July 9, 1997 10:00 PM PDT

Some hope in Apple products

Despite dire predictions following today's resignation of top Apple Computer executives Gilbert Amelio and Ellen Hancock, a few bright spots in its product lineup indicate that it is rising to the challenge in some critical areas.

Despite the pall cast over the company today by the resignation of Apple's Chairman and CEO Gil Amelio, the upside includes the resuscitation of its notebook computers, keeping its high-end desktop systems at the cutting edge of performance with fast processors, and managing its inventory and shipping processeses better.

In short, Apple seems to be still delivering what many users want despite the tumultuous management and strategic upheavals that have marked the company's recent past.

Fast processors are equated with fast systems, something that many consumers crave and essential for demonstrating to the buying public that a computer manufacturer is still in the running. Apple has done well here.

The company has been better than ever at getting fast systems into people's hands. Apple offers 180-, 200-, and 240-MHz notebooks, when Windows-Intel users can only get their hands on 166-MHz portables. Though there are other performance factors in a computer beside the the processor's raw speed, it's usually a good benchmark of how advanced a computer's core internal electronics are.

"The situation is far superior at this point. There were no PowerBooks available at times last year. The new models are more or less state-of-the-art and they are reasonably priced," says Pieter Hartsook, a longtime Mac industry analyst.

Though the process of beefing up its notebook line has been slow, the addition of the speedy PowerBook 3400 and the ultralight PowerBook 2400 have given its notebook line new depth and endowed the company with bragging rights for the fastest notebook computer.

Moreover, Apple is also shipping in volume 300-MHz 603e PowerPC processors in a desktop computer at a time when Intel is now only beginning to ship faster Pentium processors.

"[Apple is] getting a lot quicker at taking advantage of the latest technology...and there's more of that coming at Macworld Boston," says Eric Lewis, analyst with market research firm International Data Corporation.

Making a system with a fast processor is only one part of the game, though. Apple has in the past focused too much on trying to switch Windows users over to the Mac OS, but says it is now more focused on simply selling systems to the customers who want Mac OS systems, a point which observers acknowledge.

"They've recognized where their bread is buttered--that is, the content creation community and education community--so they are focusing marketing more on those areas," IDC's Lewis says.

There are indications that the content creators in fields like desktop publishing and Web site design are snapping up Apple's high-end systems such as the Power Macintosh 8600 and 7300. Both the 8600 and 7300 are high-end systems with a 200-MHz 604e PowerPC processor. The 9600s with single or dual 200- and 233-MHz 604e PowerPC processors are also popular systems with the power-hungry crowd.

"The top of the line is really selling well. Our sales have been strong. In May, we had one of our best months ever. This had a lot to do with pricing, with the quality of the products, and the bundles they were shipping were the right bundles in terms of disk space, memory configurations, processors...they were packed right," says Mike McNeill, president of Pacific Business Systems. His company runs a ClubMac, a large catalog sales operation based in Irvine, California.

One of the biggest differences McNeill says he's seen is an increase in product quality. While 1996 saw Apple struggle with quality control on both desktop and portable systems, those problems have been reigned in, according to McNeill.

Mac users as well as retailers like McNeill's ClubMac are now anticipating Apple's next big product release : Mac OS 8, which is slated to ship by month's end.

Apple will be delivering the upgrade with an updated user interface, improved performance, and new features that make organization of files easier. "It will help keep sales of Mac computers and Mac OS clones growing, and provide a modest revenue opportunity for Apple," IDC's Lewis thinks.

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