Minority Report: The Apple gear I want for Christmas is...

Summary:iPod, iMac, Apple II, Mac 128K, OS X or Intel iBook?

iPod, iMac, Apple II, Mac 128K, OS X or Intel iBook?

If this Christmas you could choose to receive one Apple product from throughout the company's illustrious history, which would it be? Seb Janacek rounds up the nominees - then leaves it to you to vote.

With Christmas fast approaching it's a certainty that by January 2006 the coffers of Apple will have swelled with the sales of millions of Macs and especially iPods.

The must-have gift of 2004 looks like set to become the must-have gift of 2005, with the iPod nano and video-enabled iPod both promising to break sales records for the Cupertino-based company.

In the spirit of Christmas, this month the Minority Report considers the impact of what are arguably the six most-influential products in Apple's history and asks the question: which would you have been most overjoyed to find wrapped in garish paper under the tree? (Read about the candidates below then cast your vote in our poll.)

Apple II

The computer that put Apple on the map. The Apple II was designed by departed Apple founder and electronics wizard Steve Wozniak and launched in 1977.

The impact of the Apple II was enormous both for businesses and the home user. Businesses were attracted by the range of applications that quickly became available for the computer, in particular the ground-breaking VisiCalc spreadsheet program, which became one of the first true 'killer apps'.

Meanwhile, the price of the Apple II (starting from $1,298) brought it comfortably within the budgets of the average household.

Wozniak also built the computer with an open architecture with eight slots for peripherals and expandable memory and made it capable of displaying colour graphics. The generous number of slots allowed users to boost the capabilities of the machine as a broad range of third-party products became available.

The success of the Apple II inspired a number of other companies, notably IBM, to make sustained forays into the personal computing industry.

Meanwhile, the Apple II turned Jobs and Wozniak into multi-millionaires when the company went public in 1980.

It was undoubtedly a milestone in the design of personal computing and one which laid the foundations for the growth of what is now a £50bn company.

Macintosh 128K

The first 'insanely great' Macintosh was unveiled to the world in January 1984 after the self-styled pirates of Cupertino laboured 90-hour weeks to meet both the product's tight deadlines and the stratospheric expectations of the computer's champion Steve Jobs.

Originally conceived as a low-cost, easy-to-use computer by former Apple employee Jef Raskin, the Macintosh was hijacked by Jobs after he was thrown off another project.

Heralded by the famous advert which aired during the 1984 SuperBowl, the computer that finally made it off the production line bore little resemblance to the machine originally envisaged by Raskin. However, it maintained the ethos of an elegant, easy-to-use computer for the rest of us, and its interface was much copied by a certain competitor.

Housed in a vertical plastic case and featuring a revolutionary pointing device called a 'mouse', the Macintosh also featured a graphical user interface, with files, folders and drives represented by pictures rather than a command line, ushering in a revolution in personal computing that remains the paradigm today.

With the launch of the Macintosh, Apple cemented its identity as a leading innovator in the technology landscape and put a dent in the computing universe.

iMac

The iMac was the computer that turned around the fortunes of Apple at one of its lowest ebbs, after it had jettisoned its chief executive - its third in just three years.

Back at the helm of the company he founded (albeit on an 'interim' basis), Steve Jobs appointed a design team led by Jonathan Ive to deliver a computer that he hoped would have as much of an impact as the original Macintosh.

The iMac featured a translucent, plastic enclosure (eventually available in a range of colours) and no floppy drive. It was designed with easy access to the internet in mind, hence the 'i' prefix.

The philosophy behind the iMac, and indeed every Mac since, was that computers should marry usability with innovative industrial design. Computers shouldn't have to look like computers, Apple decided.

The iMac's iconic casing helped the company shift more than six million units between 1998 and 2003, when the original design was finally discontinued.

The leftfield design approach was carried forward, though with less success, with the second iteration of the iMac which was inspired by a sunflower, and the third, which did away with the box altogether and hid the computer behind a flat-panel display.

Today's iMac is powered by a powerful G5 chip and features the home entertainment software Front Row, Apple's first stab at turning the Mac into a true digital hub for the living room.

Mac OS X

Ten years after the launch of the Mac and the first commercially successful GUI, Apple committed to a radical overhaul of its crown jewels - the Mac's operating system.

A few years later and beset by problems, the ill-fated Copland project was cancelled and Apple looked to acquire an OS company to start afresh.

After considering deals with Be and Sun, the company announced it would purchase NeXT Computer and its assets and bring Steve Jobs, NeXT's CEO back to the company he founded.

In 2001, seven years after Copland was announced, the next-generation operating system the Mac needed so badly finally arrived - OS X.

Based on a version of BSD Unix and featuring an interface that featured transparent windows and animated folder actions, the OS was secure, reliable, easy-to-use and made Windows look dated.

Despite being a little rough around the edges and with limited support from third-party applications, the first iteration of the cat-themed operating system won the company a new generation of plaudits and laid the first steps into its evolution of one of the most respected operating systems in modern computing.

Microsoft has taken five years to catch up. The OS X-like Windows Vista is lurching towards a launch date sometime in late 2006. With the move to Intel-powered Macs imminent, those who thought the OS wars were over may be about to proved wrong.

iPod

If the iMac turned the ailing Apple's fortunes around, the iPod turned the company on its head.

Originally launched in 2001, the first generation iPod was available in one 5GB version and seemed over-priced at £349, particularly when compared to other MP3 players on the market at the time.

What set it apart from competitors was its sleek Jonathan Ive-inspired case design and, above all, its superior ease of use. The iPod featured a wheel which allowed users to scroll through thousands of songs quickly to find the desired track.

Four years later the iPod is all dominant and represents the cash cow behind the company's successful and high-profile evolution as a media company.

The ubiquitous white ear-buds are visible on the high-street, the Tube and allegedly on members of the British monarchy.

The company later let PC users join the party when it released a Windows-compatible version of the little white music player and the iTunes software that accompanied it.

The device is the natural successor to the Sony Walkman and has proved so successful for Apple that analysts and journalists now wax lyrical about the iPod 'halo effect' - whereby users of alternative computing platforms switch to the Mac based on positive experiences using the MP3 player.

According to recent estimates from financial analysts Needham & Co, more than one million people switched to the Mac during the last year. Suddenly the tiny margins on music sales through the iTunes store seem less important.

Intel iBook

Rumoured to be making an appearance at the Macworld event in January 2006, an Intel-powered consumer laptop would represent the first fruits of Apple's nascent relationship with the chip giant and arguably represents one of the biggest risks in the company's history.

Having reached a point of stability with its product lines and a mature OS X, the company surprised many when it pulled the plug on its troubled relationship with chip-partner IBM in June 2005.

While the company's flagship professional laptop range the Powerbook is most in need of a makeover, it's the consumer-oriented iBook that is more likely to be the first recipient of an Intel chip.

By updating its consumer-focused products before its professional range, Apple would give third-party developer partners such as Adobe and Quark the time they need to recompile their applications in preparation for when the Intel chip appears in Apple's high-end workhorse computers.

The first Mactels will represent a new stage in the history of the company, and many who may have held off purchasing a Mac because of the disparity in chip speed between the PowerPC and Intel/AMD chips may take the opportunity to make the switch.

The rumour that Apple will aggressively price the first Mactels in order to stimulate sales suggests that Apple is banking on the same thing.

*****

Those are the nominees. If you can think of more influential or better festive gift from the company, let us know by adding a reader comment below.

Otherwise, take a moment to vote in our poll and choose the Apple product that would make the best alternative to socks this or any other Christmas.

Topics: Hardware

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