Even at London's Apple Expo, that holy of holies for Macintosh users, the most significant product launch this year was not on sale: Microsoft Windows 95. With the new release of its PC operating system, Microsoft is laying claim to much of what has distinguished the Mac from the mass of IBM-compatible PCs.
Features such as a decent graphical interface and "plug and play", where a computer automatically recognises new hardware, have been available to Mac users for years. But Microsoft's marketing muscle is allowing Bill Gates to claim this as his territory, too.
Still, the mood of the Expo last week was far from downbeat. Verdicts on Windows 95 were that the effect could have been much worse. But Apple is not helping its own cause. The company faces an unprecedented backlog for orders, and dealers at the show had to turn away orders for models in short supply, such as the top-end PowerMac 8500 and some of the new laptops.
At the bottom end of the market, trade was brisk. All the leading mail- order houses had stalls, and discounted machines were being carried away on to District Line tubes. But since the migration to the PowerPC chip, the company lacks an entry-level computer costing less than pounds 1,000. As dealers - and Apple itself - will say, an entry-level Mac offers much more than a basic PC clone. But the clone comes in at pounds 500, and buyers on a budget, offered the option of Windows 95, might feel Apple's premium is not worth paying.
One of the stranger aspects of any Apple Expo is the atmosphere, redolent of the January sales. Mac aficionados crowd round the sales stalls clamouring for bargains: modems, printers, Macs, memory. At one, a potential buyer was invited to name his price for an Apple laser printer, advertised at the show for pounds 490, an already substantial reduction.
Most stands reflected Apple's core markets: graphics, printing and multimedia. These were guarded by serious men in suits, rather than the baseball- cap and sweatshirts of the discount brigade. But the suits are selling scanners, image setters and digital printing hardware running to tens of thousands of pounds. The suits also know that, whatever happens to Apple as it fights Microsoft and Intel for home and business market share, the Mac, or compatibles, will dominate their industries for some time to come.
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