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The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : Focus on Your Needs, Not Company’s Future

My friend Steve called me from his cellular phone the other night. “I’m at a computer store,” he told me. “I’m about to spend $2,500 on a new AST computer. But I just read in the paper that they lost $129 million last quarter. Should I still buy the AST?”

It was a good question. On one hand, Steve had reason to worry. The company had fallen on hard financial times and, with that big a loss, he had a right to wonder whether AST would remain in business long enough to honor his warranty and handle his technical-support questions. IBM, Compaq, Dell, Gateway and other strong companies offer competitive machines, so why not go with one of them?

Don’t worry, Steve. If the AST machine you’re eyeing fits your needs and is truly the best value for your dollar, then don’t let the company’s current financial woes discourage you. And for somewhat different reasons, the same advice applies to those who are considering buying an Apple Macintosh but are put off by the company’s problems and rumors of an impending sale.

For one thing, there’s a long road between a bad quarter or two and going out of business. I don’t claim to have great business acumen, but from everything I can tell, AST is likely to survive its hard times. It’s 40%-owned by Samsung Electronics, which recently gave AST a $200-million loan guarantee and another $100 million in credit for parts. South Korea-based Samsung makes memory chips, disk drives and many of the components that go into AST’s and other companies’ computers.

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Even in the unlikely event that AST went under, the equipment would still work, and, as with most PCs, the parts on its desktop systems are mostly generic and interchangeable with other companies’ machines. You’d therefore have no trouble finding parts or someone to fix the machine. If you’re really worried about warranty support, you can probably buy an extended warranty or service contract from your dealer or a third party that would cover you regardless of what happens to the manufacturer. (You might want to figure that cost into the purchase price.)

In the case of Apple, the company reported a $69-million loss for its last quarter, and rumors are swirling about a possible sale of the company. While merger discussions between Sun Microsystems and Apple have broken off for now, Apple will most likely be sold or undergo a major management overhaul in the near future.

Is all this uncertainty a reason to avoid buying a Mac? I don’t think so. There is no question in my mind that the company and the Macintosh will be around for years to come. Even if Apple is acquired, Mac buyers are safe.

Granted, Apple’s financial situation is difficult, with more losses projected for the current quarter and no real indication of how the company plans to solve its problems. But Apple still had $11.1 billion in sales in 1995--up 20% from 1994--and boasts about $6 billion in assets, plenty of cash and, most important, a large and loyal community of users and software developers. Apple has shipped more than 22 million Macs and continues to be one of the top three PC companies.

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Apple’s customers and software vendors have a vested interest in keeping the Macintosh alive and well. Big companies, including Microsoft, Symantec and Hewlett-Packard have invested millions developing Macintosh software and peripherals. Macintosh end-users include many in corporate America, government, the arts and entertainment.

Apple virtually dominates education through high school and has a stronghold on college campuses. It’s the machine of choice for graphics professionals and many who who use a computer for video and sound editing. Although Windows 95 and today’s powerful multimedia PCs have evened the score a bit, the Mac still has a lot going for it.

All of this means that even if Apple is acquired or otherwise ceases to exist as an independent company, the Macintosh will live on, and there will be plenty of support and software available. I’m not suggesting that everyone rush out and buy a Macintosh. But if you were planning buy one before you heard the bad financial news, there’s no reason to change your mind.

My advice to people who are trying to decide between a Mac and a Windows machine is to look around at their own support systems. If lots of people around you are using one type of machine, you should consider the help, support and advice you can get from those people as a major reason for buying that type as well. If you have a certain type of machine at work and want to move files back and forth, life will be a bit easier if you have a compatible machine at home running the same software (though it won’t be impossible if you don’t).

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There are now far more programs for Windows systems than there are for the Macintosh, but there continues to be a steady flow of excellent new Mac programs for home, education and small business.

When you’re ready to buy a machine, get the one that meets your needs and budget, regardless of whether it’s from Apple, IBM, Compaq, AST or any other reputable company.

Computer File welcomes your comments. Write to Lawrence J. Magid, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or message larry.magid@latimes.com on the Internet or KPVN58A on Prodigy.


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