PowerBooks Could Take a Cue from PC Laptops

In "Mission: Impossible," Tom Cruise tracks down the forces of evil with what has long been the major media's icon of choice for a statement of refined modern living: the Macintosh PowerBook. Unfortunately, a real spy would have the sense to use a Windows laptop. Maybe that explains why you don't see the Mac OS or Apple logo on the Cruise character's computer.

As recently as two years ago, Apple's laptop success went well beyond Hollywood. PowerBooks were the envy of the industry with their sleek design, superior connectivity and reliability, and, well, panache--not to mention the Mac operating system. Intoxicated by success, Apple's PowerBook team apparently passed out and has been hibernating ever since.

Meanwhile, PC laptop makers mimicked the PowerBook en masse. For example, many have added recess trackballs and created space for wrist support instead of having keys take up the entire surface of the laptop--superior ergonomic choices pioneered by Apple. And they added options that took Apple many months to equal, such as infrared transceivers and multipurpose bays that hold everything from a hard drive to a modem to a battery.

And PC vendors introduced many new features that make the PowerBook look like a pathetic pretender:

* long-lasting lithium-ion batteries;

* CD-ROM drives;

* screens about a third larger than Apple's best offerings;

* the eraser-like TrackPoint--an ergonomic improvement on the trackball;

* larger keyboards, including an IBM model that expands to full size when you open the laptop.

And coming soon: Removable screens for use with overhead projectors; CD-ROM-equipped units that weigh less than 6 pounds; ultra-thin, ultra-wide-screen notebooks; and digital video disk drives, whose media look like those of CDs but offer many times the storage capacity.

I saved the worst for last, because it's almost too painful to mention. An obsolescent 75-MHz Pentium laptop leaves the most powerful PowerBooks, the 5300 series, virtually in sleep mode. Don't even ask about the 133-MHz Pentium units.

Beyond features and performance, there was the embarrassing 5300 recall--a couple of batteries resembled the "Mission: Impossible" motif a bit too closely, bursting into flames after delivering their data. (Adding insult to injury, these were lithium-ion batteries, but Apple replaced them with inferior nickel-metal-hydride units.) Additional circuitry and power supply flaws as well as software bugs caused no end of headaches for 5300 users.


What will Apple need to do to make PowerBooks competitive again?

* move faster. Apple waits a year or more between PowerBook releases--don't look for more competitive PowerBooks until this fall at the earliest--while PC laptops go through at least two generations in the same period;

* copy the best PC options. It's pure hubris for Apple to think it can survive as it ignores good ideas because of the not-invented-here syndrome;

* go back to the Mac's roots. Even if Apple can't justify the expense of supporting every new feature, it should make PowerBooks reflect more of what the Mac is famous for: an easier, more flexible, better-integrated choice;

* connect with PCs. In a cross-platform world, PowerBooks should link as easily with Windows PCs as they do with Macs. Fixing Apple's nonstandard infrared transceiver software is a good place to start.

Many computer companies do just fine without ever showing much creativity. They keep R & D costs down, then market proven technologies at low prices. For Apple, however, survival means leading--enticing users away from the Windows herd.

But Apple can't do it alone. That's why the most encouraging PowerBook development in ages was Apple's recent announcement that it would team with IBM--a leading laptop innovator--to build a new notebook. Apple and IBM have proved they can succeed together; PowerPC chips challenged Intel and gave the Mac a new lease on life. They can also fail together, having wasted years on costly joint ventures that never produced, and haggling over IBM's licensing the Mac OS.

Still, they can boast of the best laptop hardware-software combination in the business, so it's hardly an impossible mission. But they'd better move fast. Apple's laptop fuse is burning.

Charles Piller, senior editor at Macworld, can be reached via e-mail at cpiller@macworld.com


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