The phoenix, risen from the ashes! The triumphal warrior, returning as a victor from near-defeat! The prodigal son, welcomed back by his concerned family! Whichever overblown metaphor you choose to describe the prevailing mood Tuesday morning at Macworld, it all boils down to the same thing: Apple is thrilled to be back on track.
As Colin Crawford, president of Macworld magazine, put it in his introductory speech, "What a difference a year makes -- those media pundits that were writing Mac's obituary were dead wrong. But honestly, how many of us a year ago would have predicted that Apple would capture the No. 1 slot for PC sales?"
Eight hundred thousand iMacs have been sold since its release, said Steve Jobs, a respectable number by most counts and enough to make the iMac the bestselling PC in the month of November; Apple has now enjoyed five consecutive profitable quarters. It's a kinder, gentler time for Apple. And as Yoko and John smiled down on the cheering crowds in the Macworld auditorium and Joan Baez crooned from the speakers, a gleeful Jobs whipped aside curtains with aplomb to show off the future innovations that will follow in the footsteps of the iMac, Apple's polycarbonate savior. In a nutshell, the future looks colorful.
Unlike the grim mood of Macworlds in years past, there was palpable excitement throughout the first morning of the conference. "It's been a wonderful year," Jobs slyly smiled as he joked across the stage -- referring to himself as the "iCEO" of Apple, bantering with a video of a grumpy Hal 9000 (the star of the newest Apple ad) and poking fun at the inferiority of the Wintel PC. The crowd cheered at his lighthearted enthusiasm, but it reserved the most applause for the more tangible offerings.
Jobs revealed four "surprises" during his two-hour speech, and though the much-anticipated iMac laptop was not among them, the crowd was still wildly happy at the succession of demos: the new G3 desktop workstation, the new Mac OS X Server, a slew of developer products and a line of fruit-flavored -- make that colored -- iMacs.
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The desktop G3s were the expected revelation of the day, and have been updated to be "the most powerful and most expandable PC in the industry with the best graphics and the best design." Though Jobs is, of course, biased, the demonstrations (in which the new G3 was compared with, and outperformed, a number of top-shelf Pentium II computers) were impressive. The G3, available Tuesday, will have a speedy 400 Mhz chip built from superior copper wiring, with sped-up caching and memory, and up to one gigabyte of RAM and a 36-gigabyte hard drive. Also included are SGI's OpenGL system to allow 3-D graphics work and the ATI Rage 128 accelerator built in for games optimization. Following in the footsteps of the iMac, the new G3 will offer only USB ports for connecting peripheral devices such as printers and scanners (though a SCSI card can be added for $49) along with the plug-and-play Firewire peripheral system -- a risky decision, since many popular peripherals still aren't available in USB or Firewire versions yet.
And then, of course, there's the design -- and as "The Look of Love" played over the loudspeakers, Jobs rolled a video in which various Apple talking heads blushingly described how "sexy" the new G3 is. Certainly, there's no denying that the new G3 is at least more sexy than any other computer tower on the market. Mimicking the color, materials and smooth curves of the iMac, the workstation has handles on all four corners and a locking door that easily pops open for access to computer innards. As Apple intended, it will certainly draw attention in computer stores -- as will the low (for Apple) starting price of $1,599.
What this all adds up to is an impressive computer that Apple clearly is hoping will compete with high-end desktop PCs. Rather than simply keep its current customers happy, Apple wants to gather new computer users. The iMac has been successful in claiming newbies, and though it went unsaid, the new G3 is clearly intended to entice more advanced computer users away from the PC.
The key to doing this, of course, isn't simply a speedy and roomy computer, but a computer that has support from product developers. This has been a critical factor in Apple's struggle for the new-user market -- if you wanted to play great games or take advantage of the majority of new PC software, you simply had to buy a PC. So Jobs trotted out Quake creator John Carmack to preview the upcoming Mac-compatible Quake Arena and praise the new graphics system, and a velvet-shirted Microsoft business manager ebulliently previewed some nifty Mac-only features for the new Internet Explorer 4.5 (while the audience seethed silently). Also revealed: an emulator from Connectix that will enable the Macintosh to play Sony Playstation games, a lineup of popular games coming out in Mac versions and 1,355 new and renewed Mac applications announced over the last six months.
Jobs also showcased the release of a new server software suite called Mac OS X Server, which incorporates Apache, Unix, Java and WebObjects around a Mach kernel, raising the curtain on a bank of 49 iMacs to show how a Powerbook could now simultaneously run a local network and a Web server. The once-ballyhooed Rhapsody operating system seemed to have been sidelined (perhaps quietly incorporated into the server), and the new Mac OS X was only referred to in passing (it will be released "sometime in the next year," Jobs said). The focus, clearly, was on pushing to compete with what's already in the PC market.
But the innovation that brought the most cheers was probably the simplest: A line of five diaphanous fruity colors for the iMac -- lime, strawberry, blueberry, tangerine and grape. "Collect all five!" the video display shouted as the curtain pulled aside and five glistening iMacs on pedestals revolved for the loving audience's eyes.
Apple, of course, wouldn't mind it one bit if people did just that.