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Little Things Are Big at Macworld SF 05

by Daniel H. Steinberg


This year's Macworld expo keynote featured the official announcements of the rumored Mac mini and iPod shuffle. Although rumor sites had correctly predicted the upcoming release of a new low-end Mac and a flash-based iPod, Apple's execution exceeded audience expectations. In his nearly two-hour presentation, Apple CEO Steve Jobs had time to highlight only a few features of the upcoming Mac OS X Tiger release to leave room to describe the additions and changes to the iLife suite and to introduce the new two-application iWork suite.

Baiting Switchers

Mac Mini
Steve Jobs says you have to bring your own display, keyboard, and mouse if you want to attend the Mac mini party. Photos by Derrick Story

Not to overstate the obvious, but the Mac mini is really small. It is 6.5" by 6.5" by 2". Steve Jobs held one in the palm of his hand. He picked up the box it will ship in by the handle, and it looked about the size of a lunchbox. If you had a monitor, keyboard, and mouse at work and at home, you could almost carry this desktop machine back and forth and dock it at each location.

But that's not really the target audience for this rounded and truncated cube. Windows users who have spent $500 on an iPod are attractive candidates for switching. Apple figures that many of them already own a monitor, keyboard, and mouse and may be willing to spend around $500 to stick their toes in the water. That price point may be the right entry for parents who have windows machines at home and at work and want to provide a Mac at home for their kids who have Macs at school. That price point might just be low enough that the next time a Windows user's home machine is brought down by a virus or intruded on by spyware, they may head to their nearest Apple store just to take a look.

Mac Mini
Expo attendees examined the Mac mini from all angles in the Apple booth.

The machine is a bit memory constrained. You will want to increase the memory from the 256MB it ships with to 1GB. At least put in 512GB. You may want to upgrade the combo drive to a super drive so that you can burn DVDs. You have to add the wireless options yourself. The machine has been positioned to be nice enough to lure price-conscious Windows users without undercutting the existing iMac owners. Mac users are also already ordering these Mac Mini's to use as a server or an extra box. It's priced so that customers view it as a nice way to get some use out of that unused monitor.

Music Programming

Most of us are familiar with the music played on the radio stations we listen to most. We hear and enjoy most of the music, we just don't know what order it's coming up in. When we hear something we don't like, we either change the station or don't pay much attention. This matches the way in which you will listen to Apple's latest iPod.

To return to a theme, the new iPod shuffle is really small. It's pack-of-gum small. It's the size of those short highlighter pens and not much heavier. There are other entry-level flash players on the market, but Apple has identified the problem areas and addressed them. Most people spend a lot of money on batteries for these players in a year. The usage cited led to spending almost as much in batteries as the original player cost. Apple has addressed this by providing a 12-hour rechargeable battery.

iPod Shuffle
The display for the iPod shuffle was as clever as the device itself.

A second related area is the size and quality of the display in most of the flash players. Apple's response is to eliminate the display. You can't see the name and artist of the song you are playing. You can not visually navigate to a particular song and press play. You can, however, put 512MB or 1GB of audio in your shuffle and listen to it in sequence or select shuffle and hear it in a random order. If a song comes up that you aren't in the mood to hear press forward and skip it.

Apple has enhanced iTunes to support the shuffle. You are not meant to store all of your music on the device; rather, you are supposed to load it up with the audio you want to hear today or this week. You can put in a book on tape and take it with you to the gym. As of now, iPod accounts for 65% of the market. Jobs was clear that the shuffle is targeted at capturing the 29% of the market currently using low-end flash players.

If you want to create the music you carry with you, take a look at the update to the GarageBand application. The biggest news is the support for recording up to eight tracks at a time. In the first release, a musician had to record the vocal and instrumental tracks in separate passes. Now, up to eight independent inputs can be recorded. John Mayer, who helped demo the GarageBand debut a year ago, returned to demo the update. As Mayer played, musical notation appeared on the screen. Jobs was then able to grab notes and move them, altering the sound of the track. Jobs said, "We can really screw up music this way." Mayer's bass player then joined him on stage and Jobs was able to record the two instruments and two vocal tracks live.

Improving Your Image

In addition to the hardware announcements, Steve Jobs had more than an hour's worth of news on software updates and new offerings. Much of the focus was on support for High Definition. New versions of Final Cut and iMovie support editing HD video. Jobs invited Sony president Kunitake Ando to talk about Sony's High Definition video cameras. Ando noted that "Steve is a great fan of Sony products." He paused and smiled as he acknowledged, "not all of them." Ando predicted that 2005 would be the year of High Definition in the home and promised smaller, lighter, and less expensive cameras are on the way. As he left the stage, Jobs said that Sony and Apple have collaborated in many areas, "maybe someday with computers and music too."

Apple announced plenty of software enhancements too. The iLife 05 suite of digital hub apps looks very promising.

Image support is greatly enhanced in the new version of iPhoto. You can now bring in movies captured on your digital camera and store them in iPhoto. A big addition to this version of iPhoto is support for storing and editing RAW files. Apple's new editing tool has added a lot of power while remaining simple to use. The new editing tool looks a bit like a Tiger Dashboard widget and can be used to enhance JPEGS and RAW images. You can easily adjust brightness, contrast, temperature, tint, straighten, sharpness, and more. In typical Apple fashion, you don't have to add filters or understand some complicated workflow; you just move slider bars to adjust the various attributes. In the demo, Jobs easily adjusted the saturation, changed the whitepoint in an image, and straightened the horizon so that a sunset shot looked perfect.

Sharing and working with your photo library has gotten easier too. You can more easily reach one mode of iPhoto from another. Jobs showed that while he was putting together a book, he wanted to edit one of the photos. A quick click and the editing palette appeared, and the changes were saved to the photo and visible in the book page that contained it.

After Steve Jobs spoke on Tuesday, thousands of eager attendees were anxious to visit the expo floor and test the new products for themselves.

In the editing mode, you can see a horizontal display of photos near the one you are working on so that you don't have to keep flipping back and forth between organize and edit modes. Folders have been added so that you can more easily organize your rolls of film, and the calendar widget helps you find pictures you took during a given time period. Search has also been enhanced for pictures containing metadata.

Slide shows are much more interesting now that you can select different transitions and durations for different pictures. Previously, you would have had to have used iMovie to get the shows you can now generate directly from iPhoto. You also now have a greater selection in the books you choose to print. In addition to the 11 x 8.5 hardcover, there is now a softcover book of the same size. Other sizes now include 8 x 6 and 3.5 x 2.6.

Give Me the Works

In addition to his preview of Tiger and these updates to the iLife suite, Steve Jobs revealed the new productivity suite iWorks. Last year's iLife was a gathering of updates to four existing applications (iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and iTunes) with one new one (Garage Band). This year's iWorks is a gathering of the updates to one existing application (Keynote) with the introduction of the long rumored document-producing application named Pages.

The Keynote update includes animated text, ten new themes, and interesting animated builds. For presenters, one of the nicest features is that they can see the current slide, the next slide, time cues ,and their notes on the monitor while the audience sees the current slide on the screen. The presentations can be delivered live or set to run as interactive slide shows or self-running kiosk shows.

In the Apple theater, visitors could rest their feet and learn more detail about the new offerings.

If you compare Pages feature for feature with Microsoft Word, you are missing the point. If you have used Word to produce documents, you have, no doubt, puzzled over auto corrections that you thought you had turned off only to find that you had to turn the same setting off in two places. There are many features in Word not in Pages and many in Pages not in Word. Apple has made it very easy for students, small business owners, parents, and grandparents to produce attractive documents.

In the demo, we saw how easy it was to choose a template and add different types of pages where they were needed. Adding elements to a page and repositioning them was simple. Adding images from the iPhoto library is trivial. A picture of an Apple with an alpha mask around it was placed into the text. As the apple was dragged around, the text live-wrapped around the image in real time. Pages has the same feel as Keynote and is being sold in a bundle called iWorks for $79.

Final Thoughts

A few years ago at his MacWorld keynote, Steve Jobs announced that Apple would innovate its way out of the recession. It was a bold strategy and has created a striking difference between Apple and other technology companies. While other companies have scaled back, Apple has revised its iMac line twice, continued to revise the PowerBook and PowerMac lines, added the Mac Mini, introduced and updated the iPod, continued to release major operating system updates on a regular schedule, and introduced new software.

While Windows users struggle with viruses and pop-up ads, Macintosh users don't feel their machine is in the way of what they want to do. Power users scoff at Jobs' emphasis of available templates for many of the Macintosh applications, but these templates, like the Macintosh itself, get users into the task they want to accomplish quickly. They are working with music or images or documents--they are not working at a computer.

Daniel H. Steinberg is the editor for the new series of Mac Developer titles for the Pragmatic Programmers. He writes feature articles for Apple's ADC web site and is a regular contributor to Mac Devcenter. He has presented at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, MacWorld, MacHack and other Mac developer conferences.

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