Is 2006 the year of the Mac?

The proliferation of iPod accessory vendors in the exhibit hall of last week’s Macworld Expo led more than one Mac enthusiast to roll his eyes derisively and declare the show “iPodworld.” But there’s little question that Apple put the Mac front and center during last week’s event.

With 2005 continuing Apple’s iPod success story, it was good to see Apple start off 2006 with a strong message to Mac users: We haven’t forgotten about you, and here’s the proof .

By mid-week a few vendors had managed to get their hands on production iMac units—Steve Jobs wasn’t kidding when he said they were shipping. And from what I saw, the new systems looked impressive, not just for their performance but also for what wasn’t visible—really, any physical change at all from the previous generation.

Putting an Intel-based iMac and an iMac G5 side by side, you’d be very hard-pressed to tell the difference unless you went into the System Profiler or saw a Universal Binary-based application running.

Blizzard Entertainment was showing off a development build of World of Warcraft, its popular online role-playing game for Mac and PC, running on a 17-inch Core Duo iMac, and the results were impressive. Frame rates were considerably higher than an iMac G5, with averages running anywhere from mid-40s to mid-50s depending on the complexity of the scene, with almost all graphics options turned on.

This new build will be rolled into the next incremental update to the software, according to a Blizzard rep at the show. That’s exciting news for gamers—a limited segment of the buying public, I admit.

But games aren’t the only titles that are bound to see performance boosts by the architecture of the new Macs, which feature not only Intel Duo Core CPUs but also have much beefier graphics subsystems than before. OpenGL touches many professional applications on the Mac, from video editing to image editing and desktop publishing. Apple’s exposure of Core Video in Tiger makes it more important than ever to have systems with strong graphics support.

Wall Street certainly reacted positively to Apple’s introduction of Intel-based Macs. Previous jumps in Apple’s stock price have largely been pegged to new iPod introductions or favorable quarterly profit reports. But last week saw Apple’s stock price rally to an adjusted all time high of above $86 per share—ripe for yet another stock split, according to some financial analysts.

With such a significant difference between the new and old iMacs, I have to wonder — how far is the gulf going to be between Apple’s Power Mac G5 and whatever will replace them?

I have no idea, and only time will tell. But I can’t wait to find out.

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