Gilding the iMac Lily

1999: I’ll admit it: I read PC Magazine.

No, I’m not planning on selling out to the dark side. I have DOS roots, but I don’t even want to know how to use Windows. I read PC Magazine to learn about the hot new technologies and get the perspective from the other side of the fence.

In the current issue, Jim Seymour writes, “When you’re in the market for a bare-bones machine, it’s a mistake to gild the lily.”


There are a lot of rumors circulating about the next iMac (a.k.a. Kihei, C2, iMac 2).

  • it will have a 66 MHz bus – or a 100 MHz bus
  • it will have room for AirPort – or it won’t
  • it will have a 400 MHz G3 – or a 350 MHz G4 (my suggestion)
  • it will have DVD – or just a faster CD-ROM
  • it will have FireWire – or just USB
  • it will have 2x AGP video – or just plain old ATI RAGE Pro
  • it will have 3dfx graphics – or just plain old ATI RAGE Pro
  • it will have a G.Lite DSL/56k modem – or just a 56k modem
  • it will have a 17″ screen – or an LCD
  • it will come in several different configurations, not just one

You can visit all the rumor sites, the iMac sites, and most of the regular Mac sites to see some speculation on just what the next iMac will have.

Don’t Gild the Lily

But Seymour’s comment on gilding the low-cost lily strikes home. The iMac is a simple, yet sophisticated, personal computer. It’s friendly. It’s powerful enough. And, more than all that, it’s easy to buy.

Having several versions of iMac available will just confuse the issue. Worse, CompUSA, Sears, and the others will have to decide which versions to stock. Nobody will want to be stuck with the wrong inventory mix, so they’ll order conservatively.

No, if Apple wants to offer multiple versions of the iMac, they should do it as build-to-order options through the Apple Store, not as multiple inventory units in the retail channel.

Shoot, it’s hard enough figuring out what colors people will want, let alone whether a 350 MHz G4 model with DVD will be more popular than a less costly 400 MHz G3 model with CD-ROM.

Much as I’d love to see an iMac with a 400 MHz G4, 64 MB of memory, an 8 GB hard drive, a DVD player, a DSL modem, a 17″ screen, FireWire, and a 100 MHz system bus, that’s Dan the techie.

I’m not Apple’s target iMac buyer.

The iMac exists to provide the Macintosh experience at a reasonable price with decent performance. It needs to be moderately competitive with cheap Wintel hardware in the buzzword department, but it really sells itself differently from those computers.

It’s not just a matter of the Mac OS, the cute integrated design, or the color choice – it’s the philosophy behind it. The iMac is an information appliance. You buy it, plug it in, and use it.

Sure, you can upgrade RAM, add all sorts of peripherals, and even replace the internal hard drive (a favorite of techies), but it sells because it’s simple.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Apple needs to offer enough features that the iMac doesn’t seem outclassed by the Wintel boxes. Does that mean a 100 MHz bus and a G4 processor? Nice idea, but that’s gilding the lily. A 333 MHz G3 is a perfectly adequate CPU running very comfortably on a 66 MHz bus. Apple doesn’t need to change it.

DVD would be very nice, but at this point, no software is shipping on DVD, so it would only be used to watch movies. On top of that, Apple would have to add a video decoder to the iMac’s design, further increasing the cost. At this time there’s no compelling reason for Apple to offer DVD in the iMac.

So what does Apple need to offer in the next iMac to remain competitive with the Wintel world?

It’s a very short list – and my opinion may not match Apple’s:

  1. A larger display. Sorry, but 15″ just doesn’t cut it today. Something an inch or two bigger would be perfect, increasing the size just a bit over the current iMac. After all, 17″ is the hot monitor size in the Windows world. If Apple doesn’t play catch-up here, iMac sales could suffer.
  2. A faster processor. The Wintel world now has 400 MHz and faster Celeron chips. The Pentium III breaks 600 MHz. It’s a matter of hype more than performance, but the perception today is that 400 MHz is entry level. (That said, a 350 MHz G4 could play the MFLOPS card.)
  3. A faster CD-ROM. Only the cheap, cheap Wintel boxes use 24x drives these days. Going to 32x might cost Apple a few dollars more, but would make the iMac appear more competitive with other computers available at CompUSA in the same price range. Talk of a Kenwood TrueX CD-ROM drive* is nice, as is DVD, but unless the cost is marginally more than for a 32x variable-speed CD-ROM, it adds too much cost today.
  4. Faster video. Specifically, the same 2x AGP offered in the iBook and Power Mac G4. Apple has been making a comeback in gaming; this will solidify that.

Like I said, it’s a very short list. FireWire would be nice as a way to add an external DVD drive, backup device, or portable hard drive, but it’s not essential today. On the other hand, FireWire on the iMac 2 could help grow the FireWire market before USB 2 gets going. I’d put even odds on Apple having a FireWire port on the iMac simply to help establish FireWire as a popular standard, not just something for high-end G4 users.

Compaq and some others are including G.Lite modems in their computers, which support both the 56k v.90 protocol we’re used to and a 1.5 Mbps version of DSL that could become quite popular over the next year. I don’t think we’ll see it in the next iMac, but probably in the one after it.

AirPort? It’s certainly not necessary, but it’s definitely cool. Instant wireless networking between iMac and iBook or two iMacs within 150′ of each other. Three-to-one odds Apple will have room for the AirPort card in the new iMac.

With the LCD shortage and current LCD pricing, there’s no way the iMac would remain an affordable computer with a flat panel display. Maybe next year, but not in 1999.

As for multiple configurations, that would be an inventory nightmare and do more harm than good to the remaining Apple retailers.

The iMac has the elegance of a lily. Apple has to keep the lily healthy, but gilding the lily changes its nature and increases its price.

The next iMac will be a simple evolution of the current model – another computer for PC Magazine to misunderstand and for buyers to embrace.

Update: The October 1999 update to the iMac moved to a 100 MHz system with CPU speeds of 350 and 400 MHz. The entry-level model had a 24x CD-ROM, while the 400 MHz models had DVD-ROM and FireWire. Still a 15″ display.

* Kenwood TrueX CD-ROM drives were the fastest on the market, starting at 40x and eventually available in a 72x version.

keywords: #imac #kiheiimac