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Computer takes a back seat at Apple

Apple downplays roots

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Macworld Despite all hype surrounding the iPhone, this year's MacWorld conference was more notable for what it downplayed -- the computer that put Apple in the limelight in the first place.

The annual confab has emerged as the chief showcase for the hottest new Apple products, and yet this year's event paid nary a word to the Macintosh, which the company and its legions of fans have vaunted for more than two decades.

Instead, Jobs devoted almost the entirety of his two-hour keynote to the introduction of two new products: the iPhone - an amalgamation of the iPod, a cellular phone and an Internet communicator - and Apple TV, a device that funnels pictures, video and music into the living room. Those hoping for faster Macs or updates on Leopard will have to wait longer.

Indeed, Steve Jobs, who forever shaped the world of computing when he introduced the Macintosh in 1984, said his company was changing its name from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc.

Referring to the Mac, iPod, iPhone and Apple TV, Jobs said: "Only one of these is a computer, so we're dropping 'Computer' from the name."

Apple is hardly alone in demoting the computer from the image or products it presents to the world. A few years ago, Dell also excised "computer" from its name. More recently, IBM, which helped unleash the PC craze in the early 1980s, sold its notebook outfit to Lenovo. HP, which has never used the word in its name, consumed Compaq Computer.

A search on Yahoo! Finance for companies with computer in their moniker revealed Casio Computer, Cray Computer, Sumisho Computer and others, none of them household names.

Apple's downplaying of the computer may be an unavoidable necessity in today's market, where the falling prices and market saturation of PCs are taking the shine off even top-of-the-line Macs. But the move is a tad risky.

By throwing itself fully on into the world of consumer electronics, Apple's chief competitors are no longer limited to Microsoft and Dell, whose strong suits have never been sleek designs and flawless products.

Increasingly, Apple will find itself in the cross hairs of Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and other companies who are finding today's environment a rough slog despite having significantly more experience. Apple can open only so many of its own stores, and its retail presence, when compared with that of a Sony or Samsung, is likely to remain small for some time to come.

Then there's the non-trivial problem of quality control. Just about every Mac owner I know has a horror story about a failed hard drive or other component that required the machine to be shipped back to the factory for repair. And my first iPod fried in its first month, which required me to get it replaced. (Fortunately, all 60GB of its contents were on my PC, so I didn't lose thousands of dollars worth of data.)

But in the realm of consumer electronics, people expect things to simply work, and hell hath no fury for a company whose whizz-bang new phone/music player/internet device craps out, leaving a traveling knowledge worker stranded without email, web browsing or, heaven forbid, a MP3 player.

Is Apple up to the challenge? ®

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