Ihnatko: As I Was Saying . . .

Well, folks, it's been more than three years since I was rudely interrupted during my last opinion column in Macworld (incorporating MacUser ). And wouldn't you know it: I stopped writing that column just as Steve Jobs's second coming really got rolling. You may recall that moment: some very smart initial moves had finally resulted in a surge in Apple's artificially low stock price, and after a few months, it was clear that the Bad Times were finally over and that we had Steve to thank.

Steve's importance to Apple and the faith everyone had put in him were infinite. But arming Steve Jobs with a sense of absolute invincibility and loosing him inside a company is like putting a toddler in a white living room with an assortment of jams, jellies, and condiments: the results are simultaneously wonderful, dramatic, and rather terrifying.

Which is not to say that Jobs's sense of invincibility was invalid. During my years at MacUser, I wrote about the CEOs who filled the gap between Steve and iSteve. First came John Sculley, probably the best of the Sandwich CEOs. For one, the Newton was his baby, and I can't get over how he managed to produce such a quintessentially Apple product so soon after his first exposure to the nanospores in the Apple campus's ventilation system. Newton was immensely useful, the obvious Next Thing Coming, and a perfect fusion of advanced hardware and software with an understanding of how humans interact with them. Oh, and it cost way too much and was released years before consumers were ready for it. All in all, a perfect outing.

But Sculley was followed by Michael Spindler and Dr. Gil Amelio. Spindler was too much of a company man to successfully formulate and implement the larger vision that has always driven Apple. And Amelio-who I think replaced the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester on camera after Trace Beaulieu left the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 -was too much of a corporate man, period. After I read his memoir about his tenure at Apple, my respect for Amelio grew (as did my appreciation for the trouble he was in the moment he parked his Lexus in Spindler's old spot). But if Spindler failed to understand Apple as a car that required gas, oil, and regular replacement of the tree-shaped air freshener dangling off the radio knob, Amelio seemed to see it as a collection of commonly available, interchangeable parts. At times, one wondered if he thought of Apple in terms of its value as scrap metal.

If you're a regular watcher of MTV's The Real World, you're probably fascinated by the show for the same reason I am: week after week, I just cannot get over how a group of people with that much talent and potential can manage to waste so much time and opportunity. And that's one of the less positive traits of the Mac community, both institutionally and individually: we need a Steve Jobs to rally us occasionally and to dangle new carrots in front of us-to remind us that God has a wonderful plan for our future and that He wears jeans and a black mock-turtleneck (and sometimes parks in the handicapped spots on campus, according to rumor).

So what have I missed out on during my three years in the wilderness? Well, I didn't get to write about the excitement of the iMac and those megasuperhyperginchy designs that took the boring box of the G3 tower and turned it into a supercomputer that looked like a Hall's Mentho-Lyptus cough drop. I also missed the ongoing passion play of Mac OS X's alpha and beta cycles, several Macworld Expo keynotes in which iSteve drank bottled water and waved his hands a lot, the big splash that Apple made with digital video and iMovie, and Apple's increasing effort to make an impact with its software.

I lost out on iSteve's regular revelations of new iMacs that (according to the press releases) sported colors hitherto undreamed of by the puny mind of the Universe, colors forcibly inserted into the visible spectrum by Apple's sheer commitment to excellence. Would that the company only had put the same amount of effort into developing an iMac with more vroom under the hood. And I missed the introduction of the G4 Cube, a spectacular piece of design and engineering that, like the Newton, was too expensive and ultimately not what consumers wanted.

And it seems that I've missed iSteve's first big, giddy misstep. Just after I left, Apple shed its (entirely unwarranted) reputation as a Company On The Brink and brought out the iMac: eminently powerful, wholly affordable, and with a visual appeal like no other consumer product on the market.

As I resume this column, Apple has abandoned the more frighteningly unorthodox elements of Mac OS X in favor of a more traditional Mac experience. It's introduced a new PowerBook with style so advanced and appealing, it's the sort of thing a James Bond villain would ironically impale himself on in his lair at the end of the movie. And the PowerBook G4 has just about every feature people have been asking for, including less weight and more power at a relatively low price. And while the new desktop towers have the forward-looking and highly advanced ability to burn CDs and DVDs, consumers don't have to pay for that option if they don't want to . . . and everyone still gets a fourth PCI slot.

It appears that Apple has learned how to retain the excitement and vitality of its birthright and combine it with the dull but vital sense of duty that keeps a company healthy and profitable.

Damn. Well, at least I've got a three-year backlog of wiseass remarks to draw on until Apple starts screwing things up all over again.

ANDY IHNATKO ( www.andyi.com ) has written for the Chicago Sun-Times , Playboy, and many other publications since we published his last MacUser column in January 1998. To interact with Andy, visit Macworld.com and type Ihnatko Forum in the Search box.

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