The rebirth of Apple Computer continued in May as the company unveiled an innovative new machine, opened an online store for schools, and sought to reassure the faithful about its new Mac OS X (short for operating system 10).

At $1,299, the new computer–called iMac to emphasize its internet networking capabilities–finally makes Apple a player in the low-cost market, the fastest-growing K-12 segment and a market from which Apple had been noticeably absent.

John Santoro, public relations manager for Apple’s education division, said the price of the new iMac–which is scheduled to be available by mid-August–should appeal to schools.

“At $1,299, you’re getting the future of the internet at G3 speeds,” Santoro said. “You can’t touch that [price] with a [similarly-configured] PC.”

The new machine will come with 32 megabytes of memory (expandable to 128 MB), a four-gigabyte hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, 33 Kbps modem, stereo “surround sound,” and built-in Ethernet networking.

More significantly, it runs on a powerful 233-MHz G3 microprocessor. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who unveiled the iMac at a May 6 press conference, gleefully presided over a demonstration in which iMac ran demanding multimedia applications faster than a high-end personal computer with a 400-Mhz Pentium II chip from Intel Corp.

Jobs called the machine “a totally new take on what a computer should be.” The iMac encloses monitor, G3 processor, and hard drive in a translucent teal-and-white case to create a sleek machine with a futuristic feel, he said.

So, what’s the catch? It lacks an internal floppy-disk drive and cannot be upgraded except to add more memory.

Santoro conceded that the lack of a floppy drive might be an issue for some schools–but the nature of computing also has changed, he noted. Two-thirds of all school computers now operate on a network, according to Santoro. Programs can be run from CD-ROMs, and student work can be saved to a central server.

The very idea of the iMac, in fact, is to streamline network computing and web access. Apple, on its web site, touts the machine’s “one-button online access.”

“The floppy was on its way out anyway–all Apple has done is push it over the cliff,” said Jim Polaski, a computer consultant from Oak Park, Ill. Polaski said schools might even appreciate the absence of a floppy drive as a way to simplify the system. The lack of a floppy drive would make it less likely for students to introduce their own programs from home onto the system, for example.

For schools that still want a floppy drive, Polaski predicted a third-party drive that would attach to the iMac via its universal serial bus port would be available around the time the iMac is released.

Industry analysts who attended the press conference praised iMac’s features, price, and innovative spirit. Many predicted that schools currently using Macs would appreciate its all-in-one design, and that even people with rival PCs would be intrigued.

In an effort to shore up eroding support in the education market, Jobs also announced the launch of an online store devoted exclusively to schools.

The new school store lets educators purchase Apple products built to order from the web. Rival companies Gateway and Dell have been offering similar consumer services for years.

The online school store received more than $1 million in orders during its first 24 hours, Santoro said, adding: “We expect to keep up that pace in sales.”

Restoring faith

Just a few days after he unveiled the iMac, Jobs moved to secure the future of its Macintosh OS.

On May 11, Jobs announced the next generation of the Mac OS to 4,000 attendees at Apple’s annual conference for software developers. OS X will integrate features of Apple’s Rhapsody technology into the Mac OS and will be available to developers next year.

That announcement came as a huge relief to software developers, who feared Apple would abandon the Mac OS altogether for another operating system known as Rhapsody, thereby forcing them to rewrite all their programs to run on a new OS.

“Apple is doing exactly what we and our customers have asked Apple to do: [deliver] the benefits of a modern OS . . . while at the same time protecting the investment we have made,” Ben Waldman, head of the Macintosh unit at Microsoft, told the Associated Press.

The OS X will inherit Rhapsody’s ability to let users perform multiple tasks at once and protect the computer from crashing, yet programs written for current Macs will need only a little tweaking to take advantage of the new system’s features, company representatives said.

Programs that aren’t upgraded for the OS X will still run on the new system, only without its enhancements. And programs written for the OS X will run on older Mac versions as well. Apple added that it will continue to support and enhance OS 8, its current Mac operating system.

That’s good news for schools that already own Macs, said Craig Nansen, technology coordinator for the Minot, N.D., school system.

“It looks like a good solution for everyone,” Nansen said. “The installed base of Macs will still be supported by improvements to OS 8, while OS X will allow new software to take advantage of the G3 chip.”

Apple Education Store