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Weekly Column

What Color is That Flavorade?: How Steve Jobs Makes Friends and Influences People With Colorful New iMacs

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

There is a lot to like about the Macworld computer show. It's the only major computer show that's within an hour of my home. It's the only major computer show that allows regular folks to attend along with the nerds and suits. It's the only major computer show that lets real people buy real stuff and cart it home straight from the show floor. And for a few days, it's the best theater in San Francisco, thanks to Steve Jobs.

This week in his Macworld keynote speech, Steve seemed to have redirected power from his phaser array and into his reality distortion field generator, because it was running at unprecedented power levels. The big news, of course, was iMacs in five fabulous new colors! And the crowd bought it. Sophisticated people who pay taxes and take care of their grandparents and even write software looked deliriously happy about the prospect of buying a strawberry-colored iMac. "It's delicious!" said Steve. And for that moment, at least, they could taste it.

Colors generally haven't been a good selling point for computers. Acer tried it a couple years ago with limited success. IBM likes black, of course, and Sony has that lavender shade. And there have been dozens of "we'll paint your PC (or Mac) any color you like for $100" outfits that have gone bust over the years. If only those operations had a salesman like Steve Jobs, they'd still be in business.

Color is easy, of course. It's just the translucent parts that need color changing and it probably doesn't cost much to keep half a dozen different colors on hand, especially now that Apple is getting close to a million iMacs sold. But color, even delicious strawberry, is still just sizzle, not steak.

"People don't care about megabytes and megahertz," Jobs lied to the adoring crowd. It was a joy to see, rather in the way that you just have to admire any audacious con man.

But Steve's performance wasn't limited to colorful iMacs. He also introduced the new family of high-end desktop Macs. These new G3s are very impressive machines — almost as impressive as he described them. The part I liked best of all was when Jobs claimed that the new G3s had the fastest graphics in the world due to their unique Rage 128 video controller. The Rage 128 chip will be unique to the G3s for about a week. And when the PC version ships in a few days it will be in an AGP version, not the puny PCI card in the G3s. Still, they are impressive machines and because of the firewire integration I'll probably be buying one myself. I work in television, you know, and firewire makes all things possible.

My guess is that Jobs wanted to introduce more products but they just couldn't ship in time. Maybe that little notebook is almost ready, or the lower-end iMac. I'm sure we'll see more systems by May.

The most interesting announcement of all, though, was of MacOS-X server software, which is now scheduled to ship sometime this quarter. This is Unix with a Mac front-end and the exciting part of this week's announcement was that the Apache Web server will come bundled with the system. This is Steve Jobs jumping on the open source bandwagon in what's for him the best possible way by bundling software that costs him nothing with software that costs us something. And it will work, too, because Apache is both the fastest Web server software around AND generally considered hard to configure. That Mac front-end and some clever configuration scripts will tame Apache immediately and just might pick up for Apple a bigger slice of the Web server market. It can't hurt.

But you have to wonder, or at least I do, if these products are enough. Apple still has half a billion dollars in R&D expenses that Compaq, Dell, and Gateway do not. This new Web server strategy of Apple's probably aims more at companies like Sun Microsystems than Dell or Gateway. Still, it's 10,000 machines here and 10,000 machines there, which isn't much in a domestic computer market that's more than 20 million units per year. We buy more computers than televisions, more PCs than electric blankets, but the tide of Windows hardware mediocrity isn't likely to be quelled by some new G3s and Steve Jobs knows that.

Apple better have a lot more where that came from if they are ever going to break out of their still precarious desktop publishing and Web authoring niche. I keep expecting Apple to do an incredibly clever non-computer device like a digital television, but it hasn't happened yet. But whatever they do that is the next insanely great thing, I predict it will cost more than $800, because Apple has had a total lack of success ever selling products for less than that amount.

Finally, the G3 announcement held a bit of real nostalgia for me because Apple once again touted those slightly suspect BYTEmark ratings showing their PowerPC systems are much faster than Pentium II PCs. Sure. The nostalgia part was just the mention of BYTE, the original personal computer magazine, which went from paper to electrons recently, turning itself into a Web publication. I loved BYTE. It was the Scientific American of PC magazines, not afraid to take on any architecture or any subject. Right to the end it was the best magazine of its type even though they years ago canned the Steve Ciarcia build-it-yourself articles I liked best of all. Somehow it's fitting, though, that BYTE subscribers are all now getting Windows magazine. Ugh.

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