BOSTON — Amid all the hubbub over Microsoft's legal woes, you might have missed this positive note: The Mac is back.
That's right. The Macintosh computer and its creator, Apple Computer, are on the mend after years of declining market share and leadership uncertainty. In fact, Apple is innovating dramatically at a time when mighty Microsoft seems, well, almost asleep.
Consider: Microsoft spends three years and millions of dollars to upgrade its operating system (the basic software that runs the computer). This week it releases the result, Windows 98, a solid, sometimes slick piece of software. But hardly earth-shattering.
Imagine that! The world's most powerful software company, with piles of cash and virtually no competition, takes years to deliver a product its own executives call a "tune-up."
Meanwhile, Apple Computer endures a decade of management missteps, market-share decline, and vigorous competition from a bevy of rival IBM-compatible computers. Yet, somehow, it climbs out of its foxhole. Earlier this month, it showed off one of the decade's boldest innovations in desktop computers.
The lesson is clear. Companies with little or no competition, such as Microsoft, tend to deliver solid but stodgy products. Companies in a free-for-all, such as Apple, innovate because their survival depends on it.
Apple's latest desktop offering, called the iMac, represents a bold gamble. Due out in August, the $1,299 machine aims to put some fun back into Internet surfing and other computing chores.
Part teal-colored, part translucent, the iMac packs the computer and the monitor in a single box. It sports a round mouse that, like the machine, lets you see inside. Despite its low price (which includes the monitor, by the way), the iMac uses Apple's latest chips, which run graphics software much faster than even the newest and most expensive IBM-compatible machines.
No one knows how consumers will react. The iMac does have its quirks. It boasts a cutting-edge technology for hooking up peripherals such as scanners and printers - so cutting- edge few devices can yet hook up to it (certainly not the current peripherals made for Macintosh). It also carries an older modem and, the biggest surprise, no drive for floppy disks.
Nevertheless, the machine represents dramatic innovation from a company that's making a comeback. Under interim chief executive and the company's original founder Steve Jobs, Apple has returned to profitability, launched a powerful line of computers called the G3, which are fastest desktops and now laptops, and revamped its strategy for future operating systems.
So if you're considering getting a new Mac but feared for the company's future, relax. Buy with confidence.
It may be true that, as many analysts suggest, Apple is milking the profits from the Macintosh line while it searches for the next big innovation in computing. Never mind. This is an innovative company that looks to have a long future. And the Mac will too, at least in certain market niches.
And, next time you pick up a piece of Microsoft software, ask yourself: Would this program be better if the company that made it faced more ruthless competition? That's a key question, not only for the Justice Department, which sued Microsoft this week for wielding unfair monopoly power, but for all of us who care about a steady stream of innovation.
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