Questioning Technology: The New Apple

In the world of home computing, August is iMac month. Apple Computer's futuristic new Internet-centric Macintosh finally goes on sale. But far more important than the computer itself, is the bold idea behind this new breed of machine.Not only is Apple offering a lot of bang for the buck ($1299 complete), but they are finally hitting the Wintel camp where it can really hurt: user friendliness and simplicity. Macs have always been easier to use than their Windows competitors, but the iMac takes simplicity to a new level.It's long overdue. In a recent conversation, Perry Clay, the new president of Sharp USA, mentioned to me that just about everyone who buys one of Sharp's Windows CE-based Mobilon handheld computers calls tech support at least once with a request for help. Having used several "Wince" machines from various manufacturers, I can see why. They are incredibly difficult to configure, the included paper-based instructions are a farce and the web-based documentation is too hard to find and use.Recognizing this weakness, Apple is going for the jugular. At July's MacWorld trade show in New York City, Apple (interim) chairman Steve Jobs showed a video that brought down the house. In it, a contest was staged between Adam, a technically-savvy 20-something college graduate and Johan, a second grader. Adam was handed a brand new Hewlett Packard 8250 Windows PC, while Johan got an iMac. The winner was the first to successfully set up their computer and log onto the Internet.Johan, assisted by his dog, Brody, took the iMac from box to Net in 8 minutes, 15 seconds. Adam, on the other hand, took 27 minutes and 39 seconds to log on with the Wintel machine. The contest, which Jobs insisted was genuine, was so revealing that Apple is expected to turn it into a television commercial.With Steve Jobs back at the helm, the newly energized Apple is finding its roots. If Apple has created a home computer that's truly easy to use and can successfully communicate that fact to the masses, they could do more harm to Microsoft than the Justice Department ever will. Even the most vehement Windows supporters concede their machines are much, much too difficult for the average person to use.Also -- not to be underestimated -- is Apple's concern with design. A huge banner over a main entrance to the MacWorld exhibit area proclaimed that attendees were entering "a beige-free zone."Jobs noted that as the prices of personal computers drop, compelling design becomes very important. He highlighted the point with comparison photos, putting a Compaq home PC (with fins reminiscent of a 50s-era Cadillac) next to the iMac, which has an uncanny resemblance to the new Volkswagen Beetle. The contrast was so clear that the crowd roared.One misconception about the iMac may be that it's ONLY for home users. Expect to see this new machine in many offices and businesses, especially those that create electronic media. Its screamer performance, low price and built-in networking capability almost guarantees it.Not only is the iMac sexy on the outside, but it ups the bar for what $1299 buys in a personal computer. The specs are impressive: a 233MHz PowerPC G3 processor -- 512K of backside level 2 cache; a 66MHz system bus and a built-in 15-inch display with 1024x768 resolution. There's also 32MB SDRAM (expandable to 128MB); 2MB SGRAM (expandable to 4MB); a 4GB IDE hard disk drive; a 24x CD-ROM drive; a 10/100Base-Tx Ethernet port; and a built-in 56K modem.An interesting new direction for the iMac is the exclusive use of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) to communicate with add-on devices such as writable disk drives, printers, scanners, cameras, etc. Gone from the iMac are the standard serial ports on previous Macintoshes. Again, a move toward simplification and easier availability of accessories for Mac users since the USB standard is cross platform (requiring only a special Mac OS driver).In an encouraging round of renewed support for the Mac platform, several USB vendors announced iMac support at MacWorld, including Imation, Iomega, LaCie, Syquest and Newer Technology for drives/storage and Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard and Alps for printers.Also encouraging was a reversal of the software drought facing Mac users. Over 175 new applications have been announced for the Mac OS platform since the iMac was announced last May. A big boost of confidence from software developers.Clearly, the Mac platform -- one favored by content creators working with sound and images -- is showing new signs of life. It just may be that Apple's best chance of revival is as simple as simplicity itself.

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