January 9, 2002 4:20 PM PST

Add-on makers looking for piece of iPie

SAN FRANCISCO--Even though they've been burned in the past, accessory makers are already trying to think of ways to ride the coattails of the new iMac.

As in the past, makers of add-ons were sitting through Steve Jobs' Macworld Expo keynote, both marveling at Apple's latest creations and thinking of ways to cash in on the new machines.

However, such companies are also mindful of mimicking Apple's designs too closely, after having been burned in the past by the company's frequent color changes.

Although companies were somewhat reluctant to outline their future plans, some general themes emerged: White is clearly an "in" thing, as is making peripherals wireless to try and live up to the iMac's clutter-free design.

One maker that seems to have lucked out is Macally, which had just started equipping a manufacturing plant to churn out several models of a wireless keyboard, each model decked out in white and silver.

Macally President Mike Chen said the color scheme turned out to be a good choice, after Apple introduced the new, white flat-panel iMac on Monday.

"We (had already) decided to go with the same thing," he said. His only lament is that the company did not bring an engineering sample of the new keyboard to the show; the final product won't be ready for about three months.

Less fortunate was Kensington, a San Mateo, Calif.-based maker of mice, trackballs and other accessories. The company's upcoming Mac product, a new optical mouse with a tiny built-in trackpad, sports a silver and blue hue.

Kensington's software-development manager, Joe Kissell, said the company is no longer trying to match Apple's designs perfectly, but rather "evoke the general feel a little more vaguely."

"If we try to track Apple's styling too closely, we tend to get burned," Kissell said.

Kensington is happy about one feature the new iMac has that its predecessor lacked--a built-in connector to Kensington's MicroSaver line of locks.

The move to white is a return to the past for many peripherals makers, who dropped such basic shades as white and beige three years ago with the introduction of the original iMac.

Although trying to predict Apple's design trends is risky, peripherals makers keep doing it because there's a proven market for people looking to accessorize their Macs.

Some of the most well-attended booths Tuesday, aside from Apple's of course, were those of companies making accessories for the iPod digital music player.

Gary Bart, who has worked various jobs in the Mac industry over the course of 17 years, said he saw an opportunity after reading reports that Apple planned to produce more than half a million of the iPods and would leave the task of making accessories to third parties.

"That sounds like a business plan to me," said Bart, who along with a former co-worker at defunct storage-maker MicroNet Technology, launched start-up XtremeMac, which offers leather iPod carrying cases, among other things.

So far, the gamble has paid off, with Bart saying that he expected to sell out of all 1,000 carrying cases the company brought to the show. The cases cost anywhere from about $30 to $45, depending on the package.

Bart estimated that about one-third of his sales have been to Apple employees and he hopes the Mac maker will decide to carry his products in its retail stores or its online shop.

He also sees some opportunities with the new iMac, perhaps some sort of device that helps connect the iPod to the new machine.

Still unsure what their role will be are companies that make upgrade cards that boost the performance of a Mac. Irvine, Calif.-based Sonnet, for example, offers a card that boosts the performance of early versions of the original iMac and adds a FireWire port to the machines. However, Vice President Karl Seppala said the new iMac doesn't seem to provide opportunities for internal expansion. But he's not giving up hope.

"With any new Mac, we order one, we take it apart and we put it back together" and see where we can improve the experience, Seppala said.

 

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