TV-PGMay 4, 2001: Apple continues to wave the "No Comment" flag even as further evidence of scads of Apple retail stores continues to pour in. Meanwhile, service steps up a notch as Apple ups warranties on refurbished products to one year and restores extended AppleCare options, and now that the new iBook is done, Apple's gnomes turn back to the PowerBook in preparation for a feature bump this summer...
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More Retail Rumors A-Plenty (5/4/01)

You know, at this point the real mystery isn't where Apple's retail stores will be, or what they'll look like, or whether their commercials will feature arrow-through-the-head Crazy Steve pushing Midnight Madness sales by holding up fistfuls of cash while yelling "Insanely great, or just insane? Our prices are so low you'll think I'm mercurial!" Nope, right now the question that's vying for the most attention of our frontal lobes is why, in the name of all that's good and decent, hasn't the company acknowledged that these stores are even in the works? After all, everyone knows that this is happening; loose-lipped zoning board members and mall managers from coast to coast have blabbed enough details to erase all doubt.

For instance, the latest in the leakage comes from Think Secret. Check in there for further dirt on how New York City may get as many as four stores (now that's a Big Apple), news of an Apple rep scouting out potential spots in Miami, word that Apple is invading Microsoft's backyard with stores in Seattle and Bellevue, a faint suggestion that more stores are headed for "Memphis, Las Vegas, Louisville, Portland, Boise, Montgomery, Orlando, and Jacksonville," and more. Meanwhile, the general manager of a shopping center in Phoenix spilled to the Business Journal last week, revealing that an Apple store will be opening in his own little slice of consumer paradise. And even those crazy birds chirping outside the AtAT studios are whistling encouraging tunes about no fewer than three such Mac havens sprouting up in the immediate Boston vicinity. The news is everywhere.

And yet, Steve Jobs pulled together a vast assemblage of reporters three days ago, chucked a bunch of iBook specs at them, and hustled them out with nary a mention of the hush-hush "R" word which rhymes with "shmetail." Color us clueless, but we're stumped as to why Apple insists on remaining so tight-lipped about what is shaping up to be the worst-kept secret since the role of fluoridated water in the subjugation of humankind to a hostile alien race. The most obvious scenario is that Apple's waiting until the first stores are actually ready to open their doors before stunning the world with such utterly unexpected news, but given that at least some people are talking about a "surprise" announcement as early as next week, we're hard-pressed to guess what difference a one-week delay would make. But this is all firmly in the realm of rumor, after all.

In any event, we're still expecting an announcement sooner rather than later. Don't forget to act surprised when you hear the news; there's no reason to spoil Steve's fun, right?

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Service: Getting Some Back (5/4/01)

Speaking of poorly-kept secrets, it's not going to come as any surprise to most of you that technical support for Apple customers-- while still pretty strong-- has been on a downhill path for the past few years. Not that we're particularly faulting the company for doing what it can to cut costs; sure, it's easy to offer your customers lifetime toll-free technical support if you don't mind losing a billion dollars a year. And while we aren't thrilled that Apple has been moving to a more "Microsoft-like" (their words, not ours) support structure, we fully acknowledge that fee-based per-incident phone support is likely just one more reason why the company has been mostly profitable since 1997. (Of course, that doesn't mean we have to like it.)

So we've become accustomed to watching the quality of Apple's technical support continue to dwindle-- which is why we weren't surprised a few months ago when the company nixed the option of buying AppleCare extended warranty coverage for refurbished products at the Apple Store; you got your standard 90-day warranty and that was that. In other words, if you bought a refurb iMac and 91 days later it burst into flames, pretty much your only recourse was to buy another one (or, more likely, switch to a manufacturer who stands behind its products more firmly).

What did surprise us, though, is evidence that the pendulum may be starting to swing the other way. As recently reported by Accelerate Your Mac!, the option to buy three years of AppleCare coverage for refurb gear has returned to the Apple Store, thus providing further peace of mind to worrywarts like us; grab a refurb Graphite iMac DV Special Edition for $999, toss in another $149 for extended coverage, and compute merrily away, free of angst for a full three years. What's more-- and this is the real stunner, folks-- all refurbished products now carry a full one-year warranty standard, just like their brand new brethren. That's huge, people! We've never seen Apple cover refurbs for more than three months.

Needless to say, this is a happy development. Back in the day, Apple's unparalleled support was a major selling point when evangelizing the Mac platform to outsiders, and we sorely miss being able to tell people that buying a Mac meant that free help was always just a toll-free call away. While we don't expect to be able to say that again anytime soon (well, at least not truthfully, but what's a little exaggeration between friends?), any improvement is more than welcome. Perhaps this is just the start of a massive trend in corporate strategy, and one day in the distant future all Macs will be guaranteed against defect for life and will come with a personal service tech who lives out in your garage just in case you ever need help. Now that's a reason to buy!

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...And Back To The TiBook (5/4/01)

More than a few of you are a smidge puzzled by one thing about the new iBook: the option of getting an internal CD-RW or CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive in Apple's lower-cost consumer portable, while the high-end PowerBook G4 is strictly DVD-ROM-only. But really, there's no mystery; the PowerBook is thinner, and we wouldn't be surprised if there are no slot-loading CD-burning drives available that would fit in that sleek titanium beauty. In addition, for better or worse, it seems pretty clear to us that Apple sees CD-burning as a fundamentally consumer-oriented technology (they think everyone just wants to mix their own audio CDs)-- and it's not like there isn't a precedent for new technology debuting on the consumer side of the product grid first. Remember how long it took for AirPort to get from the iBook to the PowerBook?

That said, though, we do expect burning capabilities to find their way into Apple's pro portable line whenever the next big revision happens (and when we talk about "burning capabilities" in a laptop, we're not talking about how Dell did it.) Mac OS Rumors expects a new PowerBook sometime this summer, featuring not only CD-RW and combo drive options, but also a slew of other nice incremental bonuses-- such as processors running at up to 600 MHz, a RADEON Mobility graphics chip, better AirPort reception, and a more rigid enclosure to avoid some of the flex-related problems plaguing certain customers. Oh, and while we're slightly skeptical about this, Apple may totally break with tradition on the color-choice issue-- while the iBook is available only in white, the next PowerBook may be offered in a few different colors of anodized titanium. The whole world's gone haywire.

Hopefully these improvements will materialize sooner rather than later, since the Mac community is experiencing a certain sense of déjà vu right now; you may recall that the last big revision to the iBook suddenly made the PowerBook look a whole lot less attractive for its price. We're sensing a lot of the same sentiment floating around ever since last Tuesday. It'll be interesting to see whether PowerBook sales stay strong once the iBook is actually shipping. In any event, we don't doubt that Apple will continue to impress us with spiffy new products, and we eagerly await seeing what this summer's Macworld Expo has in store. Purple TiBook, anyone?

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