New iMacs for the New Year?

I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest that the long-rumored flat-screen iMac will debut at January's Macworld Expo/San Francisco.

Even for self-styled Mac pros, the introduction of the consumer-friendly iMac remains a watershed event in the history of Apple.

Between its striking industrial design and appealing specs, the entry-level desktop system proved that master marketer Steve Jobs was truly back in Apples saddle: The all-in-one systems distinctive aura of one-button consumer cool recalled the earliest Mac models, but its sub-$1,500 price point appealed to a far wider audience than those $3,000, mid-80s trailblazers.

The rest is history: Apples dramatic consumer bid cut through the morass of poorly differentiated products that had dogged the company through much of the 90s, broke sales records around the world, beckoned first-time PC purchasers and Windows stalwarts, and re-established the ailing PC maker as a technology force to be reckoned with.

On a smaller scale, the debut of the iMac also marked a milestone for the Mac media: To the best of my knowledge, its the first (and last) time a major Mac upgrade completely slipped by our collective radar.

During my tenure with the late, great MacWEEK from the late 80s through the end of the 90s, I can aver that nary a new Mac arrived without some degree of unauthorized advance buzz from the Apple grapevine. By contrast, Jobs rollout of the iMac at Apples Worldwide Developers Conference in May 1998 skunked us completely; I first spied an image of the curvy new system mere hours before its official debut, and I must confess that I immediately dismissed it as a Photoshop fake.

While Apple has never again been able to achieve quite that level of secrecy about forthcoming hardware, the iMac surprise did denote the rise of a new security-conscious culture in Cupertino--and raised the stakes in the ongoing tug-of-war between Apples marketing and legal teams on the one hand and Mac journalists and enthusiasts on the other.

iMac Mach II?

Not surprisingly, both Mac community expectations and Apples firewall have been extraordinarily high when it comes to rumors of a radical redesign of the three-and-half-year-old system.

Over the years, the iMac has enjoyed evolutionary enhancements, including speed bumps, new storage options and significant price cuts. However, the consumer desktop hasnt gotten the kind of makeover that has reinvigorated sales of Apples professional Power Mac towers or its pro PowerBook and consumer iBook laptops.

Caught up in the collective yen for an iMac breakthrough, Ive been guilty more than once of speculating that a new version of the flagship system would surface at the very next Mac trade show. Hugely successful as the iMac has been, sales have flattened out over the past 18 months. Those of us rooting for Apple were excited by the warm reception afforded Apples rejuvenated laptops in 2001, and were understandably anxious to see a commensurate breakthrough for the rest of the Mac matrix.

As I noted in a recent column, I share the opinion of many Mac muckrakers that Apples high-end Power Mac line will finally blow past the 1-GHz mark at Januarys Macworld Expo/San Francisco with models that top out somewhere between 1.2 and 1.6 GHz. Now Im going to stick my neck out yet again and suggest that the long-rumored flat-screen iMac will comprise the second half of Apples one-two punch at the show.

Apples not talking, of course, but circumstantial evidence has been flowing in literally from around the world. Theres a story from Taiwans Economic Daily News that local laptop manufacturer Quanta has been boasting of a contract with Apple to churn out more than 1 million iMacs a year--each equipped with a 15-inch LCD screen--starting in Q1 2001. (According to the paper, Quanta has said the new flat-panel system will make its debut at the San Francisco Expo.)

Theres a report from Morgan Stanley that puts an even finer point on the matter, specifying that Apple has contracted for 100,000 15-inch LCD iMacs per month, starting in January.

Theres the apparent slip by Apples Benelux operation, which issued an invitation to Dutch journalists to stay tuned for a "powerful, user-friendly, and eye-catching" new consumer product at the Expo. ("We have already been too open, judging by the interest this is generating," Ton van Garderen, general manager for Apple in the region, told the IDG news service, inadvertently generating even more interest in the process. The Dutch invitation was "more candid than those sent out in other countries," he added.)

Meanwhile, my own retail sources tell me that iMacs are fast disappearing from the channel, traditionally a good sign that Apple is clearing the decks for a new product. And while those close to the company are understandably edgy about spilling too many beans about Apples secret weapon, Ive been on the receiving end of many intriguing anecdotes about flat-screen prototypes and new consumer marketing efforts.

If these arent merely shadows of things that could be but things that will be, the year 2002 could be an extraordinary one indeed for Apple.

Alongside high-end systems that eliminate the "megahertz gap" with the Wintel competition, a next-generation iMac that refreshes its predecessors broad appeal could provide Apple with a mighty jumpstart in a market thats still seeking its bearings after months of malaise.

In tight times, success favors the bold. Whatever missteps it may have made in its quarter-century of existence, Apple has never lacked chutzpah; if it can convert that renewable resource into major new products, the Mac maker could emerge from this recession with a fresh new coat of Teflon and some new users to boot.

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