Great NeXTpectations

Just for the record, neither I nor any member of Macworld 's staff have been briefed on the announcements that Apple CEO Steve Jobs plans to make at his Expo keynote tomorrow morning. But, let's face it, speculation is rampant. If the core of this speculation is true, then there will be a lot of comments post-keynote that go something like this: "This Macworld Expo marks the completion of the NeXT reverse-acquisition of Apple."

Assimilation Complete ?

NeXT Cube

I wouldn't be the first columnist to note the number of similarities between today's Apple and Steve Jobs' last foray in the computer-making business, NeXT Inc. Beside the obvious (a common CEO and founder), many of Apple's key senior roles are also held by former NeXT executives, especially in engineering. Perhaps as a direct result of this shared leadership, Apple's Mac OS X is based largely on the NeXT OS. Even the interface of OS X shares several elements in common with its precursor, such as the file browser and dock.

Now, with the Mac cube rumored to be on the slate for tomorrow's speech, it seems we have the final missing piece of the NeXT strategy dropping into place at Apple -- the box-shaped computer. And sure as simple sells, some reporter will draw the comparison. Unfortunately, as is often the case, simple stories may sell best, but they are seldom accurate.

The iMac Factor

In the days of the NeXT cube, computers were big, slow and not particularly ready to drop into people's living rooms. There was no Internet to speak of, nor was there really a "consumer" market as we know it today. The NeXT product was clearly designed for professionals -- an expensive, highly-networked machine that did little to hide the fact that it was based on UNIX. It was robust for its day, but it was a vanity product like a Jaguar: high-style and high-maintenance.

It's clear that Jobs' Apple is a very different company. The iMac has revolutionized the marketplace with high-style, low-maintenance computing for a reasonable price. And, unlike the NeXT cube, the iMac is inclusive. While it may not make expansion easy, it includes almost all key enabling technologies available on the platform: Airport, FireWire, USB and DVD. So, while it might not be the fastest Mac for the job, it can still the job done.

However, it does leave open a large gap in Apple's desktop product line, similar to the gap between iMovie to Final Cut Pro. With iMovie, you've got this low-end editing tool that's a great intro to making digital movies -- but users hit its limits almost immediately. Final Cut Pro is incredibly powerful, but too expensive and way too difficult to use for the majority of users who aren't sitting in an edit bay. In other words, the vast majority of Mac users, those who are proficient users but not necessarily experts don't have a tool geared to their needs.

If I were a betting man, I'd lay odds that this is where Apple will place the Mac cube: between the entry-level iMac and the professional-level Power Mac G4. A no-compromise computer with the power of a G4, the ease-of-use of an iMac, and a price tag somewhere in between.

Less is More

If this is, in fact, the direction Apple is going, then I for one applaud it. It's about time someone out there figured out there's a huge audience of Mac users who have either had to make do with an iMac or knuckled down and bought a G4 tower with way more technology on it than they need. I believe that vast majority of the Macintosh audience is comprised of people who are experts at using a Mac in their job or hobby, but are not experts at using a computer. Case in point: I have a friend who's a web designer for a major software company (not to mention a brilliant mixed-media artist). She can make HTML jump through flaming hoops, but ask her to set up an AirPort network or edit a DV stream in QuickTime Pro and she balks.

Now, my friend is certainly no newbie, and she needs the power of the G4 to get her job done. But, frankly, she doesn't need the slots, much less the extra bulk, of a tower sitting in a home office already crammed with her art. And, well, if it were easier to set up and use and maybe a bit cheaper, that would be okay too. Right now, her only choice is a G4. After tomorrow, maybe she'll have another option that will better fit her needs.

Speculation is fun, and we have but a few hours left to find out if the rumors are even remotely true. I can say this: I hope they are, because I'll be the first one in line to buy one of these new cube-shaped Macs.

Andrew Gore is the editor-in-chief of Macworld.

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