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Apple's next-generation iMacs to add a touch of grace

AppleInsider has learned that Apple's popular line of iMac personal computers are about to undergo a substantial facelift that will showcase striking new industrial designs aimed at leaving both competitors and onlookers smitten.

People familiar with the matter say the Cupertino-based Mac maker has called upon its award-winning design chief Jonathan Ive and his team to cut the fat from the the current iMac line and outfit a pair of new Core 2 Duo-based models in a form factor that will be both slimmer and sleeker than today's offerings.

For Apple, the impending iMac makeover will represent the first major industrial design overhaul to hit its flagship all-in-one consumer desktop line in nearly three years. The last eye candy to accompany an iMac update came back in August of 2004, when the company retired its "sunflower" iMac G4 design while introducing the portrait-style iMac G5.

With the burden of a major architectural transition to Intel chips weighing on its shoulders, Apple in 2006 elected to reuse the the iMac G5 design for its first Intel-based iMac offerings. At the time, the objective was to push an Intel version of its top-selling desktop into market as quickly as possible and get the ball rolling on the next chapter in Apple computing. 

As part of an industry-wide shift away from desktops and towards high-powered portables, Apple's industrial design prowess in 2006 was largely reserved for its notebook lines, which saw cutting-edge design revisions replace aging form factors at both the consumer and professional ends. In turn, those designs and compelling Intel-based underpinnings helped the firm sell nearly 3 million MacBook and MacBook Pros during the 2006 fiscal year, boosting its share of the U.S. notebook market to over 10 percent.

Apple has no plans to relent in its assault on the notebook sector in 2007 and has arranged to boost it 15-inch MacBook Pro models with more vivid L.E.D.-backlit display panels later this Spring and followup with a tiny flash-enabled ultra portable model sometime thereafter. But while 2006 was clearly the year of notebooks for the Mac maker, the electronics firm now has its sights set on high-definition digital media and plans to bring the iMac along for the ride.

It's likely for these reasons that the firm's entry-level 17-inch iMac model will reportedly become the subject of considerable neglect. People familiar with the matter are confident that the forthcoming iMac redesign will grace only the 20- and 24-inch models, which are outfitted with widescreen displays comparable to smaller living room television sets. The 17-inch iMac, those people say, will enter a state of limbo that could ultimately phase it out of the lineup entirely, condemning it to the same fate as the 12-inch PowerBook.

Apple's current line of iMac personal computers includes 17-, 20- and 24-inch models.

Apple's move to strike the 17-inch model from its next-generation iMac line raises a number of questions about the company's plans for education and the upcoming 2007 educational buying season. A barebones 17-inch iMac has been outfitted to fill the role of the company's primary desktop offering for educational institutions ever since the eMac hit the chopping block last spring. It retails for just $899, or about 10 percent less than the 17-inch model available to the general public. 

Going forward, Apple may choose to keep a revision of the 17-inch iMac afloat specifically for education sales. Alternatively, another scenario would see the Mac maker adhere to some aggressive cost scrubbing measures in order to deliver a version of its new 20-inch offering that would sell for considerably less than the $1399 currently quoted for a 20-inch model on the Apple educational online store. 

Also uncertain is precisely when Apple intends to drop the new iMac line into market. It appears, however, the systems are tracking as hardware-side complements to the company's next-generation Leopard operating system release which, based purely on conjecture, may not be ready until May at best.

In the meantime, indications that Apple could be ready to unleash new hardware offerings as early as next month have already turned heads in international markets, where a shortage of iMacs and other Mac systems in Europe were recently met by unusual iMac price cuts at some big-box Canadian resellers. There's also been a buzz State-side, where sources at some of the largest online retailers have passed on the word that Mac inventories could be constrained early next month ahead of major product refreshes.

Apple last updated its iMac offerings in September, when it equipped the 17- and 20-inch models with Core 2 Duo processors from Intel and added a dazzling new 24-inch widescreen model atop the line.