Apple's iMac gamble brings attention and questions


When Steve Jobs unveiled the strikingly different iMac last month, he touched off a wave of questions among the Mac faithful.

Is this the product that will restore Apple's lost luster? Why did Apple omit a floppy drive? Will it entice Windows users to switch to the Mac? Will first-time PC buyers want one? Should I buy one?

The Mac press has mostly swooned over the translucent white and ice blue iMac, which won't be available until August. The curvy all-in-one design and the inclusion of several forward-looking technologies certainly command attention.

One could justifiably say the iMac - the "i" stands for Internet - is ahead of its time. But could it be too far ahead of its time?

The iMac accelerates Apple's recent trend toward adopting PC-standard technologies, a strategy that reduces costs while increasing the hardware options available.

As a result, iMac has no SCSI port, the traditional Mac method of connecting hard drives and scanners. Missing as well are the two serial ports for connecting a printer and a modem.

Instead, you get a PC-standard 4-gigabyte IDE hard drive and a 24x CD-ROM drive, Universal Serial Bus ports for connecting peripherals, including your keyboard, and a 33.6 kps modem.

USB technology has a lot to offer and will soon be common in the PC world, but as of now. few USB devices - printers, scanners and removable media drives like Zips - are available. Apple is taking a risk that USB peripherals will populate the marketplace soon enough to satisfy iMac owners.

Apple's greatest gamble with the iMac, however, is the omission a floppy drive. Apple says no one really needs them anymore. Today, Apple says, most software comes on CD-ROMs or is downloaded over the Internet. Maybe so, but people still use floppies to transfer files from one computer to another or to back up a critical document.

Someday, the 3.5-inch floppy surely will join the 5.25-inch floppy on the trash heap of forgotten storage technology. With the iMac, Apple is banking on that happening sooner rather than later.

Fortuitously, Imation recently announced that it will produce a USB SuperDisk drive for the iMac that will use 120 MB disks as well as the older 1.44 floppies. This is a great solution, but one that will add expense. Since a big part of this $1,299 computer's appeal is its low price, anything that costs extra is a drawback.

In some ways, the iMac reminds me of Apple's Newton, a "personal digital assistant." This sophisticated electronic note pad could read your handwriting and keep track of all sorts of data in a gizmo you could hold in your hand. It, like the iMac, was definitely ahead of its time.

The Newton ultimately flopped. Early versions of the software made many errors reading users' handwriting. It was pricey. Sales were weak.

As has happened so often throughout Apple's history, the PC world recognized and then exploited the Newton concept by producing its own PDAs. Today the market for PDAs is booming. Apple, meanwhile, gave up on the Newton a few months ago.

LTC I don't want to see the iMac end up like the Newton. Despite its risky peculiarities, the iMac has several impressive features: It boasts a 233 MHz G3 processor; a speedy built-in Ethernet port; an infrared technology port for beaming data to such things as printers and PowerBooks; built-in stereo speakers; and a .28 dot pitch 15-inch monitor.

Steve Jobs saw when he returned to Apple last summer that the company had to start gambling to survive. Whether Apple hits the jackpot with the iMac is now up to the consumers.

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Pub Date: 6/22/98

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