Apple's designer delight

The computer world is holding its breath in anticipation of the portable iMac. By Cliff Joseph
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The Independent Culture
Next month, Apple is expected to take the wraps off one of the most eagerly awaited products in its entire history. That product, currently known only by the code name P1, is the new portable version of the iMac, the hugely successful home computer that Apple launched on the market last year.

The success of the iMac was largely due to its ground-breaking design - a colourful, translucent casing that made the machine more of a fashion statement than an ordinary piece of computer hardware. But when the iMac was launched, Apple's interim CEO, Steve Jobs, also stated that Apple was developing a portable computer aimed at the home and educational markets. Ever since then there has been speculation about just what P1 would look like and, with the launch of the product expected at next month's MacWorld Expo in New York, that speculation is now reaching fever pitch. The investment firm Salomon Smith Barney has even recommended that investors buy Apple shares before the Expo starts, in anticipation of the product's successful launch.

Needless to say, the machine's design is a closely guarded secret. No one outside Apple even knows what it is going to be called, let alone what it will look like. But the Internet is rife with rumours about its name ("WebMate" is the current front-runner), its appearance, and even the possible use of a bullet-proof, translucent material called Lexan to make it extra tough.

As an outlet for months of pent-up techno-lust, many Mac fans have taken a stab at producing their own imaginary prototype designs for the P1. Not surprisingly, most of these prototypes take their cue from the translucent, blue-and-white design that Apple pioneered with the iMac.

Isamu Sanada's "hiMac", and the "iBook" from Tetsutaro Design simply take Apple's existing Powerbook laptops and recast them in blue and white. Others hark back to the compact, curvy design of the eMate, a portable computer that Apple developed for the education market a couple of years ago.

Some of these designs are a triumph of wishful thinking. The "MacMate", designed by one unnamed fan, looks more like a make-up compact than a computer, while Toru Tanaka's "Spinnaker" is probably impossible to construct in reality. Tanaku's sketches show a hand-held unit, similar to a Palm Pilot but with a built-in keyboard that folds out and detaches so that it can sit on your lap or on a desktop.

These prototype designs come from all over the world, but there appears to be a particularly barmy group of would-be designers in Japan. There's a group that calls itself MMUJ (Mobile Mac Users Japan) who have their own "iHomePage" on the Internet. As well as having its own gallery of portable iMac designs, the MMUJ site includes photos and information about its Powerbook Expo, where hundreds of MMUJ members get together to worship their Powerbooks. There was even one Powerbook owner who rebuilt his Powerbook by hand, putting its circuit board inside a new, slimline casing.

But if you're not feeling brave enough to dismantle your Powerbook yourself, you can always hand it over to the Japanese company that offers a custom painting service. For about $2,000 (pounds 1,300) it will hand-paint the machine to make it look as if it's made out of wood, marble or any other material of your choice.

This may all appear like fanciful nonsense, especially coming from Mac fans who are known for their fanatical devotion. However, it does reflect the new emphasis that the computer industry is placing on design. The success of the iMac has proved that computers don't have to be boring grey boxes, and the rest of the computer industry is now starting to follow Apple's lead.

This month's Computex show in Taiwan was awash with iMac-style computer products, with dozens of mice, monitors, printers and other peripherals in various shades of see-through plastic. PC manufacturers are also starting to pick up on the importance of design. A recent Intel conference included some bizarre designs for PC systems, including a fish-shaped unit called "Koi". It may have its flaws, but the iMac has started a trend. Any bets on how long it takes Terence Conran to design his first PC?

You can view many of these prototype designs at:

David Vincent Design (http://www. design.html)

NoBeige.Com (http://www.nobeige. com)

MMUJ ( kimu/mmuj/)