The Soil Is No Longer So Fertile for Apple's Macintoshes

Ned and Sue love Macintosh computers. But their five-year-old Mac is overtaxed. It can't handle a CD-ROM drive to play the new game their son gave them for Christmas.

So they're asking: Should they buy another Mac? Or after the highly publicized financial woes of Apple Computer, which makes the machines, will parts and software continue to be available for them? Is now the time to switch to an IBM-compatible computer?

The answer is: It depends. Really, it depends more on the user than the company. Whatever happens to Apple, someone is going to sell and service its computers and the related software for a long, long time to come.

Need proof? Look at the Amiga. Although practically abandoned by the manufacturer in the early 1990s, thousands of Amiga owners continue to use their machines, buy new software, and upgrade their hardware. Macs are far more popular than Amigas and will continue to serve a large niche in the desktop computing world.

So if you really prefer the Mac, buy a new one (preferably a Power Mac). Software makers will continue to update their programs; hardware companies will keep stocking parts. After three years, the future of the Mac may not look so bright. But by then, many users will be ready to buy a new machine anyway.

Nevertheless, Mac users should realize that something fundamental has changed in the computer world. After leading the way for a decade and a half with wonderful innovations, Apple can no longer pretend it represents the future of desktop computing.

The signs are clear: Its operating system no longer stands head-and-shoulders above Microsoft's Windows 95, which runs on IBM-compatible machines. Its laptop computers are embarrassingly passe and lack the CD-ROM drives and longer-lasting batteries that are quickly becoming a fixture in the IBM-compatible world. Although the Mac is still very strong in niche areas, such as graphic design, in general-purpose computing the baton of innovation has passed to the IBM-compatible world.

This has more to do with business than technology. Inevitably, software and hardware companies develop products for the biggest markets. Now, if you had to develop new computer products, which market would you aim for: the IBM-compatible world, which sells 8 out of 10 of the world's desktop computers? Or Apple, which sells less than 1 in 10?

Historically, Apple has countered its numerical disadvantages with superior technology. But with Windows 95, the IBM-compatible world has nearly closed the technology gap. So the future breakthroughs in hardware and software are likely first to appear on IBM-compatibles, then (maybe) on the Mac.

Apple may yet be able to resurrect itself as an innovator under its new leadership. Its soon-to-be-unveiled new operating system could leapfrog Windows 95 for a time. Its deal last week to allow Motorola to build Macintosh computers may make its machines more generally available. And the company's long-unfulfilled promise to create a chip with Motorola and IBM that can run anyone's software could give Apple's manufacturing arm a boost.

But that is speculation. So, while Mac buyers can rest assured they won't lose in the near term, those who buy IBM-compatibles can't lose. Their machines represent the future.

Mac aficionados should not take offense at this. Apple Computer pioneered many of today's cutting-edge technologies. Up to now, backing the Mac has meant backing the winning vision of the future. The irony is familiar in the annals of technology: Someone else is realizing the vision that Apple put forward.

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