Apple Computer Inc. is developing a new Macintosh that includes an Intel 486SX microprocessor, giving the computer the ability to run DOS and Windows software along with Macintosh software.
One would think such a machine would create a stir, since it represents something close to the Holy Grail of personal computing: a computer that runs all the popular programs, including DOS, Windows and Macintosh. It also represents the most tangible evidence yet of big changes at Apple under its new president and chief executive, Michael Spindler.
Yet reaction to the computer, code-named Houdini, was mixed when it first went on display at the recent Comdex/Fall trade show as a "technology demonstration" and not an announced product.
Corporate customers, who are already deeply entrenched in the Microsoft Windows camp, shrugged. But small-business customers, new computer users and schools seemed enthralled.
Encouraged by the latter response, Apple christened the
machine the Quadra 610 DOS Compatible and said it would be available in the first half of 1994. The company said the system would cost about $300 more than a regular Quadra 610, which today costs about $1,700, including monitor and keyboard.
Apple also reported that it eventually will offer a Houdini plug-in card for the company's Quadra 610 or Centris 610 computers. The board apparently will not work with any Macintosh models other than the 610 unless the user is willing to do some improvisational wiring. It is expected to cost less than $500.
As with the Quadra 610 DOS Compatible system, the future Houdini DOS-compatibility board will be based on the 25-megahertz version of the Intel 486SX chip, the cheapest and slowest member of Intel's 486 family. The computer system and the separate board will come with DOS 6.2, but users will have to buy Windows separately.
Apple has taken several steps toward co-existence with DOS machines over the years, including the standard use of diskette drives that can read floppies formatted on DOS and Windows machines.
But by putting an Intel chip in the Quadra 610's "processor direct" expansion slot, Apple has closed the biggest gap. Users can expect Windows software to run as quickly on a Mac as it does on a similarly powered PC.
Appropriate to the dual nature of the Macintosh-DOS machine, analysts immediately split over whether the Houdini would be so popular that Apple would not be able to keep up with demand for it, or whether it would a novelty item that would appeal only to a limited audience.
Macintosh users who paused at Apple's Comdex exhibit seemed divided. Some said it was the long-awaited key to greater acceptance of Macintoshes in businesses and a boon to Mac users who yearned for access to the much larger library of DOS and Windows software. Others said the mere sight of a DOS prompt on a Macintosh screen was profoundly depressing.
So is this two-headed Quadra 610 a freak, or the first of a new generation of Macintoshes that can converse fluently in both Windows and Macintosh?
"I think it's a great idea, because it takes away the last major objection to Macs" among corporate computer managers, said Bob Le Vitus, a consultant and avowed Macintosh fan who lives in Austin, Texas. "They didn't like the Macintosh because it's not really DOS-compatible, and now there isn't that excuse."
The Houdini has direct connections only for Apple networks, and linking to a PC network -- while possible -- is difficult. If the machine is to appeal to corporate offices, Apple will have to find a better solution.
Also, the 486SX chip is woefully puny compared to newer chip designs from Intel. If Apple is serious about this product, it will offer faster and brawnier chips, including versions of the Intel 486DX.
When the computer is equipped with only one monitor, the user must manually switch between the Mac and Windows programs by hitting a "hot key," which is a quick and trivial procedure. Both processors are working on their respective programs simultaneously, but only one appears to be active to the user because of different demands that Mac and DOS programs place on the monitor.
It is actually quite easy to cut-and-paste information from a Macintosh application into a Windows document, and vice versa.
Many users may wish to add a second monitor. It is easy (if not cheap) because the Quadra 610 DOS Compatible has two video ports, which work with most VGA, SVGA and multifrequency monitors as well as Apple monitors. When two monitors are used, one screen can display Macintosh programs. The other can show DOS and Windows, and both screens are "live."
For users who are enticed by the idea of running Macintosh and Windows programs on the same machine, another option is to wait until spring, when Apple's first Power PC Macintoshes are ++ expected to be introduced. Apple says that Insignia Solutions is developing a version of SoftPC for the Power PC.
(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau:  328-8258.)