At a press conference today, Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs announced a line of new Macs and Apple's new WebObjects-based Apple Store, which enables customers to purchase Macs and other Apple products online and to customize the configurations of the new G3 Macs.
More interesting is what didn't happen at the press conference. Apple didn't merge with Oracle (though rumors of Oracle investing in Apple to help support Apple's network computer efforts make some sense), Apple didn't announce a partnership with Lucent, and Steve Jobs didn't accept the CEO position (or even the coveted title of Dictator for Life). None of the widely circulated rumors turned out to be true, as is so often the case, and life goes on.
Apple should be both commended and condemned for their handling of this situation. On the one hand, by allowing the Oracle buyout rumors to persist (and one wonders if they might not have been intentional), Jobs managed to turn a fairly interesting announcement into a public relations coup. There's no way that Apple could otherwise have generated such interest for new machines and an online store, and for that Apple should be commended. However, I don't believe it's healthy for the Macintosh world to sustain such intensity surrounding Apple's possible moves and by encouraging that intensity without delivering (as Jobs did in part by telling BusinessWeek that their fairly accurate article last week was "way off"), Apple does its users a disservice. I'm seeing people burn out and cease to care what happens to Apple or the Macintosh, and Apple can't afford that right now.
New Power Macs -- The public rationale for the press conference was to announce Apple's latest Macs, all based on the new PowerPC 750 chip, more commonly known as the G3. In this issue, Tonya covers the specs of the new G3 machines in detail and Geoff looks in more detail at the G3 chip used in the new machines.
These machines are unquestionably fast, and the prices aren't bad by any means, competing well with comparably configured machines from at least the Dells and Compaqs of the PC world, if not the less-expensive no-name vendors. Those are both positive facts for Apple in light of this year's decision to reduce Mac OS cloning efforts to far lower levels than they were prior to the Power Computing buyout we covered in TidBITS Updates and Motorola's exit from the Macintosh clone market, which we looked at in TidBITS-397.
If You Build It... More interesting in many ways than the release of the new G3 Macs is the new Apple Store, which is well-designed and graphically attractive. Based on the WebObjects technology acquired with NeXT, the Apple Store is Apple's latest foray into direct sales (previous attempts, such as the Apple Club, have been half-hearted and poorly implemented). The Apple Store is available via the Web site below or via phone at 800/795-1000 (which reportedly goes to MicroWarehouse answering as Apple Computer). For those of you in other countries, it appears that the Apple Store currently caters only to U.S. customers. I imagine that will change in the future, but it will take Apple a while to address international shipping, currency, and support issues.
The Apple Store appears to carry most of Apple's product line, including Macs, peripherals, Newtons, and software. For the most part, pricing is comparable to what you'd find at Apple resellers, although a Special Deals page lists some clearance items and refurbished Macs at cheap prices.
The most interesting part of the Apple Store is that it enables you to customize purchases of the new G3 Power Macs. In the past, if you wanted to buy a Mac, you had a choice of several different configurations, but any additional customization was your (or your reseller's) problem. Now you can specify the various aspects of the G3 Power Macs, including:
- Processor speed
- RAM amount
- Hard disk size
- Removable storage
- Graphics support (VRAM size)
- Modem inclusion
- Monitor inclusion
The Apple Store reminded me of Power Computing's Build Your Own Box Web pages. After you select a basic G3 Power Mac, the site presents you with pop-up menus from which you choose desired options. A button at the bottom recalculates the sub-total so you can see the damage caused by deciding you really need more RAM and a 20" monitor. After that, a Continue button encourages you to add peripherals to your order, then takes you to the checkout.
We're curious to see how much of a difference direct sales make for Apple since setting up a direct sales channel - particularly one that allows customization - requires massive infrastructure changes within the company. It's ironic that the changes necessary for a direct sales channel are much more significant than the impact on most individual users, who will see the Apple Store as merely another way to buy a Mac. In the past, it hasn't been hard to find someone who will sell you a Mac, ranging from companies like TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics up to the superstore chains. Will direct sales mean more sales, or merely the same number of sales through a different channel? Apple probably stands to make more money on direct sales by cutting out the middleman, though some of that added profit will disappear into the effort of building and customizing the machines.
But Do They Think Different? One of today's Apple press releases says "Apple Computer today showed it takes seriously the "Think Different" message in its ads. The Company announced dramatic changes in the way it designs, builds, and sells its computers." I'm willing to concede that the Apple Store and providing customers the opportunity to customize their Macs are radically different ways of building and selling computers, at least for Apple, if not others in the industry. And, the G3 Macs seem nicely designed, if not stunningly designed.
However, these are engineering and business details. Apple has released innovative machines in the past, and we've certainly seen numerous business changes over the seven and a half years we've watched Apple in TidBITS. What remains to be seen is if Jobs has managed to make the company think differently. The visionaries and leaders portrayed in Apple's ads weren't the sort of people who changed a distribution channel or released incrementally better products - they thought and acted in ways previously unimaginable. Apple was once a company that did "think different" - if nothing else, Apple engineers created a system to which people could relate and with which they could identify. The Macintosh affected our lives, but Apple proclaiming "Think Different" from the electronic rooftops does little for me. The question remains: can Apple "think different" and transcend the limitations of large corporate culture to touch our lives once again?