Meet George Jetson's new computer

The surprise launch of iMac is the latest chapter in Apple's comeback story. Cliff Joseph reports
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The Independent Culture
Steve Jobs marked another stage in Apple Computer's comeback last week, with the surprise launch of a futuristic home computer called the iMac. Jobs began his presentation at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California, by outlining the product strategy that he has been putting into place in the 10 months since he took over as Apple's chief executive.

When he arrived last July, Apple's range of Macintosh computers consisted of dozens of different models. "It took me three weeks to understand it all," Jobs said. "If I couldn't understand it, how could we explain it to our customers?"

Jobs and his hand-picked team of executives examined the marketplace and decided to focus on four main product areas. They needed powerful desktop and portable computers for professional users, and affordable versions of the same desktop and portable machines for the home and educational markets.

Apple relaunched its professional desktop computers last November, with new models based on Motorola's high-performance G3 processor. The G3 Macs have been "the most succesful product launch in Apple's history", according to Jobs, and were largely responsible for Apple's return to profit in its last two financial quarters. No one was surprised, then, when he unveiled a new range of portable PowerBook computers also based on the G3 processor.

Ordinarily, the PowerBooks would have been impressive enough. They are attractively designed, in a slim and elegant case that has a strangely tactile quality ("like touching a dolphin" according to one Apple executive). They are also very fast. Apple revealed benchmark results from Byte magazine in the US showing that the G3 processor is almost twice as fast as any Intel Pentium or Pentium II processor with the same clock speed. "Intel couldn't believe it," Jobs told the audience in Cupertino last week. "But Byte re-ran the tests and they stood by their results."

Jobs' famous charisma went into overdrive as he demonstrated the speed of the new PowerBooks. The fastest PC notebooks currently use a Pentium II processor running at 266MHz. Jobs took a 266MHz Compaq notebook costing more than $5,000 and put it alongside a PowerBook G3 running at 233MHz and priced at less than $2,500. This is the slowest and cheapest of the new PowerBooks, but it comfortably outperformed the Compaq notebook when running large digital video clips.

"It eats Pentium notebooks for lunch," Jobs said, casting a condescending look at the Compaq notebook. "It'll be a long time `till they catch up with us."

But the real surprise was the iMac. It is hard to keep a secret in the age of the Internet, but Apple had somehow managed to keep this one really close to its chest. Sales of Apple's consumer products virtually collapsed in 1996 when concern about the company's future was at its height, and Jobs acknowledged that they needed something "compelling" to get back into that competitive market.

The iMac won't be available until August, so it is too soon to tell whether or not home users will find it compelling. But it certainly is eye-catching.

"We looked at the consumer PCs out there," said Jobs. "They're slow ... and ugly." The iMac, in contrast, "is gorgeous. It looks like it comes from another planet - a planet where they have good designers."

It certainly looks like no other computer on earth. The iMac is an all- in-one model, with the monitor and main circuit board housed together in a transluscent blue-green, pod-shaped unit. The translucent cover glows when the monitor is turned on, as does the translucent mouse and even the translucent panels on the keyboard.

Jobs said that most PCs aimed at the consumer market "are last year's computer priced at $999". The iMac is intended to be "next year's computer". John Ives, Apple's UK head of industrial design, went even further into the future. "What sort of computer would the Jetsons have? That was the key."

The iMac comes with a built-in modem but, unusually for a home PC, it also has an Ethernet network interface. This is because the iMac is aimed at schools and colleges that often have their own networks, and also because Apple expects home networking to become more common in the future.

Inside the green pod is a G3 processor that runs at 233MHz. Using the same digital video clips as before, Jobs compared the iMac with a top- of-the-range Pentium II PC running at 400MHz. Once again, Jobs stood smiling as the iMac finished first. Then he announced that the iMac would cost just $1,299. Apple executives admit that competing with the advertising budget of the entire PC industry won't be easy, but there's no doubt that Apple now has an impressive product line.

After this, the news that Apple UK has opened its Internet store, where you can have Apple products built to order online, was almost unnoticed (http://www.apple.com./ukstore).

Apple's hardware plans are now clearer than they have been for years, and Wall Street has signalled its approval by pushing its share price to a 52-week high. But there are still some big questionmarks over Apple's software plans, especially about Rhapsody, the new operating system that it has been working on for almost two years now. However, Jobs is scheduled to make a speech on this subject at Apple's developer conference this week. Can anyone remember what operating system the Jetsons used?

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