New New Direction
by Michael Boyle
The summer Macworld Expo has traditionally been one of two or three
major events at which Apple announces new products and its vision
for the coming year. This year's edition, held from July 18 to July
21 in New York, both continued and extended Apple's bold vision
of mixing form with function, power with beauty.
The story of Apple since Steve Jobs' return is well known: during
his tenure, Apple has regained market leadership in terms of design
and an uncanny understanding of where the future of the industry
lies. And even more importantly - products like iMac, iBook, and
Airport (among others) have shown that Apple's not afraid to take
that leadership position.
Jobs was up to his old tricks, announcing product after product
in a display unrivalled in recent years. The short list of new announcements
this year: a buttonless optical mouse, the return of an Apple extended
keyboard, an update to the professional line of G4 Macs featuring
standard dual processors on the two higher end machines, an updated
line of jewel-toned iMacs, version 2 of the popular iMovie video
editing software, a bunch of new monitors, and the radical G4 Cube.
The most interesting announcements are the dual-processor Macintosh
G4s and the G4 Cube. Although dual processor computers are nothing
new, and Apple itself sold one several years ago, Apple has replaced
the older top-end G4s with these at the same price points. In effect,
people are getting a much more powerful machine now for the same
price as before the update to the line - with the new mouse and
keyboard added to the deal.
There is some question about the utility of a dual-processor machine
that will run under Mac OS 9, the currently shipping version of
Apple's operating system. The introduction of these computers seems
to look forward to when their next-generation system, OS X, is released
early next year.
G4 Cube is a tiny 8" cube in which is contained a full-fledged computer
- but with no fan, so it's reported to be very quiet. Apple has
designed the system to dissipate the heat generated by the 450 MHz
processor using convection. The heat from the computer will rise
through vents in the top surface of the cube, beside the vertical
slot-loading DVD player. One downside of the Cube is that it lacks
expandibility. There aren't any PCI slots available, and although
Firewire and USB offer connections to a whole range of devices,
the limitations imposed will be significant for some consumers.
For Apple-watchers, though, it's not enough to just look at the
specs of a particular computer. In the world of the Macintosh, fans
and analysts alike spend an inordinate amount of time trying to
figure out just what Apple is communicating beyond the obvious.
They (we) look for a larger, more fundamental message.
The G4 Cube is the big question mark here. In one way, it's a souped-up
iMac, hold the monitor. Heavy on the design, adequate but not spectacular
in fuctionality, more appropriate for a "middle" target audience
who wants to choose their own monitor rather than be stuck with
the iMac's 15" affair.
Apple and Jobs continue to push the limits of design - in a way,
the very fact that they design computers to be pleasant looking
is still a story, even two full years since the release of the iMac.
The Cube sets a new standard, both as an example of the aesthetics
of design and the push to build things smaller than before.
It's that aspect of the industrial design - the very small size
of the G4 Cube, which may be the most significant. It suggests two
things: one, that a mid-range portable computer is on its way, perhaps
similar to a Sony Vaio more than anything else. Second, the combination
of these two could herald the beginning of a whole new class of
computers. The well-differentiated Apple product line includes high
end personal machines and limited but excellent iMacs.
With the G4 Cube and another similarly positioned laptop, Apple
could be in the midst of defining a whole new type of computer,
for a poorly served market who are dying for small, powerful machines
that look great. If the company can manage it, it's going to be
fun to watch.
b i o :
Michael Boyle welcomes
your comments on this article. For a whole bunch of information
about him, check out his weblog: mikel.org