Apple’s New iSUV

PowerBook: too sexy for its shirt

Steve Jobs’ traditional unveiling of new Apple gizmos at the annual Macworld conference in San Francisco surprised even the most zealous Apple boosters today. Amid a tech recession that continues to power-dive, Jobs took the stage to trot out a two-hour market-defying parade of products. The crowning touch: an enormous, silver-skinned laptop, half computer and half Cadillac Escalade.

Apple’s 17-inch PowerBook is the computer equivalent of a tricked-out hoopty. Easily the largest laptop ever, its 1-gigahertz processor beats beneath a casing made of what Jobs calls “aircraft-grade aluminum.” Its metal sides bristle with beefed-up data ports, and it comes standard with a DVD burner and a new super-WiFi system, aptly named Airport Extreme, fast enough at 54 megabits per second to carry a hundred video streams. Status-conscious laptop toters know you can never be too rich or too thin, though, so the $3,299 behemoth closes its lid to a mere inch in height—deliberately slimmer than its predecessors. Capping the theme, the PowerBook’s keyboard is under-lit like a mall cruiser with a soft, fiber-optic glow that emanates automatically whenever the room lights dim. All that’s missing is a subwoofer and tinted windows.

To drive its larger-than-life message home, Apple has hired 7-foot-5 Houston Rockets center Yao Ming as the new PowerBook spokesmodel, placing him on life-size posters and in TV ads that pair him with actor Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer and the company’s other new PowerBook—its smallest ever. Side by side, the two computers bear an uncanny resemblance to this year’s hot cars, the Hummer 2 and the Mini.

Most computer users will find a 17-inch screen and gigabit data jacks about as useful as 4-wheel drive and roll bars. Yet, judging by the number of attendees jotting down “$3,299,” Jobs and company have hit the same consumer brain button that keeps the H2 on backorder. While everyone else was out cost-cutting, Apple built a lust object. Among the rows of jaded industry journalists at Jobs’ feet, two things were obvious: Nobody, but nobody, really needs this computer. And everybody wants one.