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The iMac's here, but where's Apple?

August 14, 1998
Webposted at 2:40 PM EDT

By San Francisco Bureau Chief Greg Lefevre

(CNN) -- Apple computer is launching the iMac on Saturday. It's the company's first new consumer product line in almost six years.

It's cute, it's REALLY fast and it does most of what it says it will.

But the company that makes it was nowhere to be found.

I had a mixed experience with my test drive of the iMac. It almost didn't happen.

iMac sales boost Apple now, but longevity still uncertain
Typically when a new product comes out, the maker offers test-drives to reporters and industry analysts. The company, of course, gets the free publicity of a story, but also gets feedback and an early hint of what the public response may be. The public gets the news it deserves.

So some time ago we contacted Apple to see, shoot and sample one of the iMac computers. Early talks were cordial and all seemed confident I would see the computer, try it out and interview an Apple executive (maybe even Steve Jobs) about this great new machine.

Three days from launch date, my cameraman and I are tooling down Interstate 280, headed for Cupertino for our date with the iMac. The cell phone rings. It's Apple.

"I'm really sorry, Greg. We don't have a machine for you. And there will be no executive to talk to."

The next sentence was hard to believe. "How can I help you?"

Are these people really double agents for some PC maker?!

Apple's new iMac is the first new line of consumer computers for the company in almost six years.   
Apple's explanation: all the company executives on the product are tied up with the launch. Somehow I thought press previews were part of the launch. Some self-examination was in order. Was my request selfish? Was I being too demanding asking to see one of these highly-touted machines so CNN readers and viewers could learn about it, too? I've covered the computer beat since 1978, covered Apple since before the first Mac launch in 1984.

"We'd really like to help you, Greg, but we can't."

We returned home.

Now I knew that CNN viewers and readers really needed this story. The iMac is an important milestone in Apple's history. It's an important shift in consumer computer marketing. So much had been said about this computer, the public deserved some objective view. Apple has been reeling with years of colossal losses. At its nadir, Apple was losing about a thousand dollars for every Mac it sold. Steve Jobs returned, slashed the product line to a manageable size, began to raise employee morale, and instilled some sizzle in the product line.

The iMac was the first of a whole line of new, really snazzy products. We knew Jobs and jobs hang in the balance.

It began to emerge that, in fact, Apple had not prepared any iMacs for viewing at its headquarters.

We persisted. Apple relented. We headed out again to Apple's offices. As we entered the room, a public relations staffer had personally driven over to Apple's warehouse, personally carted a unit out to her car, driven it back and carried it into the conference room.

Still no Apple spokesperson to talk to our viewers about the iMac, Apple's most important product in years. There was not even anyone there to set up the computer.

Apple punted.

"We thought you, Greg, could set it up yourself to see how easy it is."

That statement either represented great confidence in me... or desperation on Apple's part.

I bit. It was either do it myself or go home with no story. Besides, I'd set up lots of Macs (four of my own and five in the office) and figured what could go wrong.

Apple's hot new iMac is its simplest ever. And that's the whole idea. The newest Macintosh legend is the iMac goes from the box to the Internet in about ten minutes. We thought we'd try that out.

Everything was in one piece / place. The hard drive, motherboard, CD ROM drive, power supply and all the ports are in the same case as the monitor. It takes up no more desk space than a monitor. That's important around the house where desk real estate is at a premium

The iMac Screams

The iMac's 233-megahertz G3 chip is astonishingly fast. We got the 56k modem up to 44k on our trials. But the computer seemed faster than that. We were told (off camera) by an Apple tech that Apple engineers modified the motherboard to make the "Mac look" work faster. One chip had been eliminated and that made the screen come up faster, change images faster and "paint" Web images faster. Very effective. On a telephone line at 44k the iMac looked nearly as fast as our office computers on a high-speed network. The 15 inch screen is bright and clear. Apple offers three resolution/refresh rates that provide good variety for eye relief after long Web surfing sessions.

The Set-Up

Two minutes to get everything out of the box. Keyboard, mouse and cables connected by three minutes. Six minutes out of the box we heard the famous Apple startup chime. At ten minutes we were signing up for the Internet. "This is Earthlink's membership agreement," a petite feminine voice intoned. The iMac continues Apple's tradition of making the process as tech-less as possible. The tutorial was very good.

The Hangup

The machine worked...the Internet did not.

Web connections are jammed in Silicon Valley. It took half an hour to get through. When we did, at 44k, the graphics and sound fairly screamed.

The "iMac" name stands for "Internet Macintosh," has a cool design. There is no beige anywhere. It's white and ice blue in a semi translucent case. It's very non-threatening and very non-tech. That, I'm sure will be its appeal.

Market research says five to ten million people want the Internet access but are afraid of computers or just don't want the hassle. The iMac is TRULY plug and play

No Floppy Drive?

Inexplicably the iMac has no internal floppy drive. They're available as an accessory and will certainly be high on the peripherals list. The buzz around Apple is that Steve Jobs believes floppies will be obsolete in a year or so, replaced by high capacity cartridges and burn-it-yourself CD-ROMs. Also, the iMac's principle target is the first timer who doesn't have old files to move over anyway. But if you're replacing an aging Performa with the iMac, how does Apple expect you to move the data off your old Mac to the iMac in the meantime? Not all of us can uplink it to a network and download into our iMacs.

The Bus Stalls

All iMac peripherals will be Univeral Serial Bus devices.   
This is the first machine to use the Universal Serial Bus exclusively. In theory the USB uses the same connector and jack style for every accessory, plugged in anywhere in the chain. It's convenient, but failed in one respect: hot switching.

A publicized feature of the USB is that users can connect and disconnect on the fly, hot, while the computer is running. But when we unplugged the mouse cable's USB connector, the Mac froze. We tried it again with the keyboard USB connector and the Mac froze again. I've always thought it was just good practice to plug and unplug only with the computer off. This just confirms that.

Is iMac Apple's Salvation?

I got VERY contrasting views from people who should know.

Dan Lavin is an analyst with IV Associates and used to be with Dataquest. He's very bullish on the iMac.

"Absolutely I think that we will be looking back and saying that Apple has been making the right decisions and with the iMac it's just a continuation of what has been a string of good decisions."

But Howard Baldwin of CIO Magazine thinks it's too late.

"This is a huge backward step for them. Baldwin knows Macs. He wrote the book, "Learn the Macintosh in 24 Hours." "I think that Apple has made so many mistakes." He scratches his head. "They have had, I think I tried to count them last night, five operating system strategies in the last six or so years."

And now Apple is talking about OSX (Ten) next year.

Many are sanguine about Apple's tiny percentage of the market. Apple confirms 150-thousand pre-orders for the iMac and some analysts guess Apple could sell a million of them by next year. Apple is rumored to have a blitz of related products ready for release very soon as backup and follow-up to the iMac concept. But will even one million machines put a dent in a fifty million-machine market?

Lavin says in the mainstream, buying a Macintosh used to be a smart decision. It's now one that must be defended.

"Every time you buy a Mac there's some university president somewhere or some provost or some chief financial officer or some head of a board of trustees saying why are we doing this. Why aren't we moving to PCs? Isn't it best that our students learn to use PCs? Isn't it best that perhaps our company start to learn PCs."

A Windows Mac?

Could that create for Apple a marketing opportunity tailor made to the Macintosh's greatest asset--its reliability?

Lavin suggests selling an iMac that runs Windows. "You'd have two of the strongest brands in the world, Apple and Windows working together. And those together I think would capture far more that four percent of the market place."

To that end some Bay Area retailers are already bundling a Windows emulator with the iMac. Lavin concurs.

"Why bother people with having to make the Macintosh versus Windows decision. Why not just give them a Windows machine with a brand name that they can trust."


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