Opinion: The challenge of the new Macs
March 8, 1999
by Phil Lemmons
(IDG) -- Intel and Microsoft rake in mind-boggling profits, sit atop billions in cash, and invest big bucks in R&D. The companies' executives rack their brilliant, paranoid brains to produce visions of future computing. Between them, the two firms supply other PC giants with everything they need to flood the planet with powerful, inexpensive computers. Nothing can slow these vendors' surging sales except an occasional pause to curse the impossibility of differentiating products under the rule of the dynamic duopoly.
Then along comes Apple, a breathless shipwreck survivor crawling from a sea of red ink. It introduces first the iMac and now the new Power Macintosh G3 computer. Striking shapes and colorful polycarbonates distinguish these Macs from all previous computers.
The iMac and G3 are in some ways like the Mazda Miata. The Miata shares inner components with a much less successful Ford model, but a designer exterior made the Miata a sensation. Few can name the Ford equivalent.
The new translucent Macs have borrowed much from PCs: the Ultra ATA interface, PCI slots, PC100 SDRAM, and the Universal Serial Bus. The G3's built-in ATI Rage 128 graphics adapter was meant first and foremost for PCs. Some PCs and the G3 also have FireWire in common. To be sure, the G3 still has some components foreign to PCs, such as the PowerPC G3 processor and Mac operating system.
Goodies for novices and power users
But the new Macs differ from PCs in ways that go beyond cosmetics, the processor, and the operating system. For first-time buyers, the iMac's superior integration and ease of setup make it the most enticing computer ever. The G3 has the same distinction for users who have never met an upgrade they didn't like. The G3's side panel swings down, bringing the system board with it. Memory slots, PCI slots, and just about everything else are easily accessible. And each corner of the G3 has a handle for easy lugging. In short, the new Macs show that Apple has thought hard about the needs of two different kinds of computer users.
Though the new Macs could signal Apple's reemergence as a major competitor, that is not assured. Technical innovation in PC products keeps accelerating. Close on the heels of the Pentium III comes AMD's K7 chip with its 200-MHz bus, due in June. Then Intel will introduce AGP 4X and many other advances. Also due to arrive is a raft of new AGP graphics accelerators, including those from ATI, 3Dfx, Matrox, NEC, NVidia, and S3. Will these products be available for the G3's proprietary graphics connector? Similarly, will software developers devote more attention to the Mac when the vastly larger Windows market beckons and the Web is exploding?
Regardless, the appeal of the new Macs will force the personal computer industry to look up from its concentration on reducing costs, turning inventory, and slashing time to market. The new Macs demand a renewed focus on designing more appealing PCs.
Toward simpler, sexier PCs
PCs must get simpler, easier to use, and more attractive. As in all things PC related, Intel and Microsoft must lead the way. But they must do so not only by simplifying their own wares, but also by cutting their customers some slack. By stuffing more and more PC functions into its own chips or boards, Intel has left PC makers little to do but churn out beige boxes cheaper and faster. Intel must relax its stranglehold enough to let PC vendors design more distinctive, innovative products.
Microsoft has already paid lip service to the goal of simplification, but it will have to reinvent itself to deliver. Its approach to software design and its business model rely on making every promising new technology a standard part of Windows. That, in turn, gives Windows one byte of code for every particle in the universe. Is it any wonder Windows contains black holes and loose strings?
No one can encompass everything and keep it simple. Piling new "simplicity" features on top of all the others won't do the trick, not even when they're packaged as wizards and animated paper clips. Simplicity requires leaving things out. Yes, even some hot new technology that might make money for someone else! Simplifying Windows requires Microsoft to loosen its grip.
Failing to simplify the PC also has its costs. The Wintel formula of wrapping ever-increasing sameness around ever-increasing complexity is getting old. It hasn't produced a single distinctive model that sends people running to the showroom. Apple has two such models. The new Macs may not conquer the world, but they have made their point.
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