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Apple may be paving way for iMacs with CD-RWs

In what could be another sign of new iMacs, supplies of Apple's two high-end models have dwindled at retailers and vanished from its online store.

In what could be yet another harbinger of new iMacs, supplies of Apple Computer's two high-end models have dwindled at retailers and vanished from the Mac maker's online store.

Apple announced a $200 instant rebate on the $1,299 DV+ and $1,499 DV Special Edition models last month. Now the models are listed as unavailable at Apple's online store, and several retailers, including New York-based J&R Computers, report little or no stock of the DV+ and DV Special Edition models.

Both systems include a DVD drive. Analysts have been speculating recently that Apple may quickly augment or replace the DVD drive with a CD-rewritable drive to take advantage of the company's new iTunes software, which allows people to play MP3 files and record their own CDs.

Apple often offers incentives on its computers just ahead of new product releases.

In June, Apple unveiled a number of promotions and turned to warehouse club Costco to thin its supply of fruity iMacs before introducing new models with toned-down colors at the Macworld Expo in New York in July.

An announcement on new models may be just around the corner. Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple typically uses its trade shows to introduce products; the Macworld Expo in Tokyo takes place Feb. 22 to 24.

An Apple spokeswoman would not comment Thursday on the future of the DV+ and DV Special Edition iMacs. But in regards to the instant rebates, she said, "The promotion was successful."

The company has not cut the price of its two other, more basic iMacs. Both machines appear to be in plentiful supply.

Gartner analyst Chris LeTocq said Apple appears to be preparing to introduce new systems with CD-RW drives.

"The reason you have rebates is because you want to clear out inventory," LeTocq said. "You need to clear out inventory because you have new systems you think will sell better."

David Bailey, an analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison, said Apple may also boost the processor speed and perhaps move from the G3 chip to the newer G4 used in the PowerMac and PowerBook lines aimed at professionals.

Although Apple has been admittedly late to recognize the importance of CD-RW drives, LeTocq said Apple has an opportunity to convince computer buyers that its machines are the best for playing and recording music.

Because it is the only computer maker that controls the hardware, operating system and software for its products, Apple has the potential to offer simpler and more elegant ways to perform tasks such as burning CDs. For example, LeTocq said, it is much easier to create movies on a Mac using iMovie than on any Windows-based PC.

"When you can introduce all this stuff and make it (work) like a consumer electronics device, then you've got some leverage," he said. "CD-RW is a key basic technology to make that real for people."

As for the iMac, many have noted that it is beginning to show its age nearly three years after its introduction.

"When they introduced the new products last July, they didn't get nearly the response they got from prior revisions," Bailey said. Attention to Apple soared, for example, when the company introduced the fruity models in early 1999 as a follow-up to the initial Bondi blue model released in August 1998.

Apple obviously wants to maximize the iMac's life, given the costs of engineering and manufacturing the custom case. Adding features or changing colors offers Apple a relatively inexpensive way to extend the iMac's life span. If Apple were to add a G4 processor, that might add another year to the iMac's longevity. Nonetheless, the product can't live forever.

"Three years is a very healthy lifespan," Bailey said. "It may be time for something more dramatic than a faster processor or larger hard drive."