Apple responds to iMac demand

Apple Computer Inc.'s people-friendly iMac is moving into the federal government, a move neither analysts nor the company expected.

The iMac was designed to bring Apple back into the consumer market, where the company had lost significant share in the past few years. But agencies where Apple has a foothold, including NASA and the National Institutes of Health, already are testing the iMac and looking for places that the blue-and-see-through desktop can be used in the federal space.

"We weren't marketing to that audience...but we're finding we've got a much broader acceptance outside the consumer area than we thought," said John McKinnon, director of sales for Apple. "We definitely see a fit in the federal market."

"A lot of the benefits that consumers would take advantage of would make sense in the federal market as well," said James Staten, an analyst at Dataquest, San Jose, Calif.

Even the lack of a floppy drive "is its real advantage since it's so much harder to steal information off of it, which is something that places like NASA really have to deal with."

The lack of direct marketing did not put off any agencies.

Instead, they went to Apple looking for information on the system, which attracted their attention because of its features and its $1,299 price, according to Apple.

"The CIO for [NASA's] Goddard [Space Flight Center] called the other day. He wanted to know if he could get an iMac to test out for a couple of days," said Barry Bittner, Apple's federal account manager. "And NIH is looking at possibly buying 400 of these for their clinical centers."

At a seminar for federal customers Apple held this month, several other agency IT personnel came to get a closer look at the system.

"We're looking at the iMac now as a potential desktop replacement machine," said Charles Redmond, NASA's headquarters information technology security manager.

The ease of administration and management that the iMac offers is especially important to NASA headquarters as it prepares to put in place a seat management program, Redmond said.

Most of the upgrades and system updates at NASA already are done over the network, he said. The lack of a floppy drive is not really an issue "because there's almost nothing we do now that requires a floppy."

"We're going to be looking at the iMac seriously because they're cheap and easy," said E. David Zweigel, electronic print specialist at the U.S. Information Agency.

New networking capabilities also caught Redmond's eye. NASA has been working with a mixed Intel Corp.-Apple environment for years; the agency is about 62 percent Wintel systems and 38 percent PowerPCs, Redmond said. But there have always been problems running both systems on the same network, and the new Apple desktops should eliminate many of those issues, he said.

Apple has addressed the networking problems by bringing all of its computers to the Internet Protocol with AppleShare IP 6.0 and by working with several vendors to offer third-party solutions for working in a Microsoft Corp. Windows environment. But there is no perfect or inexpensive way to keep a PC and a Mac on the same network, analysts said.

"It's a little bit better than previous Macs, but not much better," Staten said.

There are also worries that traditional Apple problems, such as a dearth of printers and other peripherals that can connect to Macintosh systems, have not been solved yet. "They don't have a serial port [or] a parallel port. You can't hook it up to a printer.... It could get ugly if you try to put it in a network with anything else," said Roger Kay, an analyst at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass. "For first-time consumers, it's OK...but as a government box, it's irresponsible."

"Apple and their partners have delivered almost no [Universal Serial Bus-based] peripherals, so right now there's very little that can be done," agreed Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, San Jose. "But by the time the government wants these in the future, there may be plenty available," he said.

Apple acknowledged the past peripheral troubles but is not worrying about the current lack of USB support.

"Everyone is standardizing on USB," said JD Mankovsky, senior systems engineer at Apple. By next year he said he expects to see more than 250 USB peripherals.

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