Solving Apple’s core problems

‘Hello (again),’ he lied, or did he? Steve Jobs’ cheeky reprise of the original Mackintosh catchline (‘hello’) to launch his latest ‘mould-breaking’ product, the iMac, is either a courageous bluff or an extraordinary piece of corporate folly.

First, the machine. Is it really pivotal to the resurgence of Apple’s battered fortunes? Jobs has done well to pare down the computer company’s muddled product range to four key areas. Of these the iMac range, which tackles the fickle consumer market, could reasonably be regarded as the most glamorous and ambitious. The others are too niche, or too expensive, to appeal to a mass market. So iMac will become the public standard-bearer of Apple, supported by a suitably large ad budget.

It’s a credible standard-bearer, too. Beautifully designed, speedy yet carefully built to a price (about 1,000 in the UK), it’s as symbolic of the Apple ‘philosophy’ as the SLK230 Kompressor is of Mercedes. Critics have been quick to carp about a couple of defects. The modem’s a bit slow (an odd economy perhaps, for a machine which is platformed on the Internet). And there’s no disk drive, which may turn out to be no bad thing. Imation and Panasonic will shortly introduce a low-cost Mac-compatible superdisk drive add-on, making conventional drives obsolete.

But Apple’s principal flaws are not, and never have been, to do with product design (the Newton episode aside). They lie in the area of software compatibility and distribution, which are particularly critical to the success of a mass-market product. As it happens, the vast majority of software in this area is now written for its arch enemy Wintel – PC machines based around Microsoft software and Intel chips. Moreover, Apple dealerships these days are becoming as commonplace as snowflakes in June. They may be well-trained and attuned to niche markets, but whether they are ready to satisfy a broader public demand remains to be seen. The fact that the new machines are going to be available in John Lewis, or online through the Apple Store, may not supply this particular deficiency.

But none of this should detract from the fact that Jobs, interim chief executive as he likes to style himself, is doing a very much better job of turning Apple round than his permanently ensconced predecessors, John Sculley and Gilbert Amelio. Already sales of the successfully launched G3 range have helped to push Apple back into the black over two successive quarters – for the first time in three years; the arrival of the new super-powerful G3 PowerBook should enhance that trend.

Whether Jobs’ foray into the mass market will enjoy the same success only time will tell. The Christmas season will provide the proof of the pudding. Then we’ll know for sure whether it really is ‘hello (again)’.

News Analysis, page 19

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