In a torrent of product announcements today, Apple Computer is launching two new ranges of personal computers with features that vary from exciting to downright strange. And out have gone all but one of Apple's portable compacts and all of its mid-priced desktop computers.
The new machines probably represent the kind of PCs we will all be using two or three years from now, because time and again Apple's innovations have become the accepted standards. Over the past two years, the company has transformed itself into the world's largest manufacturer of PCs. In Britain, much of the computer market's recent growth has been in sales of Apple products, while those of mainstream PCs have stagnated. The new computers are part of Apple's strategy of seizing the initiative and defining personal computing's future.
By far the most famous of the new products is a portable 'notebook' computer that can change in seconds into a fully functional desktop computer. (It is also arguably one of the ugliest PC systems available, although that will not affect sales.) The Macintosh Duo System comprises a powerful portable computer in the PowerBook range, and a desktop base unit called a Duo Dock. The latter looks somewhat like a video recorder, but the slot in the front is intended to take the portable computer rather than a tape. Inserting and removing the portable is done in the same way as a video. When inserted, the portable is automatically pulled in and locked into place. The system immediately switches itself on, and all the normal features of a desktop computer are instantly available, including a keyboard, colour monitor and mouse. To remove the portable, the user simply presses a button, just like a videotape.
The system's hard disk and computer chip are located in the portable (the Duo Dock is basically a 'brainless' box), an attractive, slimmed-down version of Apple's award-winning PowerBook design, less than 1 1/2 in (3.8cm) thick and weighing just over 4lb (1.8kg). This could be achieved because the disk drive and most of the connection sockets are provided by either the Duo Dock or an adaptor that fits on to the back of the portable. Other new PowerBook models launched today are simply improvements to the basic range brought out a year ago.
The Duo system will raise many eyebrows, but Apple is convinced that portable computer users are crying out for it. Docking systems from other PC manufacturers are failing to sell well, according to Bruce Gee, Apple's product manager, because they are expensive, cumbersome and provide merely an awkward hybrid rather than a proper desktop PC. 'Our competitors have focused on the technology. They see docking stations simply as a means of system expansion. These guys clearly do not get it.' The Duo, he claims, addresses the user's need for the best of the portable and desktop computing worlds without the cost and inconvenience of maintaining two separate computers. While under development, the Duo was called 'Bob W', for 'Best Of Both Worlds'.
Less sensationally, but equally trend-setting, Apple has decided to supply its new range of medium-priced mainstream computers with an optional, built-in CD-ROM drive. Again, this anticipates consumer demand because sales of CD-ROMs to non-specialist users are poor.
A CD-ROM is a computer disk of enormous capacity, based on established audio compact disc technology. CD-ROMs on sale at present contain encyclopaedias, newspapers such as the Independent, business applications, spectacular games and interactive educational software.
But with relatively few of the expensive CD-ROM drives available, sales are low and prices high - anything from pounds 50 to pounds 5,000 - although it can cost less to duplicate and sell a CD-ROM disk than a conventional floppy disk. By selling an affordable computer with a relatively inexpensive CD-ROM disk built in, Apple is hoping to boost the CD-ROM industry.
This grand plan may be helped by the new Multimedia PC (MPC) consortium standard, which defines minimum requirements for a PC that can display interactive computer multimedia programs. Multimedia, which combines photographs, video sequences, hi-fi sound and text on a CD-ROM disk, and is increasingly used in education and leisure fields, may well become a mass-market consumer product.
Only two consistent multimedia systems are left for a publisher to contend with: the Mac and MPC. The Philips CD-I system, a relative newcomer to the high street, is an attempt to tap the market but lacks some of the features of the Mac and MPC systems and does not reach the existing base of millions of PC users.
According to the leading CD-ROM publisher Silver Platter Information, Apple's aim is realistic. Domestic consumers will be attracted by the availability of games and educational material, and the system's simplicity, the company's support manager, Phil Bradley, says. 'Publishers are going to be able to bring out a wide range of titles. For example, you could teach your child what a lion looks like, and press a button to hear it roar.'
Apple's decision to make a system compatible with Kodak's Photo CD, which can store your holiday snaps, will add to the consumer appeal. Businesses, however, may take more convincing: the availability of appropriate CD-ROM titles will be as important as the price.