The Sweetest Gumdrop in Town


By Charles Haddad I love it when I'm right. Maybe that's because I so rarely am. Just ask my wife: She's a walking dossier of my faux pas. But even she ? come on now, honey, admit it -- would agree I called it right on Apple's (AAPL) latest PowerBook, the G4-based portable sculpted in titanium. In January, before the TiBook even hit the market, I predicted that sales of this shiny, inch-thin portable would propel Apple back into profitability (See BW Online, 2/28/01, "For Apple, a Savior Called TiBook"). Jobs & Co. isn't in the black yet, but early sales figures show the TiBook is indeed starting to rekindle growth.

Let's look at the latest numbers. In February, the first full month the TiBook was for sale, it accounted for 52% of Apple's laptop sales and 16% of the total, according to industry consultant NPD Intelect. Feverish demand for the TiBook drove Apple's laptop sales up 23% in February from a month earlier. Such a performance left the rest of the industry in the dust, with overall laptop sales up only 2.3% that month.

Some big PC competitors even saw their laptop sales tank, with giants Compaq Computer (CPQ) and Toshiba reporting sales declines of 5.8% and 9.1%,respectively. Can you hear me trying not to gloat? Folks, it looks like Apple has a hit in the TiBook equal to the Mighty Gumdrop (alias the iMac), which saved the company three years ago.

ROLLER COASTER. In the near term, the TiBook's success is more important than that of OS X. That's not to say the new operating system is trivial, but software will never rival computers as a moneymaker for Apple. At the end of the day, it's still cool new Macs that keep the company's ping-pong court lit. Software such as OS X is the candy that tempts users to buy new Macs.

Man, you gotta love Apple, if just for the thrill of it. Just when you think the company is finally done for, its engineers dream up something like the TiBook, which pulls them out of a nose dive at the last moment. The drama! The action! Steve Jobs's Pixar Studios (PIXR) should base its next animated feature on the roller-coaster history of Apple. I'd call it Attack of the Mighty Gumdrop. Just a suggestion, Steve.

It's no secret why the TiBook is so popular. For starters, there's the weight ?- or lack of it. Apple slimmed down the TiBook by nearly a pound, winning hurrahs from all of us back-sore luggers of previous PowerBooks. And here's the really amazing thing about the weight loss: Apple not only managed to add a bigger screen but also redesigned the TiBook to fit easily on your average seatback airline tray. Now that's what I call a nifty piece of engineering.

COFFEE TALK. I believe the wide screen, measuring 15.2 inches, is especially attractive to Mac users. Many of them, of course, are designers. And design work has become increasingly mobile. Just poke your head into any coffee shop: You'll see people designing newsletters, annual reports, and Web sites on laptops. These users will embrace the lighter, wider TiBook.

It doesn't hurt with this style-conscious group that the TiBook never fails to turn heads in the coffee shops I frequent. That's especially true with PC users, who still predominate with their clunky black squares of computing hardware. Some of them have a hard time believing that the TiBook is really a computer and not the latest video game player from Sony (SNE). When I correct their mistake, many will respond by pooh-poohing the idea that a computer should look ?- dare I say it? ?- fun. But I think the world is a better place with tools that are thrilling to use.

The TiBook's success is a relief to me. I confess now that I was a bit worried when Apple first released it. There were disturbing reports about the company's inability to get the machine out of the factory door and minor mechanical problems. But neither seems to have slowed sales, even though demo models of TiBooks are hard to find in stores.

Overall, Apple has handled the launch well, pitching just the right product at just the right moment. That makes me hopeful. I predict that, as long as Apple can manage the company as a whole like the TiBook launch, it will navigate the current downdraft in computer sales buffeting the entire industry. Honey, are you listening? Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a longtime Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online


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