ON TECHNOLOGY -- Apple Sitting on Its Own Magic Box

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Friday, March 8, 1996 · Page B1
© 1996 San Francisco Chronicle

ON TECHNOLOGY -- Apple Sitting on Its Own Magic Box

David Einstein

Did you know that Apple is about to be first out of the chute with a $500 Internet computer?

No? Hey, don't feel bad. Apple doesn't seem to know it either.

In a triumph of lousy marketing over great technology, the Cupertino company is pushing its new Pippin multimedia player as a system for playing CD-ROM games, rather than as a way to access the World Wide Web.

In fact, Pippin, which goes on sale this month in Japan, is a fully Internet-capable device along the lines of machines being developed amid much fanfare by Oracle and Sun Microsystems.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the multimedia and game markets are slowing, while people are clamoring for ways to get onto the Internet. You'd think Apple would take advantage of the shifting winds and push the Pippin's Internet features for all they're worth.

It's not that Apple doesn't realize the potential of Pippin. This week, the company was showing off the system's Internet abilities at the Netscape Internet Developer Conference in San Francisco.

And in a recent ``Pippin Backgrounder,'' Apple talks about technology that will ``give ordinary people full access to the information superhighway.''

The problem is that Apple continues to position Pippin as a multimedia system -- one that also can connect you to the Internet.

``There's still a very healthy business around CD-ROMs, so multimedia will continue as a mainstream in our development, with the Internet capabilities added on,'' said Bud Smith, an Apple product manager who demonstrated Pippin at the Netscape conference.

Apple's strategy seems backwards. Wouldn't it make more sense to promote Pippin as a $500 computer that gets you onto the Internet -- and also, by the way, can play games?''

This is a time of great opportunity, and Apple may be blowing it. While Oracle's Larry Ellison trumpets his plans for a ``computer for the masses,'' Apple should be saying, ``That's nice, Larry, but we've already built one, and here it is.''

Pippin looks like a game system, because it was designed to be one. It consists of a console that plugs into a television, and a game pad.

But you can attach a keyboard or computer monitor to it, along with an optional floppy disk. Add a modem, which plugs into a port in the back, and you're a phone call away from the Internet.

Pippin may even outperform similar computers from Oracle and Sun. It contains a 66 megahertz PowerPC chip and has Apple's Macintosh operating system built in. That means you can load a program like a word processor off a CD-ROM, use it to write something, and then store the document on a floppy.

By comparison, Oracle is talking about a stripped-down computer with no capabilities to load software or store information.

Some analysts believe Pippin faces near impossible odds in the game business, where it will be up against Sony, Sega, and, next September, a new system from Nintendo. In addition, Pippin's $500 price may be too high. Other video game systems sell for about half that.

On the other hand, if Pippin hits the U.S. market later this year advertised as an Internet computer, Apple could have a real winner on its hands. Analyst John Rossi of Robertson Stephens notes that Apple ``has the computer channel presence and the brand identification'' to help sell the device to PC users.

One thing is clear. After the fiasco of Newton, the handheld computer that couldn't write, Apple can ill-afford to have another long-awaited new product go clunk. ``It's key for them to get a product out cleanly right now,'' said Rossi. ``They have the brand name and consumer mind share. If they want to grow in a slower PC market, they'll have to figure out ways to put that brand name on other digital appliances.''

How about ``Pippin -- Your Personal Internet PC'' for starters?

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