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Power switch fails on some PowerMac G4s

Apple is facing another glitch: This time, power switches on some PowerMac G4 systems are burning out, making it impossible to turn the computers on or off.

When is a little problem a big problem?

When "it's one in a string of little problems," says Roger Kay, an analyst at market researcher IDC.

Apple Computer is facing another in a long list of recent glitches. But in an uncharacteristic sign of changes afoot, Apple has come clean on the problem rather than letting it ruminate on Internet message boards or in the media.

This time, power switches on some PowerMac G4 systems are mysteriously burning out, making it impossible to turn the systems on or off. And in some rare instances, the PowerMacs mysteriously turn on or off without touching the switches.

Apple introduced the problem in July when it released new PowerMacs using a white rather than the previous green backlit power switch.

"We didn't just change the color," Linda McNulty, Apple's director of desktop product marketing, said Wednesday. "There was a redesign of the board (behind the switch), which in rare instances introduces this problem."

The company discovered the problem soon after the computers shipped, McNulty said.

Although Apple insists there are only a small number of affected systems, the company would not say how many PowerMacs were shipped before the company discovered the problem.

"The reason there are a small number of cases is because only a small number (of systems) got out before we discovered the problem," McNulty said.

Still, this problem coupled with a recent string of gaffes puts Apple in a tough spot, Kay said.

"The luster is really off the Apple here," he said. "They've had a couple of executional errors, so their aura of invincibleness has left them. These small things one after (another point) to overall execution issues."

Apple's run of hard luck follows a period of recent problems, such as apparent hairline cracks in the G4 Cube, slower-than-expected Cube and education-related sales, and an overload of inventory on dealers' shelves.

In addition, the company's shares plunged 50 percent after an earnings warning in September. That was followed by weaker-than-expected earnings the next month.

However, Gartner analyst Kevin Knox isn't sure the new glitch will ultimately hurt Apple.

"I don't think this will change the landscape very much or that people will hold it against Apple and say the quality is going down so they're going to change to an Intel platform," he said. "Frankly, with Apple you have very loyal customers."

Complicating the process of determining the extent of the new problem are variables affecting its occurrence. The heftier the system configuration--the more memory, beefier hardware or extra peripherals--the more likely a switch will fail, McNulty said. The additional components apparently draw more power, affecting the performance of the switch.

"You're pushing the system, and that's where it's going to manifest itself," McNulty said.

McNulty emphasized that all of the affected systems are covered by warranty, "and it's a simple part to replace."

She also responded to reports of puffs of smoke emerging from faulty power switches.

"Some of the reports in terms of smoke and that kind of stuff--from what we've seen, those are completely exaggerated," McNulty said.

Apple could not say how many, if any, PowerMacs still sitting on dealer shelves might contain faulty switches. But McNulty made it clear all PowerMacs currently shipping have the redesigned switch.

Knox also pointed out that recent quality problems are not just an Apple problem, specifically referring to notebook battery recalls from Compaq Computer and Dell Computer.

"Quality has become a major, major problem in the industry as a whole," Knox said. "The technology is evolving so damn quickly, we're just not doing the levels of quality assurance that we need to be doing."