The Rumor Mill

The Flat Mac

- 2001.02.28

No rumors this time, neither true nor imaginary. The powers that be at Low End Mac are letting me write an editorial.

This coming May, it will be three years since Steve Jobs showed the world the Bondi Blue Wonder - the original iMac. It was perhaps the most revolutionary new computer since the original 1984 Macintosh. In a world of beige boxes with separate monitors, the first Mac and the iMac had the audacity to be different, to include a crisp monitor as part of the computer itself.

Now this wasn't really a radically new concept. The Commodore PET of 1976 did it, but earlier all-in-one designs usually included the keyboard as well. Apple certainly perfected the concept.

Ever since the iMac was unveiled, there have been rumors of a 17" iMac. Some have claimed there are 17" iMac prototypes at 1 Infinite Loop - something I have no doubt is true. And I'm equally confident the size and weight make it less iMac-like than Steve Jobs, Apple's marketing department, and the buying public would find acceptable.

Seriously, if Apple thought there really was a market for a 17" iMac, you can believe they would have introduced it sometime in the past few years. Their failure to do so tells us we shouldn't ever expect it.

If that's the case, and it certainly does make a lot of sense, where can the iMac go from here?

Apple has made it a bit smaller, a bit lighter, and a bit less expensive. This year we finally have iMacs with recordable drives inside. And the new monitors are even better than the old ones, supporting 1024 x 768 reasonably well.

The iMac has grown faster: by steps it has gone from 233 MHz to 266, then 333, then 400, then 500, and now 600 MHz. The new models are so much faster than the originals, Apple may find a market selling faster iMacs to those with the earlier revisions.

The trend to greater speed, despite the incompetence of Motorola on the G4, is a given. The PowerPC 750Cx at the heart of the fastest iMac is designed for speeds up to 700 MHz, so we can expect another iMac speed improvement sometime after the G4 breaks 800 MHz.

But faster processors, bigger hard drives, and more memory are more of the same. After almost three years, the same can be said of the iMac, even if you can get it in flower power and dalmatian blue these days. The iMac design has become pedestrian; it's time to replace it.

Apple pointed the way in May 1997 when they celebrated the 21st anniversary of their incorporation (on April 1, 1976)Twentieth Anniverary Mac by introducing the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (TAM). It was an expensive ($7,500!) tour de force of technology and design. Even today it doesn't look the least bit dated.

Picture Apple's 15" flat panel display instead of the TAM's 12.1" 800 x 600 screen. Put the speakers below the display, as the iMac does. Put the Cube's slot-loading vertical drive behind the screen. In fact, put all the computer's insides behind the screen.

Add a keyboard, mouse, and optional subwoofer, and you've just replaced the iMac with something under 4" deep. That's what I envision eventually replacing the iMac.

For the short term, the iMac will have a real price advantage. Flat panel displays aren't cheap, but they are coming down in price. Best of all, every part of the next generation consumer Mac comes from today's models; other than the case, there would be no unique parts.

The flat Mac would cost less to ship, since it would be far lighter than the iMac. It would be easier for stores to stock, since the box would be much smaller than the iMac's.

But most of all, it would be different. Give it a year or two of overlap with the iMac line, then drop the iMac completely.

When it comes right down to it, this could kill the markets for the Cube and the 15" flat panel display. Apple could wind up with two desktop models again, which would certainly simplify things.

Will it happen? Undoubtedly. When? My guess, and it's nothing more than that, is anywhere between April 1, 2001 (Apple's 25th anniversary) and May 25, 2001 (the last day of the Worldwide Developers Conference).

The flat Mac won't be positioned as an iMac replacement or a Cube replacement, but that's what it will become over time. It will also be the compact hub of our digital lifestyle, a computer at home in the dorm room, family room, and even the office.

- Anne Onymus

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