By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers
Apple Computer is coming out with a stunning new Macintosh that looks like it belongs on the set of a Star Trek episode. The new computer, called "iMac," for "Internet Macintosh," will be available in August for $1,300.
Apple has also announced that it has again changed its mind as to what kind of operating system future Macs will use. If Apple sticks to its plans—and its track record is terrible, so don't count on it—Macs will someday run "OS X," with the "X" representing the Roman numeral 10. (The term is pronounced "Oh Ess Ten.")
Let's get the operating-system news out of the way first. In the last few years, Apple has flirted with non-Mac operating systems as a way of modernizing the Macintosh. (Basically, the current Mac operating system is outdated.) I won't list all the alternative operating systems it considered—I don't have enough space—but the one Apple told everybody last year that it would adopt is called Rhapsody.
Now Rhapsody is a song nobody wants to hear, and Mac OS X is Apple's new darling. (Apple says parts of Rhapsody will be used in OS X, but I doubt much of it will get in.) I wish Apple luck with this one, if it doesn't change its mind again.
As for the iMac, it could propel Apple back into competition with PCs and help revive the company's sales to families and schools. Or it could be another sign that Apple is clueless about where the home computer market is heading.
The first possibility is exciting. The new iMac is good-looking, although I swear I see signs of a snowmobile when I look at the iMac from the back, and that in itself is a triumph. No recent Mac and no PC in history has ever been good looking. Like the original Mac of 1984, the iMac is even cute. (Try telling someone that your Gateway 2000 is cute and you might never be heard from again.)
And the iMac is clever. In the iMac, Apple switched to the new PC standard for how extra devices are hooked up, using the Universal Serial Bus (USB). It also comes with a medium-speed modem, an Ethernet connector for home and office networking, 32 megabytes of fast memory, a 233 MHz G3 processor with a 512-kilobyte cache (translate that as fast), stereo speakers with 3D sound, a 4-gigabyte hard drive, and more.
Apple's Macintoshes have always been easier to set up and use than PCs, and the iMac probably will take a normal adult about 10 minutes to get up and running. (Figure on 45 seconds for the average kid.) That's good news.
But the second possibility gets in the way when I think about how exciting the iMac is. Apple is the odd man out in the computer business, and the iMac probably won't change that at all. If anything, the radically styled iMac is likely to make most buyers realize that the Mac is different, that it requires different software. In other words, one look at the iMac and you have no doubt that it's not a PC.
Mac enthusiasts tend to roll into the aisles in laughter when I say this sort of thing. Of course the iMac's not a PC, they say. That's what makes it so exciting, right? But if nearly all the world's railroads had wide-gauge tracks, the guy who came up with a truly exciting narrow-gauge train would be either an eccentric or a fool. The design isn't what matters. All that's important is whether the product makes sense for most of the world.
And the iMac doesn't make sense when you look at it that way. Good Mac software is getting harder and harder to find. Good stores that sell Macintoshes are disappearing in many American cities. The neighbor down the street, the one you call on to help figure out problems getting onto the Internet or dealing with oddities in your computer's programs, has a PC, not a Mac. And the company you work for almost surely expects you to become proficient on a PC, not a Mac.
What's missing in nearly every discussion of Macs vs. PCs is the software side of the issue. Except for the Mac and PC gung-ho crowd, most users don't care at all what kind of hardware is in front of them. They care about getting something done. And that means they want good software.
Don't get me wrong. There's a lot of good Mac software. But there's a lot more good PC software. And when you're looking for new software, you'd sometimes have to think the Mac just doesn't exist.
To survive in a world where 95 out of 100 personal computers are not Macs, Apple needs to make a Mac that is actually a PC—one that runs PC software directly, not through some slug-a-bug emulator. In other words, Apple needs to make a PC, one that is better looking, easier to hook up and more exciting to use than any other PC on the market. Members of Apple's board of directors have been saying this for years. Rumors have even pointed to wonderful PCs that have sprung to life in Apple's secret test labs.
It's time for them to come to life in our offices and homes. Macs have a glorious past, but they have a future only if they join the wide-gauge world.
How about it, Apple?