Network: Jobs gambles on fruit machines

Apple's boss unveiled a colourful new line of iMacs and a redesigned Power Mac at the annual Macworld Expo.
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The Independent Culture
The Steve Jobs show hit San Francisco at the annual Macworld Expo last week ; and Apple's acting chief executive had lots of goodies to wow the faithful.

The iMac, which has been a roaring success since its launch in August, is soon to be available in five tasty new colours: blueberry, grape, tangerine, lime and strawberry. As well, Apple's G3 Power Mac has been redesigned along the lines of the iMac in a translucent Teal tower, with handles and a side panel that flips down to reveal the computer's innards.

Buttons bearing the word "Yum" handed out by the company in the new colours seemed to sum up the buzz of the expo. The company that has long thrived on being the rebel of the computer business is truly back. Over the past few years, Apple appeared to have run out of ideas: its designs were drab, it was haemorrhaging money and swiftly losing relevance.

However, with the astonishing success of the iMac (last month it accounted for 8.2 per cent of home computer sales, making it the top-selling US model), all that has changed. The new colours put the company back in the business of tweeking the noses of the computer establishment. Instantly, the designs make the traditional PC look downright dowdy by comparison.

"It makes you wonder why it took so long for people to think of coming out with different colours for computers," said Jane Girard, 27, a San Francisco-based website producer.

Almost lost in all the excitement of Jobs's keynote speech was the news that Apple had turned a profit for the fifth-straight quarter. It was another important milestone. Before the return of Jobs in late 1996, Apple had suffered two years of knee-buckling losses and faced a highly uncertain future.

There are still long-term concerns: the company must overcome historic problems of inspiring developers to write software for the Mac; Apple has been all but wiped out of the business market (accounting for just 2 per cent of sales last year); and there is the cold reality of a world dominated by the Windows platform.

But what Apple lacks in numbers it appears to make up for in devotion. How else can you account for the drawing power of the messianic Jobs, whose speech was such a hot ticket that enthusiasts began queuing up at the Moscone Convention Center at 5:30am. Bill Gates would have to offer free shares in Microsoft to draw that kind of crowd.

Jobs, 43 and increasingly round-faced saved his candy-coloured iMacs for the grand finale. The products drew gasps from the crowd. "We hope people will want to collect all five," he deadpanned.

But a small, inexpensive product that might be as important to Apple as all its fancy new colours is a new piece of software. Silicon Valley- based Connectix released the Virtual Game Station, a program that for $49 promises to turn an iMac or G3 into a Sony PlayStation. Although not all titles run well, the company lists hundreds of games which are said to run almost seamlessly - a big boost for Apple because of the relative dearth of games written for the Mac. Jobs also announced that new versions of a dozen popular games such as Quake, Myth II, Sim City and Fly! will be available in the next six months.

Increasingly, software companies are taking the platform seriously. John Geleynse, Corel's Macintosh product manager, said his company committed a "huge cultural faux pas" when in 1996 it released Draw 6.0 for the Mac - "essentially a Windows product we converted to run on a Macintosh". Geleynse said that for the just-released version 8.0 they started from the ground up designing for the Mac. "With the success of the iMac, we have a lot of other products we intend to bring to market. It has opened our eyes as to what we have to develop."

Although not everyone was over-impressed with the new designs, particularly that of the new G3, which looks derivative of the iMac but less attractive, Apple disciples seem most pleased that the company is back on its feet.

"The bottom line is, if it gets more people to by Macs, I think it's a good thing," said James Jardine, a PR consultant, of the G3. "Owning a Mac is sort of like a religious feeling. You want to see them [Apple] do well."