Cost Clouds iMac’s Savior Status

Since May’s unveiling of the translucent blue-and-white iMac--Apple’s engine to growth in the all-important consumer market--I’ve felt a little uneasy with all the hype. Is the iMac really the savior it’s made out to be?

Last week’s Macworld Expo, the semiannual confab for Mac aficionados, was the iMac’s coming-out party. So it seems like a good time to review the progress of the new machine, due to ship Aug. 15, that Apple has so much riding on.

On one hand, the machine’s stunning looks and fast G3 processor are worthy of a company that made its fortune on nerve and innovation. The iMac’s all-in-one design and ease of use should be big advantages with novices. And as I’ve noted in this space previously, the built-in ethernet should make the iMac a big hit in the schools.

On the other hand, there have been some stunning missing pieces.


The iMac has no floppy drive. Its new universal serial bus ports rendered obsolete the printers, scanners and other peripherals that current Mac users already own. And though it’s dubbed the “Internet Mac” by Apple, the machine was inexplicably equipped with a sluggish 33.6-kilobit-per-second modem. Meanwhile, the Mac platform lacked a huge proportion of the consumer software titles needed to compete with PCs.

What a difference two months make. Apple upgraded the iMac modem to 56kbps, and USB storage drives are on the way from Syquest, Iomega, Newer Technology and others. Hewlett-Packard and Epson will supply USB connectors for their most popular low-cost printers. A raft of other companies have already announced USB cameras, game controllers, scanners and DVD drives for the iMac.

Given how badly Microsoft and peripheral vendors screwed up USB support in Windows 95, we’ll have to see how well these devices operate on the iMac. Phil Schiller, Apple’s vice president for worldwide marketing, promised me that the Apple’s USB will be smooth and easy. I’m inclined to believe him--if Apple can do anything right, it’s plug-and-play.

Meanwhile, Apple appears to have made a real breakthrough in consumer software, especially games. Peter Tamte, executive director of MacSoft, the largest Mac game distributor, predicted that more than half the most important games will be introduced on the Mac between now and the holiday buying season. Those titles include “Unreal,” “Deer Hunter,” “Tomb Raider II” and “Starcraft.”


“Apple is reestablishing its relationships with key developers, much like it was in the mid-'80s,” said Richard Wolpert, president of Disney Online, after announcing a Mac version of Disney’s Blast Web site for kids.

I haven’t seen this much developer interest and confidence in the Mac in years. After compelling new computers, a small uptick in market share and three profitable quarters (interim Chief Executive Steve Jobs said Apple will announce favorable results on Wednesday), developers are finally coming back to the fold.

There’s only one problem with the iMac that Apple can’t seem to solve: price. How much of a premium will consumers pay?

At $1,299, the iMac is clearly superior to a $1,000 or even $1,200 PC with roughly comparable features. For schools--which need networked computers and can easily live without floppies--it’s a sure bet.


But for home users? Add $100 to $200 for the floppy or Zip drive that I’m convinced most will want for backup or to transfer files to another machine. Then add about $69 (the price HP will charge; other vendors have yet to announce pricing) for a special cable needed to connect printers or other peripherals.

Comparison shoppers, including most first-time buyers, see that many Windows PCs bundle Microsoft Office Small Business Edition. Whether or not they need Word and Excel, many consumers want the feeling of security derived from knowing they own the key business productivity programs. Microsoft just announced a special $100 iMac rebate for Office 98, but those consumers will still have to shell out $399. A few hundred here, a few hundred there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

The iMac is so much better than a run-of-the-mill economy PC that many people will buy it no matter what the cost. But is it the “opportunity for tremendous growth” that Jobs calls it? Apple’s continued recovery depends on the answer.



Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at