May 16, 2001 12:55 PM PDT

Moseying up to Apple's Genius Bar

MCLEAN, Va.--Watch out Starbucks, here comes Apple Computer.

The coffee purveyor helped launch the coffee bar craze in the 1990s; Apple is kicking off a different trend for the new millennium: the Genius Bar.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company flew CEO Steve Jobs and other executives to this Washington, D.C., suburb this week to show off one of two Apple Stores opening Saturday. Altogether, 25 stores are expected to open by year's end.

Tucked away in the back of the store, which is accented by Gap-like wood floors, high ceilings and white walls, is the Genius Bar.

This is where perplexed Mac owners can pull up a stool, lean on the bar, and spill their woes to the nodding guru, or "genius." With a smile, the genius--Apple says--will sort through technical problems and find an answer. And for truly baffling troubles, a red "hot line" phone--a concept borrowed from an old Batman episode--connects the genius to presumably higher-level geniuses at Apple's headquarters.

One person looking on at the watering hole, while a reporter tested the genius' prowess, chuckled and turned his head, perplexed.

"If Macs are so easy to use, why do they need a genius to solve problems?" he muttered to no one in particular.

Still, the concept made sense as part of Apple's efforts to reach out to Mac owners and extend that community to the "PC heathens."

Another concept Apple is testing is a theater in the back of the store, where the company plans to demonstrate products on a 10-foot screen and draw people into the store with visuals from Apple's iTunes digital music software or the latest iBook ad.

Apple can use the theater in other ways, Jobs told the assembled media. Picking up on a suggestion from the audience, Jobs explained how the theater could be used as part of a movie-making contest for children. Those under 10 years old, for example, could be encouraged to make young Steven Spielberg flicks with Apple's iMovie 2 video-editing software, which could be played in the theater during a school event.

This fits nicely with Apple's education community-outreach plans for the store. To facilitate that, each store is expected to employ at least one teacher.

Ron Johnson, head of Apple's retail operation, said the company would put the stores in hip areas, or what he termed "lifestyle centers." He described the latter as including chic bookstores or coffee shops. But it's too late to cut a deal with Starbucks. The coffee company earlier this month signed a multibillion-dollar technology deal with Compaq Computer, so Macs won't show up at the coffee shops anytime soon.

Apple staffed the store with friendly salespeople, none of whom would let reporters buy any of the slick Macintoshes on display. "You'll have to wait until Saturday," they kept saying. Apple expects to staff stores with six salespeople on most days and a dozen or more on weekends.

Along with the collection of gadgets, Apple assembled a group of exceptionally well-behaved children quietly playing games on iMacs.

"Nobody's kids are this well-behaved," said one reporter.

"Where the hell did they get these kids?" said another. "Mine could never sit still like that."

Despite the well-scripted press conference, Apple did make some gaffes. For example, the company sells the QPS Que Fire CD-rewritable drive in the back of the store. Although most Macs now ship with CD burners, the Que Fire is twice as fast: 16X recording vs. Apple's 8X. In addition, Apple's iTunes software does not support the drive.

Did the guru at the Genius Bar know about that one?

 

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