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MWSF’01: Expo thoughts

by Porruka, porruka@macedition.com, 15 January

The folks that write for MacEdition care passionately about the products that Apple makes. They don’t generally settle for “good enough,” which unfortunately leads to the impression that all MacEdition does is gripe. Well, how’s this: “Mr. Jobs, we offer congratulations on an Expo well done.”

We’re not talking about the actual management of the conference, though it seemed to be handled well. We’re not talking about the streaming of the keynote, which seemed to be an improved service yet again (reports of poor quality from broadband viewers were anecdotally less). No, we’re talking about the things that really count.

Before I get into the details, a confession is in order. There are still many challenges ahead for Apple, as both a company and a platform. We won’t shirk from attacking those issues. However, covering the positive is as important as covering the negative.

The Ti-Book

One of the last things Steve Jobs announced during his keynote speech was Mercury, or what is officially known as the PowerBook G4. Designed to compete with the likes of the Sony VAIO Z505, it is thin, light and more full-featured than many of its competitors. Truly, this must be the “executive laptop” Steve Jobs referred to in a previous interview. At just an inch thick and shorter in height than its older sibling Pismo, this is a stylish ’Book that packs a wallop in terms of power. Why do we highlight it? Because it is a product that fills a need in the Mac laptop market. Unlike the Cube which tried to “create” a market (or was targeted at the headless iMac market, but missed), the demand for a lighter, more manageably sized PowerBook has been apparent for a while.

Given Apple’s (now officially) stated direction of enabling the “Digital Lifestyle,” the tradeoffs found in the Ti-Book are hardly surprising. There are initial rumblings that the loss of a FireWire port will complicate life for DV road warriors who use external FireWire drives. The loss of the expansion bays will be felt by those who need custom devices or drives. But in the case of laptops, where space and weight are of significant concern, these may wind up being acceptable losses for the masses.

Power to burn...

“Power to Burn.” This appears to be a new slogan for the (finally) enhanced PowerMac G4 towers. With G4 goodness up to 733MHz (which we’re waiting to actually see ship), and CD-RW on all the models (albeit at the expense of DVD-RAM), the slogan seems apt. Given the format wars in writable DVD, and DVD-RAM’s rather slow acceptance, it’s a welcome surprise that Apple listened to the market and made the product change right away, rather than hang on to the elder technology. This seems like neither a capricious change, nor one that will be significantly felt in Apple’s user base.

With the exception of a 533MHz BTO option, dual-processor Macs are gone. When the speculation turned to rumor about Apple reneging on its dual-processor strategy, many questioned the intelligence of the move. Apple invested much time and money into convincing users that “two brains are better than one,” when in reality, it seemed even Apple knew it was a marketing ploy to cover the lack of progress on the G4. How would Apple message the change to the users without taking a bath in the court of public opinion? The jury’s still out to see if the approach worked, but the apparent honesty and forthrightness of the company was amazing. Jobs basically laid it on the line, saying that if Apple waited on being able to provide dual-processor boxes, the new machines would not be available for several more months. Apple chose to trust its customers to understand, was honest with them, and provided product sooner. Of course, it will be another month or so before we know for sure if the high-end machines arrive on time. In the meantime, three cheers to the approach, at least!

iDVD, uDVD, we all DVD (eventually)

Apple’s first try at innovation in the writable DVD market may have been a dud, but the second one is not likely to fall as flat. Returning the name SuperDrive back to active duty, the high-end G4 now comes with a burner that will make consumer-readable DVDs, at a very attractive price point. Given that prices are falling quickly on this drive, the price advantage won’t last long, but cheers to Apple for getting there in the first place. As prices fall and availability gets better, we would expect to see this drive show up in more models. That’s when the real power of the iDVD software will show up. In some venues, it has been expected that Apple would do DVD mastering for some time. iDVD is the realization of that. If what was shown at the keynote works as well in real life, consumers have something nifty to look forward to as the technology migrates down the hardware food chain.

i... i... i-Music... (er, iTunes)

What can you say when you get something for free that used to cost real money? Apple’s decided to bundle yet more useful features into the Mac OS distribution. iTunes, a collection of music management features, looks on the surface, like many of the MP3 players out there on the market right now. But it also takes advantage of the new CD mastering software Apple is including in the Mac OS, giving users a feature they’ve been “burning” for for a while. Playlist handling, custom audio CD creation, and portable MP3 player connections all make the software useful. Giving it away as a free download makes it compelling.

Does iTunes do away with the need to buy a third-party app for music management? Not necessarily – though it will certainly suffice for many people. As always, though, the Apple product includes the features and interface that Apple feels is important. That leaves a broad opening for alternative programs to add value.

Finally, a roadmap

The last topic covered in this article is the “Digital Lifestyle” and Apple’s role in making that prediction come true. There are many factors involved, enough to warrant an article to itself. But look at the fact that Apple finally publicly articulated its strategy. After far too long being completely secretive, we as Mac users now know that the Mac and the Mac OS is intended to become the hub of a new generation of connected devices.

Perhaps this was always the plan, to roll out these ideas now, to pull back the veil here in 2001. Perhaps Apple’s hand has been forced by the loss of confidence shown in the company during its recent sales troubles (some of which were its own doing, some a softening overall market). Regardless of the reason, it is worth commending Apple and Steve Jobs for finally letting the rest of the world in on the secret.

Now Apple can get to work trying to realize the course it has set and the rest of us can go to work analyzing it, figuring out how it’s going to work (or not), and what it means to those people who are getting things done using a Mac.

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