oct. 16. The former will pack a choice of 667-megahertz and 550-MHz PowerPC G4 chips, a choice of 20-gigabyte or 30-GB hard drives, a Radeon Mobility graphics chip, Gigabit Ethernet and a bundled AirPort card. According to MacNN, the buffed-up iBooks pack up to a 600-MHz PowerPC G3 chip; larger hard drives, up to 20 GB; and more memory, up to 128 megabytes.

If this is indeed the length and breadth of Apples enhancements, the new portables will hardly set users laps on fire - a good thing, considering that flaming portables have historically represented painful marketing debacles for Apple, as well as Dell Computer and other PC makers. Nevertheless, they should provide a welcome shot in the arm to a side of the business that has grown increasingly important to Apple in 2001.

And whats the logic behind a mid-October ship date? After all, the school year-buying season is long over, and holiday shopping has barely begun.

I asked one of my retail buddies for his insights into Apples thinking. His response: "Well, there are no hard, fast rules on when is a good time to release new product. When its done usually works best. The only thing Apple wants to avoid is during the actual holiday buying time. In reality, that doesnt hit until December sometime. So refreshing older product now makes sense.

"Apple isnt known for hitting ship dates, and announcing soon most likely means shipping early November - plenty of time for the holiday rush," my friend said. "If you think about it, releasing new products in mid-January [at Januarys Macworld Expo in San Francisco] makes no sense when plotted against buying cycles. They only do that for media exposure. Apple has stated that they are trying to move away from all event product announcements.

"All that said, we in retail are hoping for a PowerBook rev. Sales have slowed down, and in-the-know customers are holding off purchasing until after the next announcement.

"If they dont announce soon, their highly profitable portable sales will tank. And nobody wants that," he said.

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