Not satisfied with its remarkable comeback over the past two years, Apple revealed last month an aggressive Internet strategy by revamping its Web site to include a suite of free services it calls iTools.
The debut of iTools is the latest manifestation of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' continuing quest to make the Macintosh the ideal Internet platform.
One can trace Jobs' strategy back to the introduction of the trend-setting iMac -- the "i", after all, stands for Internet. Last fall Apple released Mac OS 9 with the not-too-subtle slogan, "Your Internet Co-Pilot," on the strength of Sherlock 2's slick Web-prowling abilities and the improved integration of the OS with Net-related functions.
With iTools, the company has forged the last link in its Internet chain. As Jobs said in his keynote speech at last month's MacWorld: "We are going to take advantage -- unfair advantage -- of the fact that we supply the operating system to both the user and the client. We can integrate that together in a way that nobody else can, and we are the last guys in the industry that can do it."
While offering little that's new, iTools has a few unique twists, most notably that only Mac users can access them. If you try to access iTools from a Windows machine, you get a polite message from Apple suggesting you buy a Mac.
In fact, even many Mac owners are locked out: iTools works only with Mac OS 9 and the forthcoming OS X due by midyear. Although an unofficial patch exists on the Web that allows older versions of the Mac OS to access iTools, Apple once again has made a move that leaves behind loyal customers who may not have (or need) its latest products.
The iTools suite consists of four services: free e-mail with a "Mac.com" domain address; a "KidSafe" area where only human-approved Web sites (more than 50,000 and rising) can be viewed; HomePage, which supplies Web page-building templates for the technically challenged; and iDisk, 20 MB of remote hard disk storage.
The main thing Mac.com offers is a trendy e-mail address for the Mac faithful, although the service does provide some nice features, such as auto reply and mail forwarding. It's designed to work with Microsoft's Outlook Express, but works with many other e-mail programs.
The KidSafe feature tackles the problem of shielding children from the seamier side of the Web. It doesn't try to filter out the bad stuff but instead hand-picks what you can see. It's a laudable concept, but the number of Web sites is so huge, and growing so rapidly, that the utility of this service may prove to be rather limited.
KidSafe also gives parents the option of turning off potentially troublesome features such as chat rooms and downloads, which could be useful for those using Internet service providers that don't already offer such controls. Annoyingly, the KidSafe module is not part of the iTools installer that you must download in order to access the services -- it's a separate 2 megabyte download. That's 15 to 20 minutes with a 56K modem.
The Web page builder, HomePage, is clearly intended for folks who want a fast, easy way to place a personal page on the Web. At MacWorld, Jobs said a user should be able to build a page in 10 minutes, chastising most Web site design software as too complicated for the average user.
Complicated is something that HomePage definitely is not. You're given a handful of templates to choose from: Photo Album, Movie Theater, Invitations, Baby Announcements and Resume. The templates don't give you much choice of design; basically, it's fill-in-the-blanks. You can't move anything, and you can't add or delete items on the page.
If you want to include images or movies on your page, you'll need to upload them first to your iDisk. After clicking on the "Publish" button to save the page to Apple's servers, you can return to it and edit it whenever you like. Despite its shortcomings, HomePage's ease of use may make it the most popular iTool of all.
The fourth iTool, the iDisk, is the most impressive and most frustrating of the package. When you open your iDisk, an icon appears on your desktop as if it were an extra hard drive, which is exactly how it functions -- with one major difference: It's really, really, really SLOWWWWW.
For iMac users planning to use their free space on Apple's servers for backup, be warned that saving anything other than basic text documents is going to take some time. To upload a 224K JPEG image took one minute and 40 seconds with my brand-new 56K modem.
One of the niftiest features of the iDisk is the "Public" folder, in which you can save items that you'd like to share with others. Anyone who knows your log-in name (not your password) can download the items over the Net.
At MacWorld, Jobs suggested the iDisk would be a great way to share iMovies made on the new iMac DV machines. But that could mean frightfully long download times for anyone not fortunate enough to enjoy high-speed Internet access, as with a cable modem.
Until such high-speed access is commonplace, iDisk will likely be impractical for common use, but this feature definitely has potential.
Of course, the big question is whether iTools will attract more traffic to Apple's Web site and fulfill its role in making Apple more of an Internet-focused company. Given Steve Jobs' track record over the past two years, I wouldn't bet against it.