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issue 08/01/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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Apple's 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.

The 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:


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