The latest chapter in Apple's laptop saga is ready to open - finally. By Stephen Pritchard
The history of the Apple Powerbook is the history of the US computer- maker in microcosm. Apple caused a paradigm shift in the computer industry with its Macintosh computer, which introduced the graphical interface to the world.

Its Powerbooks, launched in 1991, had a similar effect on the portable computer market. How many laptops now have the keyboard to the back, with a wrist rest at the front of the machine? How many have a trackball as a standard fitting? Both features were pioneered by Apple. All Powerbooks come with SCSI interfaces as standard, a feature still lacking on most desktop PCs.

Unfortunately for Apple, its more recent portable computers have been less successful, and its market share has slipped in the face of competition from Windows-based machines. Apple's 500 series Powerbooks were attractively designed but complex to manufacture. Its latest, PowerPC-based 5000 series, has been dogged with problems, despite processors that outstripped anything Intel could offer when they were launched in 1995, and a more recent star billing in the films Mission: Impossible and Independence Day.

Powerbook users have faced problems with the logic board and an operating system that made it difficult to send a fax from the machine. At the same time, although the Powerbooks held their own against Intel/ Windows computers in price terms, they offered little to make them stand out. Apple still does not sell a laptop with a built-in CD-Rom, despite demand from users.

Dr Gil Amelio, Apple's chief executive officer, has made quality one of his priorities. This is one reason why Apple's next Powerbook range, which was slated for launch earlier this year, will finally appear in the UK next month. Sources within Apple say the computers should be free of the bugs that have bedevilled the 5300.

Making a product as innovative as the Powerbook 100 is going to be more difficult. As Charlie Tritschler, line manager for Powerbooks at Apple's HQ in Cupertino, California, admits, innovation in the early 1990s was less challenging than it is now. He describes the achievements as "low- hanging fruit" - easy picking given the poor design of rival laptops.

The new Powerbooks retain the architecture of the 5300 series, but they will be faster and have larger hard drives. The company is also working on ways to make Powerbooks easier to upgrade than rival computers. Currently, fitting memory or hard disks to most laptops means a trip to the dealer for all but the bravest users. Apple aims to make it easy for users to install most additional hardware without resorting to screwdrivers and specialist knowledge.

Apple believes this customisation is important because the Powerbook is the most personal product they make, according to Mr Tritschler. Unfortunately, prettiness is rarely enough in the computer marketplace, so Apple is planning further launches next year that it hopes will extend its technological lead over IBM-compatible portables.

Apple also hopes to exploit the Mac's ease of use and the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) PowerPC processor. Apple is confident that PowerPC, made by IBM and Motorola, will offer real speed advantages over rival Intel chips. Apple will use this to build multimedia-rich portables. Motorola and IBM have already announced a 200mhz version of the low-power consumption PowerPC chip - the 603e.

Apple's goal is to achieve what it did with the 100 series, and sell Powerbooks to people who own Windows PCs. One way is to make Powerbooks the communications tool of choice. Portable users need to communicate - they are, after all, away from the office - but PCs make this a challenge.

Apple plans to design hardware and software together to make Powerbooks seamless communicators with modems, mobile phones and the Internet, to steal a march on PC-based rivals. And, in case you were wondering, next month's Powerbooks will, at last, offer a CD-Rom.