Apple's Tokyo announcements more than skin-deep

Forget the new iMac colors; Apple also made some important moves in Tokyo.

In the words of noted marine philosopher Popeye: That's all I can stand; I can't stand no more. Enough about the iMac's new color schemes, already!

In the hours since Apple Computer Inc. CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the company's latest round of consumer desktops at Macworld Expo/Tokyo, popular imagination (and Web-powered debate) has focused on what is indisputably their most trivial aspect: a pair of op-art chassis patterns (dubbed Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian) that some spectators insist are phat and others dismiss as wack.

Don't get me wrong: I firmly believe that Apple's eye for striking industrial design--including new color schemes--has been an important innovation. Melding PC technology and fashion concerns helped drive the Mac maker back into the limelight, and I'm one of the many, many users who've (literally) bought into the argument that hardware's look and feel is an important part of its appeal.

However, this fixation on a couple of new additions to the iMac's substantial list of color options has managed to obscure far more interesting aspects of Jobs' latest announcements, even though these under-the-hood enhancements will have a much more substantial effect on the health of the platform.

Hail, Nvidia!
First and foremost was the announcement that graphics-chip heavyweight Nvidia will bring out its long-awaited GeForce 3 first on the Mac. (The powerful 3D chip will be a $600 build-to-order option for the Power Mac G4 starting in March.)

I make no secret of my lack of PC gaming savvy, but I'm well-aware of the importance of game performance (or lack thereof) to the health of the platform. As Id founder and keynote guest star John Carmack indicated while demonstrating a new gaming engine running atop the GeForce 3 and Mac OS X, this new firmware neatly leapfrogs the current capabilities on top-of-the-line Windows Boxen.

Even as they focus their opprobrium on the new iMacs' psychedelic stylings, the Mac-phobic are grudgingly aware that the GeForce 3 announcement is a much bigger deal. I was amused to read this TalkBack comment from a Windows loyalist: "Now the GeForce 3 is another matter entirely. If this is really the mythical NV20 project that we have been hearing about for so long, then I am gravely disappointed in Nvidia.

"Releasing this card to the Mac crowd first is the worst kind of betrayal. The PC gaming crowd has been putting food on the table of Nvidia execs and engineers for years now. To spurn them in favor of a company whose market share hovers around 5 percent of computers is just silly. Shame on you Nvidia for forgetting who put you on top."

While I don't share this reader's somewhat Old Testament view of corporate morality, I concur with his tacit recognition that the Nvidia announcement (along with such niceties as a faster bus architecture and adoption of the AGP standard) could mark a very significant inroad for the Mac in a landscape that has been dominated by Windows.

DVD MIA
Other Tokyo announcements are more puzzling to me--and certainly more intriguing than a few square feet of floral plastic.

For starters, there's the iMac's embrace of CD-RW technology, a move that Jobs has telegraphed for months after acknowledging that Apple was late in catching this boat. Paired with the company's new iTunes MP3 software, the consumer CD-RW move is a smart one.

However, in making CD-RW standard equipment in the top two tiers of its iMac lineup (the entry-level 400MHz model still sports a venerable CD-ROM), Apple has apparently done away a DVD-equipped option. This is an odd move, considering the company's enthusiasm for consumer moviemaking and playing (embodied in the aggressive marketing of its consumer-level iMovie and iDVD software).

The announcement confounded rumors that this generation of iMac might include the Pioneer-manufactured SuperDrive which can read and write DVDs as well as CDs; given the momentum Apple has already put behind DVD, I suspect that this device will make its way into a summer iMac release that sources say is code-named Kiva.

Meanwhile, I'm bewildered about Apple's intentions for that 400MHz iMac. For starters, there's the decision to include only 64MB of RAM standard, although the forthcoming Mac OS X is rated at 128MB.

What's up with that? Apple's excuse: Besides handling Mac OS 9.1 with aplomb, the system will handle the new OS comfortably with 64MB--unless you want to run current Mac apps in the Classic environment.

And therein lies the rub, since not even Jobs himself claims that Mac OS X-native applications will be availability in any significant numbers until the summer. Sources report that Apple marketing wisdom holds that few users continue to upgrade Macs more than 18 months old, but this new system seems like an example of planned obsolescence.

Furthermore, the $899 price tag--$100 more than the entry-level price on the systems introduced at July's Macworld Expo/New York--hardly seems calculated to excite budget-conscious consumers.

Those are among my favorite Mac-related water-cooler topics today. I look forward to reading yours in our TalkBack forum. (Caveat scriptor: Excess use of the terms "Flower Power" or "Blue Dalmation" may result in harsh editorial penalties--it's been a long day!)