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Apple on Top of Its Game: the Macworld SF 2003 Report

by Daniel H. Steinberg

All of the predictions were for a boring MacWorld keynote. For kicks, take a look back at the rumor sites to see what they were guessing would be announced.

Maybe that's not fair, but for the most part, they weren't even close. And yet the week before the San Francisco MacWorld Expo, Apple quietly released free updates to the iCal and iSync applications.

As it turned out, Apple CEO Steve Jobs wouldn't have had time to demo these updates at the keynote because he had a full program. During his two hours he introduced the following.

  • Updates to the iApps that feature cross integration of iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, and iDVD into a suite that's been branded iLife.

  • A consumer entry version of Final Cut Pro priced at a third of the price of the professional product.

  • A free web browser and presentation software are two applications intended to challenge Microsoft.

  • Not one, but two new laptops in the PowerBook line. If you haven't seen it yet, check out the commercial with Mini Me and Yao Ming.

  • Improvements to Airport and FireWire.

Predictions -- all wrong

Our scene opens up on the end of talk show that looks much like the classic McGlaughlin Group or at least the old SNL parody of it. Instead of the usual collection of political pundits, the panelists are the Mac rumors sites. In place of John McGlaughlin, the moderator is Steve Jobs.

"Predictions," the moderator barks.

"Well," says the first panelist, "I don't see any improvements to the hardware. Maybe there'll be speed bumps in the desktop lines -- but there definitely won't be any changes to the notebook line."

"Wrong, who's next?"

"The iApps will get some minor improvements," starts the second panelist, "but the big news there is that Apple will start charging for them."

"Wrong," says Jobs, obviously enjoying himself. "Next."

"Look for a new digital lifestyle device -- "

"Wrong," Jobs begins to lose his patience.

"Apple's been working on their own browser based on the Gecko engine," asserts the final panelist. Not willing to let good enough alone, he adds, "you can also expect to see an Intel port of the Mac OS."

"Wrong, says Jobs. "You're missing the big picture. The key to the Mac for the last few years has been integration. We make the hardware and the software and provide a network. With each new hardware announcement think of the software it enables. With each new technology added to the OS think of the toys you get for free."

Hardware upgrades

Apple just gets it. The personal computer isn't going away but the wired desktop machine might be. Apple looks at their 15" TiBook and the consumer iBook and considers what needs improving if their laptop sales are to account for more than a third of computers sold. For those using their laptop as their desktop machine, a bigger screen is important as is faster and more reliable connectivity. For those that travel a great deal with their laptops, it is important to keep the form factor small but pack in more power and again more connectivity.

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Apple has introduced two new PowerBooks -- one for each of those needs. The iBook only has a G3. It would be nice to have a small notebook with a G4 in it. But Apple needs to keep the price of the iBook line low to appeal to consumers considering other platforms. Their answer was to introduce the 12" PowerBook running an 876 MHz G4 processor. On the other hand, people who use their notebook as their desktop computer might want more screen and more connectivity options. Apple also introduced a 17" PowerBook running a 1GHz processor. Apple's positioning statement for the two machines is "less is more, more is more."

The 17" is not just a 15" with a bigger screen. The ports have been moved to the sides for easier access. The AirPort antennas have been moved to the top of the sides of the screen for iBook like range. If you find yourself at a demo with an Apple employee, they will dim the lights so that you can see the backlit keyboard light up.

The machine comes with Bluetooth builtin. You'll also get two FireWire ports. One for the original FireWire 400 and one for the newly announced FireWire 800. With an adapter the FireWire 800 port can be turned into a second FireWire 400 port. Apple recently announced a preview release of IP over FireWire. Dare to dream for a minute. Rendezvous allows services and devices to discover each other of IP. Combine this with IP over FireWire and faster FireWire and you can get to work on making your own predictions for the next keynote.

Jobs also announced improvements to AirPort. AirPort Extreme is Apple's name for 802.11g. The older version of Airport was 802.11b and transmits at 11Mbps. Both 802.11a and 802.11g can transmit at 54Mbps. The advantage of 802.11g is that it is completely compatible with 802.11b. If you have 802.11g you can communicate with another 802.11g device at the higher speeds. If either of you has 802.11b then you can communicate at the lower speed. The problem with 802.11a is that is can not communicate with 802.11b and so you wouldn't be able to use a machine equipped with 802.11a on many of the publicly available 802.11b networks. The new Airport Extreme base stations allow you to plug in a USB printer and share it among other users.

You can make this stuff -- iApp upgrades

You could feel the tension as Jobs began to outline the improvements for the iApps. The rumors had been unequivocal. Although some reporters had hedged, others had come right out and said that Apple would start charging for the previously free iApps. On news bulletin boards Apple defenders who assumed this news to be true argued that iMovie didn't use to be free so it made sense for Apple to charge for it and iDVD had never been free. As Jobs went through one feature after another, the audience kept waiting for him to announce how much these improvements were going to cost. His delivery was masterful. He learned a great deal since the summer announcement of the $99 fee for .mac. Even given the dampened response to the announcement in July, Jobs said that .mac has 250,000 paid subscribers.

"We live," began Jobs, "in an inflection point where so much of our lives are going digital." He reminded the audience that it had been two years since Apple had announced their digital hub strategy and in the meantime Apple had released iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, and iDVD. The next phase, he explained, was to take these applications that were written individually and rewrite them so that they are fully integrated. The vision is to allow users to use music from iTunes in movies, slide shows, and DVDs. Users should be able to use their photos from iPhoto in movies or DVDs. The goal is to take advantage of the synergies.

It turns out that Apple has been moving toward this end for a while. iTunes 3 is set up to interact with the other iApps but the specific features weren't available and weren't announced. The newly available iPhoto 2 is integrated with the iTunes music library. If you want to add music to a slide show, you select from the library from within iPhoto. You can search for tunes and each photo album can store its own music preference.

iPhoto needed more than just integration with iTunes. The new version also includes a feature called one-click enhance. By clicking on this button many factors are taken into account to improve your picture. You can use this as a good first step to clean up most of your pictures. They have also introduced a retouch brush that can be used to blend out reasonably sized unwanted components in the picture. The brush uses a fairly intelligent averaging algorithm to allow you to rub out blemishes easily. No mention was made of performance enhancements. A frequent complaint of users is that iPhoto begins to perform slowly when it has to manage too many pictures. On the other hand, the new version makes it easier for you to archive your pictures to CD and DVD. You'll also notice that the interface has been streamlined. The items that were previously under the share button are now under organize.

The iMovie UI has also been enhanced in iMovie3 . It no longer takes over the whole screen. You can access iTunes from within iMovie as well as add sound effects from a library licensed from Skywalker Sound Effects. The volume can be edited more precisely for the various components of a movie. This would allow you, for example, to lower the soundtrack when there is dialog or to set your own envelope for a sound effect. iMovie also allows you to see all of the photos from your iPhoto library. You can import a photo and set a start and finish point for a pan across a photo. This is what Apple is referring to as the "Ken Burns" effect after the filmmaker who effectively moves across stills to create a feeling of motion in his movies. You can also add chapter markers to your movie. This is beneficial if you want to create an iDVD project from within iMovie. The iDVD app will launch and allow you to view the movie or choose the scenes that you just set with the chapter effect.

The final new integrated iApp is iDVD3. You can start with your iMovies or iPhotos. You can move the video inside of one of Apple's twenty four new themes. Adding music to the movie preview makes all the difference. Jobs played with one theme after another. Dragging in different iMovies and different songs. The effects were very impressive for a consumer application. Jobs repeated his message from previous expos after showing off one presentation after another, "you can make this stuff."

But for how much, you ask. First, the iApps have been branded as a single integrated suite called iLife to stress that it all works together. They will come bundled with all new Macs sold after January 25th. The first three, iTunes, iPhoto2, and iMovie3 are all available as free downloads. But, Jobs pointed out, iDVD has never been free. It's just too big to download and contains too much. So iDVD will be sold on a CD with the other three iApps for $49. In contrast to the stunned silence after the summer .mac announcement, the audience responded immediately with applause.

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