About a year ago, no one seriously thought Apple had an independent future. It was on the verge of going belly up - in the middle of takeover talks and unable to find a permanent CEO. But how things have changed in just one year - during the past two quarters, Apple has made a modest profit, operational costs are down, the G3 products are selling like hot cakes and once again, interim CEO Steve Jobs has managed to produce a brilliant marketing trick on the introduction of the iMac. 'Hello, again' - is Apple really back? And can resellers, distributors and independent software vendors (ISVs) be confident about the vendor again?
Apple has achieved great things over the past 12 months. Or so its well-oiled marketing machine claims. A lot has been put right, though - Newton has been cut, Apple has boarded the internet train, additional products such as the G3 have been introduced to the market, Claris has finally concentrated its efforts on Filemaker, the product that for years made up 99 per cent of its turnover, and QuickTime has been downloaded from the internet a million times already (two-thirds were PC users). Then there's the partnership with Microsoft, the alliance with Hewlett Packard, among others, and the announcement that updated versions of the Mac OS will not be breaks with the past (the APIs will stay the same for all new versions).
In the latest release of the Mac operating system, Mac OS 8.5, a better integration with the internet will be ensured. If that is done on the basis of MS Explorer (which appears very probable in view of the software giant's investment in Apple), the vendor will also, like Microsoft, have incorporated the internet functionalities into its operating system. It'll be interesting to see what the US Justice Department has to say about that.
So everything seems fine in the Apple camp. Well, not quite.
We don't know what the iMac will bring for the future. One of Jobs' old traits became apparent here. No disk drive in the consumer product, only a CD. How ordinary consumers are supposed to make backups remains a mystery.
How to pass on documents to people you know is also unclear. Apple should know that we stern European consumers do not have CD-writeables at home yet, although they might have an internet connection and, with some luck, an email address. To play games (consumers' favourite pastime, according to most studies) you need PC emulation.
So why on earth should people buy Macs? The fact of the matter is that hardly any games developers want to produce Mac games. The customer base is too small. In fact, malicious tongues have alleged that this is the reason why the USB and AGP standards were embraced. Manufacturers didn't want to add another separate Mac platform. And the price of the iMac isn't exactly an example of compatibility either. In August, consumer PCs will be priced well below $1,000 (some are already talking about $800 and less).
Currently, the iMac is priced at more than $1,200. A dangerous price-fixing. Moreover, lower prices mean eating away directly at the small profit. Not a good idea. Betting a company on the iMac appears to be like putting a company on yet another collision course.
Something else we don't yet know: will the G3 series attract additional customers? The majority of sales of the current G3 are to existing clients who, finally, are able to buy a more powerful system. What will happen to the G3 once everyone has bought a new one also remains a mystery. While the industry is concentrating on systems, Apple is playing in on the speed aspect of computers, against Intel of all companies. However, Apple is unable to explain the need for all this extra speed. Unfortunately. Maybe there are no advantages, maybe the trust of new clients cannot be won.
Apple's channel strategy also requires a big question mark. In the UK, Apple wants to cut its distributor base. In other countries there is talk of pruning partners that don't want to put a solid focus on only Apple products. This, combined with the direct sales Website in every European country, does not appear to be a good idea. Logistically, it could mean absolute chaos. Already, distributors have to deal with the problems of Apple's logistics capabilities, or rather the lack of them. Direct sales and deliveries or deliveries through a dealer could result in a great fiasco. In the US, users who purchase a server via the Website can combine about 500 different configurations. A genuine nightmare for distributors.
And can Apple finally work out the never-ending story of wrong production forecasts? Will resellers and distributors have enough products on hand to sell ? In the past, Apple has managed to get the wrong type of Mac configurations en masse to the channel. The hot-selling products were under continuous constraint. Is that solved permanently?
Our advice? We believe it is far too early to proclaim Apple's resurrection.
Being an Apple reseller remains a risky business. Direct sales via a Website do not inspire much confidence in resellers. 'Hello, again' just won't do. Only figures will be able to convince us - if the market share remains constant, if Mac manages to convince new users, if the unit shipments continue to rise while the average selling price stops its decline, if the profit continues to rise, if existing ISVs continue to develop software for the Mac, if new ISVs are found. Then it will be given the green light.
In one year I will make another assessment. If I am wide of the mark (iMac, channel strategy and new clients), I will personally apologise to Jobs.
At least, that is, if he is still the 'permanent CEO'.
Jan Pote is editor of PC Dealer, Belgium.
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