As iBooks begin to reach store shelves and end users in the US (expect to wait a couple of weeks for UK stocks), Apple is finally tasting the fruits of its long-awaited consumer portable project. Expectations are running high, thanks to the company's successful marketing strategy and warm reception by the media.
Besides its status as a media event, the iBook also represents an engineering tour de force, thanks in large part to the manufacturing efforts of Taiwanese contractors, who are responsible for building about 70 per cent of the iBook's components, including the chassis and retractable power supply.
Chinese Macworld got a look at an iBook courtesy of one of these contractors (who requested anonymity) and offers some first impressions of the structural details behind Apple's Next Big Thing.
The iBook is currently available only in Blueberry and Tangerine; Apple's testing demonstrated that these two consumer-Mac colours translate most successfully from iMac plastics to the matte-finish rubber detailing of the iBook. It's not impossible, however, that iBooks that span the colour spectrum will soon be available.
The iBook's smoothly arched chassis sets it apart from other notebook computers (with the exception of the eMate 300, late of Apple's discontinued Newton PDA line).
All the systems components must be precisely embedded with the arch-shaped casing; otherwise, the seamed surface wouldn't be smooth. Apple's demanding standards and attention to detail meant hard going for the company's Taiwanese contractors, especially when it came to ironing out manufacturing processes.
Apple's demands required some serious study for its manufacturing partners here; before going into mass production, Apple sent a team to Taiwan to take over inspection tasks temporarily and help adjust the rhythm and flow of the production lines.
Devil in the details
Indeed, the iBook represents an amalgam of high-quality parts, each with exacting manufacturing specs. For instance, the handle is a double-wrapped arch that includes plastics and a metallic core, with a concealed, spring-activated mechanism installed inside. Combining these materials successfully is a serious challenge for moulding technology. Furthermore, if the elastic force of the spring is too strong, the handle would be too difficult to open or pull back.
The same principles apply to the mechanism that allows users to open and close the iBook without a latch; spring strength is paramount if users are going to handle the screen without incident.
We were also impressed with the binding technology used to combine materials in the iBook's chassis. The surface uses three different substances: plastics for the white part, rubber for the orange or blue area, and a third material for the Apple logo. Melding all three in one finished product is impressive enough, but making it smooth without any dents or protrusions? Each and every joint includes a number of tiny components; how is each joined so precisely?
During our visit, the manufacturer also asked to set the record straight on some misinformation that had gone through the rumour mill during the 14 months it was engaged in prep work on the consumer portable. For example, despite some rumours that the iBook would include a 13.3- or 14.1-inch screen, the manufacturer said Apple had settled on a 12-inch screen by the first month of development.
The manufacturer said that, contrary to some reports, it is churning out about 150,000 iBooks per month; furthermore, it said it's prepared to ramp up production to meet any demand from Apple. The company also disputed rumours that its net OEM profits were as high as 8 per cent.
The iBook means a lot to Apple and its local contractor, but there's one irony to the situation: The high price of Macs in Taiwan has denied the general public the opportunity to try the systems for themselves. Will Apple's policy changes reverse this situation?