2003: The year of the laptop

As a self-confessed laptop lover, it was great to hear Steve Jobs say during his keynote speech at MacWorld San Francisco that 2003 was going to be the 'year of the laptop'.

As a self-confessed laptop lover, it was great to hear Steve Jobs say during his keynote speech at MacWorld San Francisco that 2003 was going to be the "year of the laptop". To back it up he announced the arrival of two additions to the professionally orientated PowerBook range.

The first is unarguably the biggest screened laptop on the market at 17in and the second is what Jobs claimed to be the smallest fully featured laptop with a 12in screen. These new machines are the first to only boot into Mac OS X and that is primarily due to the new hardware built into them.

In a first for Apple, both come with on-board Bluetooth, FireWire 800 (aka IEEE 1394b) and the ability to use the 802.11g based AirPort Extreme.

Apple chose the 802.11g standard (which is due to be fully ratified sometime this year), over the competing 802.11a standard because of its compatibility with the hundreds of thousands of 802.11b based cards and base stations it has already shipped. In providing a wireless capability that operates at up to 54Mbit/s, it is potentially five times quicker than the older standard AirPort. In addition, the 1GHz 17in PowerBook, which has already garnered the nickname of "Lapzilla", has light sensors built into it that automatically light up the keyboard of the machine via a network of fibre optic cables and brighten the screen when the ambient light falls below a certain level.

With features like these and a solid Unix-based operating system, this surely is the ultimate geek status symbol. While not announced, it is widely expected that over the next couple of months, the current 15in PowerBook will be upgraded to include these features.

It can also be expected that these new connectivity options will make there way into the other machines in Apple's range. During the keynote speech, Jobs also made a prediction that the majority of the industry's sales will soon be laptops.

With 38% of the company's unit shipments in the December quarter made up of either iBooks or PowerBooks and the range fortified by two new machines, it looks likely that this prediction will come true for Apple, at least, by the end of 2003. However, casting a dark shadow over this glossy spin is the fact that laptops have crept up to 38% of unit sales is that sales of the professional desktop machines are down by 10% since last quarter and 25% year on year.

Unfortunately for Apple, the downward trend in the sales figures shows no sign of bottoming out.

Apple has blamed this decline on the general economic malaise in the US and the unavailability of QuarkXPress for Mac OS X (it is also unavailable for Windows XP), but the problem seems to be more fundamental: the price-performance issue. In New Zealand, a top-of-the-line Power Macintosh G4 with dual 1.25GHz processors, 512MB of RAM, a 120GB hard disk and a CD/DVD writer will costs about $8000 without a monitor.

Putting together a top-of-the-line 3GHz Pentium 4-based machine on the Dell website with similar specifications would cost about $5000, making for an "Apple premium" of 60%.

What’s worse is that even up against two G4 processors, the Pentium 4-based machine has been shown to be quicker in applications that are heavily used by Apple's core design markets. While it is not Apple's fault that the main supplier of the G4 chip, Motorola, has once again stalled in its drive to produce faster versions of the G4, it nonetheless has created a significant problem for the company.

Fortunately for the moment, professionals do not seem to abandoning the platform in droves, but instead are patiently continuing to wait for the next generation of machines to arrive before they upgrade. Popular rumour suggests that the new IBM 64-bit PowerPC 970 would be the ideal chip for the heart of a new Power Macintosh G5, but with quantities of the chip not expected to be available until the latter half of this year, it could be a long wait for those professionals. It is for this reason that I believe Apple has decided to focus on the one area where the low power consumption and raw horsepower of the G4 chip still provides a competitive advantage, by designating 2003 as the "Year of the Laptop".

White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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