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APPLE NEEDS HELP AT THE CORE

The company's market share has fallen by half in the past 18 months. Its stock has plunged to the cellar. The board just laid off the third CEO in four years. Is there any good news at Apple Computer?

In a word, yes. Despite severe problems in the management suite, Apple is still putting marvelous technology on the street. It still makes great computers and has software ideas that are different from what everybody else is doing. Now it needs a leader who can convince consumers that Apple still knows how to make the innovative and friendly personal computers that won it such a broad following back when technologists, not business managers, were running the company.

For some strange reason, gentle readers, you always get ticked off when this column says "We told you so." Accordingly, we've taken a solemn vow never to say "We told you so" again. So we'll just skip over the fact that this very column told you 16 months ago, when Apple named Gilbert F. Amelio as its new CEO, that Amelio was the wrong guy to save Apple. When Apple ousted him earlier this month, the company's sales and reputation were far worse than when he arrived.

As was evident in his previous job, at National Semiconductor, Amelio is a doctor of downsizing, the type of manager who acts as if there's nothing wrong with American business that a few thousand layoffs won't cure. This tends to work great for the CEO; Amelio, according to press reports, will walk away from the Apple disaster with several million dollars in severance. But it is less pleasant for the thousands of people who lose their jobs, and can be disastrous for the company. It drains both talent and enthusiasm.

But Apple Computer may be slightly different from other companies -- AT & T is a classic example -- that have lost their competitive drive after mass layoffs. Apple is a place that has generated enormous loyalty from its employees and its customers. The intensity of Macfanatics was captured in a bumper sticker we saw at a Mac expo not long ago: "You can take my Macintosh when you pry my cold, dead fingers off the mouse."

If Apple will put somebody who knows technology in charge now, the company could gradually rebuild its once-stellar reputation.

For one thing, the competition -- that is, the world of PCs running Microsoft Windows -- is not all that great. How many people out there would say that Windows 95 or Windows NT is the ideal operating system? Other than Mr. Gates, we don't see too many folks who are completely satisfied with the "Wintel" offerings.

But Apple's Macintosh and the Mac clones being made by Power Computing, Motorola and Umax are fast, attractive and thoroughly likable computers. Mac's new PowerBook 3400c, with a 240 MHz microprocessor, is the fastest laptop we've ever seen. The Mac operating system is neater, faster and much more intuitive than Windows. When Apple finally gets the new Version 8 of this operating system out the door, it should be even better.

One of the major gripes people have about Macintosh is that there's not as much software for the Mac platform as there is for "Wintel" machines. This is true. But frankly, how many different spreadsheet programs do you need? If you have one that works -- and is blessedly easy to use -- it really doesn't matter whether there are seven other programs on the market that do the same thing.

Some of the software for Macintosh is arguably better than the comparable programs on the "Wintel" platform. Consider, for instance, the popular "Office Suite" programs, such as Microsoft Office and Lotus Smart Suite.

Because of competition to outfeature the other guy, the "Wintel" versions of these programs have become bloated dinosaurs, jammed with so many commands it would take a lifetime to learn them all. They are hard to use. But the Macintosh office suite from Claris, Apple's software spinoff, goes the opposite direction.

ClarisWorks version 4, for the Macintosh, does just about everything we need to do in the office, and not much more. That makes it easy to figure out. It takes up about 14 million bytes of hard disk space, which is peanuts nowadays; Microsoft's Windows 97 takes five times as much disk space and twice as much memory.

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