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Apple upgrades iBook, PowerBook laptops

The company announces a revamped line of notebooks for professional users, an upgraded iBook for consumers and faster chips in its professional desktop computers.

    CUPERTINO, Calif.--Apple, looking to fill holes in its product strategy, yesterday announced a revamped line of notebooks for professionals, an upgraded iBook for consumers and faster chips in its corporate desktop computers.

    Apple chief executive Steve Jobs made the announcements in Japan at the Macworld Tokyo trade show. Jobs has a penchant for providing surprises at U.S. Mac trade shows, and, for the first time in recent memory, Macworld Tokyo was the scene for the introduction of a number of pieces of new hardware. Apple today offered more details on the products at company headquarters here.

    The new PowerBooks may help stem a notebook problem for the company, as revealed by the declining sales of the older versions that was noted in Apple's most recent quarterly filling with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Sales dropped from $257 million in the first quarter of fiscal 1999 to $212 million for the same period in fiscal 2000. The previous models had been on sale without change since May of last year.

    The latest PowerBooks feature only minor cosmetic changes from the previous model, which may disappoint some users accustomed to Apple's radical changes to other products. "We were in no hurry to change this design. It's a winning formula," said Greg Joswiak, director of portable product marketing.

    PowerBooks may continue to look the same on the outside, but the guts have undergone significant changes, Joswiak said. The core of the system's guts, called a motherboard, are based on what Apple has termed a "unified architecture" that extends across all product lines. This means that the innards of the new PowerBook are essentially the same (with minor variations) as that of the iBook, iMac and G4 desktops.

    There are several advantages to this approach to design, Joswiak said. One is that the systems were designed from the start to use less energy. Also, new products can be developed more rapidly, and thirdly, there is an additional cost-savings benefit. With each computer shipped sharing a large number of internal components, Apple can negotiate lower prices on those components because of volume discounts.

    Apple added a new model to the iBook line that offers a 366-MHz PowerPC G3 chip, more memory and a larger hard disk drive.

    The company said all products are currently available on its Web site and through its resellers.

    Mimicking the success of the iMac DV Special Edition (SE), the newest iBook will come in a toned-down "Graphite" case that will likely be more at home at businesses than the more flamboyant tangerine or blueberry colors of the current versions. The pricier iMac DV SE models sold better than Apple had expected during its most recently completed quarter, helping boost financial results well past analyst estimates.

    The iBook Special Edition is being priced at $1,799, while the current systems will continue to ship with a 300-MHz chip at $1,599.

    Sales of Apple products in Japan, one of the largest markets for such products outside of the United States, have been on the upswing with the success of the iMac desktop and iBook portable computer. Sales more than doubled in the most recent quarter to $412 million compared to year ago results, and a full slate of new products could help boost second-quarter results in a historically slow selling period for Apple.

    Apple's iBook has been a hit at home and abroad. In the U.S. retail stores, the iBook topped PC Data's top-seller list in November, although it has since slipped back.

    Linda Frager, director of iBook product marketing, said Apple decided to leverage off of the success of the iMac DV SE. "What you have is a beautiful fashion statement in graphite."

    The Japanese market has proven receptive to smaller computing devices, and Apple is hoping the newly revised PowerBook announced today will still fit the bill while boosting chip speed.

    The newest PowerBooks will come with a 450- or 500-MHz PowerPC G3 chip, making them the fastest notebooks Apple has shipped to date. The PowerBook line is distinguished from the consumer portables by their larger 14.1-inch display, black case and, for the first time, FireWire ports for hooking up digital video cameras. The notebooks weigh in at about 5.7 pounds, the same weight of their predecessor.

    Among other news items, Apple finally announced a 500-MHz version of the G4 desktop computer that was originally announced at the end of September 1999. The new system will top out at $3,599, and two other models will have faster chips.

    After finding out that it couldn't ship enough G4 systems at the promised speeds and prices last year, Apple decided to ship slower G4 computers than customers had ordered in order to meet demand. The move touched off a firestorm of complaints. Apple eventually relented.

    The source of Apple's worries--and lower-than-anticipated earnings in the final quarter of fiscal 1999--was that Motorola had trouble producing enough of the 500 MHz chips to put into Apple systems.

    It's not clear that Apple and Motorola have totally licked the problem, but the release of a new 500-MHz system goes a long way towards quelling customer worries. Not only has Apple introduced new desktops with the chip, but it is now offering modified G4 systems that will suit certain segments of the business market that need a Mac server.