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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




Will Apple Launch An Entirely New Product Line?
February 5th, 2001

We have seen the evolution of Apple's product line in the last few years. Since Steve Jobs' takeover, there have been quite a few changes. First, the PowerMac G3 line hit the shelves and then we saw rapid change from the iMac to the Cube.

Beige computers were the conventional standard, and when the Apple line needed refreshing as well as some kind of new punch, the computer maker introduced the iMac as a consumer-oriented unit. The G3 tower followed with the same Bondi Blue colors, only to be refined as the Graphite G4 tower later. The iBook came in to fill the last spot left in the four corners of Apple's product line. As a surprise - though there were rumors - Apple went ahead and unveiled an entirely new product at MACWORLD Expo NY 2000 called the Cube. I was there and I can testify that attendees were quite pleased to see the new tiny beast. Now that the Cube broke the "four corners" representation of core Apple hardware products, are we any close to another release featuring an all-new Mac?

Perhaps. I am not about to make promises about this since I do not claim to have any inside info on my desk. What I do know is that a seemingly innocently graphic in Steve Jobs' MACWORLD keynote could be curiously revealing.

Of course, I altered this image after taking a screen shot of it from the QuickTime movie. I highlighted the block where lies an Apple logo. The last time that such a square space was empty, Apple filled it with an iBook. It could happen again.

Note that this is only speculation. This empty spot could be nothing more than an empty spot. If we let ourselves be carried away for a moment, however, it is tempting to think that Apple may release something new to fill it. Why? Interesting products always have a chance to find roles if they are necessary and marketed smartly. An all-new product can find its niche if there is enough demand. In short, if there is a demand, it will sell.

When?

When would Apple release a new product? One has to realize that as Apple is going through difficult times, and the moment is not at hand. Research and development cost money, and if there is something that technology companies need now, it is cash! On the other hand, Steve Jobs is promising better days, so to throw a date around, a potential release would be MACWORLD New York in July 2001. Apple's important announcements usually take place at the Expo and the Worldwide Developers Conference does not seem to feature the big stuff anymore.

OK genius, what would it be?

Well... my colleague Samuel Sharp, who writes at MacSoldiers, has been talking about (and hoping for) a sub notebook for a while. What is a sub notebook? It is a notebook computer, but one that is smaller in size and weight than the PowerBook or the iBook.

Samuel discussed the topic at length in quarters that are more private, and told me that a good model to emulate would be a particular computer found in Sony's VAIO product line called the C1 PictureBook.

You can note that this unit is small if you look at the proportions of the hand and the computer. Here are the specifications at a glance:

  • Weight: 2.2 lbs.
  • Measurements: 1.06" X 9.8" X 6"
  • 8.9" LCD display
  • 600 MHz processor
  • 512 KB L2 cache
  • 12 GB hard disk drive
  • 128 MB SDRAM, expandable to 192 MB
  • Built-in Camera
  • ATI Rage mobility acceleration card
  • Floppy drive
  • 56K modem
  • Stick-type pointing device
  • Built-in stereo speakers
  • Microphone Built-in (mono)
  • PC Card Slot
  • VGA output, USB, i.LINK (IEEE 1394/FireWire) S400 interface3, RJ-11 phone jack, audio in, headphone output,
  • MagicGate Memory Stick

This qualifies as "lightweight." The display is tiny but this is probably the biggest trade off for such a small notebook computer. The concept is interesting. You can easily insert this type of technology in a backpack and carry it around effortlessly. It goes between the PDA and the full-fledged notebook. Sub notebooks are not entirely new, but I have the impression that if Apple defines it properly, this kind of machine can make it to the Mac world.

Time for the big speculation

The big issue would probably be to define the new unit. Apple has to keep its iBook and PowerBook in mind if it has to design any new portable in the future. Something that resembles either of those two products too closely would create a conflict and split sales instead of driving new business in. Anything between the PowerBook and iBook would sound like a joke. Therefore, Apple is left with a couple of basic concepts:

Making it a luxury computer, but Apple's new PowerBook G4 is very strong already.

Making it a small and cheap notebook, sacrificing the toys and going for basics, for people on a budget. If Apple has a PDA in mind, it would probably be a waste of time to hope for this sort of thing.

The Cube experience showed us that less features than the big machine (the PowerMac G4 tower in this case) for more money than the big machine is a bad deal. People would buy the G4 for its larger expansion capabilities and better price. The Cube is cute, but money makes a difference when you want more bang for your buck.

That would leave us with... the El Cheapo alternative. I like this one. Anybody can argue that the iBook is Apple's consumer-oriented notebook unit, but I beg to differ. Starting at US$1499, this is inexpensive when compared to a PowerBook, but it is still pricey for the typical student or low-budget user! I remember viewing the MACWORLD NY 1999 keynote at the Apple office in Montreal, and quite a few other guests had mixed feelings about the price.

Why? Because, for a moment, a few of us looked at Jobs presenting it and dreamed about it being dirt-cheap. The lower price would have satisfied those of us who could use a notebook but cannot spend much money on it. We were disappointed. I would personally welcome an El Cheapo notebook from Apple. However, it may not be easy to produce. After all, miniaturization comes at a price and I am no Apple insider to know if it is doable. Sub notebooks are not necessarily the industry's favorite way to lower prices.

There can also be the issues involved with marketing this product, but I think that Apple will conduct the appropriate research before going ahead with a product. My colleague Samuel Sharp suggests dedicated services for these users - such as an apple.net service with features such as file sharing - so that they can gain an advantage from carrying such lightweight technology. It sounds like an idea to me.

Conclusion

One fact remains: whatever a sub notebook would become if it had to hit the market, Apple would have to tailor it faultlessly to avoid conflicts with its existing portables. As I said above, if Apple is preparing a PDA, then a subnotebook would be almost useless. However, the converse is also true. If Apple is not preparing a PDA, a subnotebook would hit the spot. I personally wish for something that is somewhere between the Palm and the iBook. It may become reality during a QuickTime broadcast from NY or something. Let us hope.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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