Apple set to provide tailor-made Macs

Sutherland Lyall looks at Apple’s latest plans to provide bespoke hardware and at Nortel/Norwebs proposal to improve the quality and speed of communications

The pundits have been punditing away at news of Apple’s decision to flog some of its gear bespoke. You log on to Apple’s website, specify the arrangement of kit you want and (hopefully) it arrives a few days later in a van.

It should work because that’s more or less how PCs are sold. The dealers you see in the ads are actually assemblers. They buy boards and memory and cards and you specify what you want. The bulk of orders are automatically bespoke jobs. The dealer slots everything together and he’s happy to be asked to substitute a more expensive board here and more memory there. You pay for what you specify.

But, if this is all Steve Jobs can come up with, maybe Apple needs an outside chief executive officer after all. At the time of writing nobody knew whether Jobs had decided to take the helm at Cupertino – or whether anybody serious would want the job with such a charismatic figure lurking in the background.

What Jobs came up trumps with, however, were the new 233 and 266MHz G3 machines (aka PowerPC 750) at prices of around 1500. They should be available in the US now-ish. These have the processor mounted on a plug-in card, although apparently Apple won’t want to know you if you plug a faster chip from a third party supplier into the tempting socket. Not the fastest Macs ever, say the reviewers with their eyes on now-unsaleable clones, but pretty good. But why the coyness about the socket?

News of the Nortel/Norweb proposal to run communications via the electricity grid may well put paid to BT’s ISDN, to the new package it’s offering next year and to cable modems which the cable channels are currently field-testing with incredible leisureliness. Perhaps they had wind of the new mains idea which effectively filters out the noise which is inherent in all mains cables.

The new system is based on local substations and the several hundred houses each serves. From each substation there has to be a fibre optic cable to the main Internet backbone but, apparently, this is not a problem.

The big breakthrough was in being able to filter noise successfully – it may be that the takeoff point has to be at the meter to avoid enigmatic clicks brought about by things like the freezer going into cooling mode.

What’s not clear is how you maintain security. Providing Nortel doesn’t get silly, we may all be talking to each other over the mains by the end of the century.

Talking of speed, it’s not widely known that there already exists a very fast communications system – a leading edge and not inexpensive designers’ ATM (asynchronous transmission mode) system. It operates around London’s Soho for the benefit of the local design and video and movie community which needs to shift huge files around the globe very fast indeed.

Conventional wisdom is that speed and more speed is a basic requirement of the new design world. Maybe not. Lost in Space’s boss, Christian Hogue, who works from a state-of-the-art office in Islington, uses a non state of the art non-ISDN telephone line modem to pass similar files to and from co-workers in such places as Canada, the US and Europe. But, in your heart of hearts, you know he – and all of us – would definitely go for the mains if it cost no more than a local telephone call.

You can e-mail Sutherland Lyall on Lyall@dircon.co.uk

Designer’s dictionary

Platform jumpers soon discover that NT motherboards come in bewildering numbers and in different configurations. Ignoring the little-used LPX configuration, the old AT form factor is now fading out in favour of ATX which has almost all of the external sockets attached to the main board rather than being attached to plug-in cards. No, this doesn’t do away with plug-in cards, but this little change means that ATX cases are currently more than twice as expensive as AT cases. Until now most motherboards have had the output cards mounted vertically on the motherboard. Now there is a new configuration in the offing, the NLX System from Intel. It is designed to make everything accessible when you open up the case. And a lot cheaper. So the central processor chip is out in the open on the horizontal motherboard clear of all other cards and with a fan nearby. The motherboard slides in and docks with a vertical riser card – as do all the in-out cards. This means that when their functions are not built into the motherboard itself, such things as video, sound, IDE, floppy control, modem, 3D acceleration and so on, are all on individual boards stacked horizontally allowing a lower case profile than at present. You simply pull the cards out to change them. You’ll probably also want to have an LX chipset on board to cope with AGP and Slot-1 as discussed last month. Neat, but if you want a tower configuration in order to stick the box out of the way under the desk, you’ll probably go for an ATX configuration, again with an LX chipset.

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