A look at the iBook

Can the iBook top the iMac? Critics and fans consider the candy-colored clamshells -- and what they'll mean for Apple.

Published July 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was only a year ago that the great Apple debate focused on the iMac: Could the five fruity flavors really restore Apple's health?

The answer has been a resounding yes, with Apple selling nearly 2 million iMacs and inspiring a raft of fluorescent-hued computer peripherals and iMac copycats since the candy-colored boxes were introduced last August. As a result, the Cupertino house that Jobs built nailed its seventh consecutive quarterly profit last week -- on the heels of six quarters of painful losses.

It's only natural then, that the debate would shift this week to the iBook, the new round-edged portable with wireless capabilities, that some say resembles a two-tone toilet seat. Will the clamshell computers, due out in September, be the next insanely great thing -- proof that Apple's here to stay? Or will those bright blueberry and tangerine machines, designed with students in mind, be relegated to the back of the class with the eMate?

On the MacCentral news site, the opinion divide is already evident in posts with subject lines like "iBook YES!!!," "iBook is a disappointment" and "What is it with all the naysayers?" Critics focus on the weight, 6.7 pounds, and the 32mb RAM, while fans rave about the AirPort, the "nifty technology" that makes the iBook wireless. Using the Net-connected hub, up to 10 iBooks can surf the Web at up to 11 Mbits per second within a 150-foot range. Perfect for the classrooms and dorm rooms Apple is targeting.

"The wireless strategy is brave," says Martin Reynolds, vice president of the market research firm Dataquest Inc. "But selling the iBook is a bit more of a challenge than the iMac was. Then, there was a lot of demand for a new Apple product. The iBook isn't quite tapping into that feeling. It's going to be interesting if they can pull it off."

To do that, Apple will need more than the sexy iBook ads Steve Jobs screened at Macworld this week; it will need developers creating great new apps for the Mac. Jobs was quick to point out that Apple has registered nearly 4,000 Mac developers. And Microsoft, which made a surprise $150 million investment in Apple last year, announced on Wednesday that it is introducing new streamlined Mac versions of its Internet Explorer browser and Outlook Express e-mail client.

But some developers are wary of the iBook. "Without a 3D card it's unlikely to catch on with us," said Doug Zartman, a spokesman for Bungie, the game maker which created the popular Myth and previewed a massively 3D-card dependent game called Halo during Jobs' Macworld keynote. "We could easily make a copy of Myth for the iBook, but for our 3D stuff, that's a basic barrier."

Mica Crosby, a sales rep for educational software maker Computer Curriculum, said her company would "definitely" develop programs to take advantage of the iBook, but voiced concern that schools wouldn't pick up the new machine right away. "Schools don't have a lot of money," she said, "and it's a question of what they spend their money on -- hardware or software."

Of course, Mac fans who waited in line to toy with an iBook at Macworld were delighted. "It's great," said Brad Price, a computer consultant for Leihigh University. "We're not a real big Mac campus, but this is going to turn some heads," he said, disappointed only that the September launch date was too late for school adoptions this year.

Andre Veiga, a designer for Provisuale in Brazil was more eloquent in his praise: "I've never seen something like this. It's so beautiful." And Susan Cody, an assistant art director at Dow Jones, liked the iBook, even while finding it a bit bulky. She discretely opened her purse and pulled out a Toshiba Portege slightly larger than her checkbook. "This is the size it needs to be," she said. But the wireless options impressed her: "We've all had portable phones in the home for what, 10 years?" Maybe it's time for the iBook.

By Chris Allbritton

Chris Allbritton is the former national cyberspace writer for the Associated Press.

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