Mac vendors colour blindsided

The chameleon stylings of the iMac have makers of colourful accessories scrambling to catch up. Couldn't Apple make things easier?
Written by Matthew Rothenberg, Contributor

When Apple recast its Macs in colourful, translucent plastics, it ushered in a new industry for fruit-flavored accessories from third-party vendors. After Wednesday's keynote presentation at Macworld Expo here, those companies face a new challenge: adding the new colours of Apple's latest desktop offerings (Indigo, Ruby, Sage, Graphite and Snow) while meeting continued demand for last year's flavours.

While vendors of colourful Mac accessories said the new variations mean new sales opportunities, they agreed that the bewildering array of hues -- and Apple's reluctance to warn them of the changes in advance -- present new challenges for product lines already complicated by multiple models and variable demand.

Vendors told ZDNet that they'd had no advance information from Apple about the new colour scheme.

"It's hellacious, sure," said Scott Rawlings, director of marketing for Wacom Technology, which offers its consumer Graphire graphics tablet in the five iMac colours and added Graphite versions of its Graphire and Intuos tablets at this week's show. "It screws up the retail channel since Apple won't talk about their plans."

Rawlings said Apple won't provide hardware vendors with coloured plastic samples even after the launch of new products. "We have to do it ourselves: physically test colours by eye or with a densitometer."

"Apple could make it easier for the vendor, there's no question."

At the same time, Rawlings said Apple's colour craze has been a tremendous boon for Wacom's consumer tablets. "Graphire sales doubled after introducing iMac colours [in January]."

Meanwhile, he said, there will be continued demand for the current fruity tablets: "With consumer products, there are thousands upon thousands of units in the channel -- it doesn't just cut off overnight."

"To change colour isn't that big a deal -- it'll take two or three months. But it also takes a couple of months to figure what [colours are] popular." Rawlings said Wacom will decide on what colours to manufacture -- and in what quantities -- after observing market demand.

"I'm hoping Apple will disclose [future colour changes] under NDA," Rawlings said. "It makes it a lot easier for the vendors and more exciting for consumers [to have a full range of coloured peripherals when the new models are introduced]."

Smaller vendors of coloured accessories are planning their responses as well and taking different routes to catch up to the new CPU. Steve Allen, president of MacMate Products, said it will take a month or so to adapt his iCradle line of keyboard trays to the new colours and form factor of Apple's latest keyboard.

"We've got to retool, since Apple will not tell you what's going on," Allen said. However, he said he's not worried that his current stock of fruit-coloured iCradles will lie fallow: "There's been 4.5 million iMacs made. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to say there'll be demand."

Keeping up with the Mac's ever-changing colours "becomes an SKU nightmare for retailers," said Mike Sciortino, product and development manager with Music Industries. Music Industries produces the iStand line of CPU stands and MIDI keyboards in the five iMac colours as well as Bondi blue, Graphite and a neutral shade of plastic. "We're going to have to drop-ship to them, since they're not going to stock a dozen colours.

Sciortino said other changes to the plastics add other complexities: "The older models have a little matte finish. The new ones are completely smooth, which is a little harder to match."

On the bright side, he said, the new Indigo iMac hue is "very close" to the original Bondi colour, and the Snow shade of the high-end iMac DV Special Edition closely matches the trim of the older iMacs. Sciortino also said he hoped discounts on older iMac DVs will help sustain interest in his company's current offerings.

Tracey Beschell, a product marketing representative with Xircom, said her company is retooling its line of hubs and converters with switchable face plates to simplify retailer demands for varied Mac colours. "It'll mean a faster, simpler SKU," she said.

According to Beschell, Xircom will carry a full compliment of face plates in old and new Mac colours. Dean Edwards, Xircon business unit manager, port expansion, said the new face plates will be available within the next six months.

Like other hardware vendors on the Expo show floor, Edwards said Apple's lack of engagement has its pluses and minuses: while the company hasn't facilitated third parties' colour efforts, Apple doesn't attempt to interfere with those efforts, either.

"As far as we've seen, they don't dictate [specifications for third-party plastics]," Edwards said. "They're not concerned if it's not a perfect match."

Take me to the Macworld Expo News Roundup

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.

Editorial standards