While ordering lunch at a restaurant in San Francisco last week, I asked our waiter what he thought of the Expo. The last time I'd done that in 1997, I received a thoughtful perspective from the outside the Macintosh community. This year, despite the waiter's limited English, I got an equally accurate, if less grammatical, response. "The people who come in, they are pretty happy. Things were not good, but they are getting better. [Mumble mumble] iMac, [mumble] iMac, [mumble mumble] iMac."
I think the waiter pegged it. This was a good show, and almost everyone was happy. And, amazingly, we can chalk it up to the excitement caused by a Macintosh whose only real claim to fame is a curvy case and a splash of Bondi blue.
Apple in the Center -- To be sure, giving that much credit to the iMac is an oversimplification. Apple has done many things right during this second reign of Steve Jobs, the interim CEO, termed "iCEO" by the wags. Marketing has improved greatly, the chaotic excess of even attractive programs has been trimmed, and by slashing employees and expenses, Jobs is pulling consecutive quarterly profits out of Apple's hat.
In short, just as Jobs has taken charge of Apple and brought order to chaos in occasionally draconian ways, Apple returned to the center of the Macintosh world. The best symbol of this was Apple's prominent position smack dab in the middle of one of Moscone Center's two halls. In previous years, Apple had almost secreted itself in alcoves off the main floor or in a smaller supplementary hall. Now, Apple is back in charge.
TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson and I missed the keynote address due to a delayed flight, but our consolation prize was walking into the almost-deserted South Hall of Moscone Center, where we strolled down an empty aisle flanked by a long series of iMacs in the new colors on light tables (which show off the translucent plastics to their best). The walls were covered with quotes from people like Picasso ("Bad artists copy. Good artists steal."), and enormous banners from the Think Different ad campaign hung from the cavernous rafters. When an Apple rep said the iMac colors were named for flavors - tangerine, lime, strawberry, grape, and blueberry (which is different from Bondi blue) - I couldn't help thinking that these machines give new meaning to the term "Cupertino Kool-Aid."
Even the new Power Mac G3 and the landing pod-like monitors sported the design sense and the blue color of the iMac. By making design the most obvious part of Apple's hardware strategy, Jobs has recast the standard discussion of hardware specs to one of color. About 45 percent of iMac buyers are new to the Mac, and the fact that they're buying iMacs says that color and design (and price, although the iMacs aren't much cheaper than some other Macs) can be more important than operating systems, CPU speeds, and RAM configurations.
Although this change may seem artificial or spurious, I think it's actually quite important. Computers have become sufficiently powerful that the details simply don't matter the way they used to, and novice users aren't likely to take them into account when making a purchasing decision. The ease of use and consistency of the Mac OS has always been an advantage over Windows, and it seems that the iMac design is sufficient to trump the lower prices of PCs. Of course, the danger is that PC vendors will also realize this change in the market and will hire equally talented industrial designers to spice up their offerings.
Apple also managed to keep these new machines a secret, which I applaud. Let's face it, a few new colors don't make for a big change, and the force of an announcement is eliminated if you know about it ahead of time. By keeping the colors secret (Apple wouldn't even release the information to publications like Macworld under NDA), Jobs made sure he had a captive audience to wow during his keynote. On a personal level, I like being surprised - it makes official releases much more fun - and Apple benefits from the excited buzz generated by a well-coordinated, clear announcement.
The Macintosh Ecosystem -- Apple's move back to the center of Macworld Expo and the Macintosh industry started me thinking of the entire industry as an ecosystem, with Apple as the dominant life form. Differences in the Macworld shows from year to year revolve around Apple's changes. Game companies, if not exactly in abundance, were more lively this year, and the product of the show had to be Connectix's wildly popular Virtual Game Station, which lets any G3 Macintosh run Sony PlayStation games.
The overall space used in Moscone's two halls seemed smaller this year, but unlike the ill-fated Macworld Expo last July in New York, the convention organizers cleverly moved the walls in with cloth dividers, so you had to look closely to realize the space difference. Despite this, the number of exhibitors may have been higher than in the past, due to all the small companies with small booths. The Net Innovators and Developer Central pavilions also contributed to the exhibitor count, packing numerous small companies into relatively tight spaces.
The largest influx of new companies had to be small peripheral manufacturers, many of whom had gone all out on the Bondi blue plastics for a wide variety of USB devices. Many of these items clash with the new iMac colors, but Apple folks I spoke with said they'd tried to encourage manufacturers to use a white on translucent white color scheme to avoid the color conflict.
Retailers were in short supply due to a new 10 percent tax that the City of San Francisco was adding to all show sales (on top of sales tax), although CompUSA had a large central area simulating their Apple store-within-a-store structure. However, they reportedly carried only products from companies who paid for the privilege of appearing on those shelves.
Ironically, given the "i" in iMac (which nominally stands for "Internet"), there was little emphasis on the Internet aside from the Net Innovators pavilion. In part, I suspect that Internet capabilities are taken for granted now, so companies aren't trumpeting the basic stuff they were so proud of a few years ago. The de-emphasis may also be due to the elimination of so much Internet client software by the free Web browsers and the difficulty of competing with Microsoft's free email software Outlook Express, though a number of email companies were present, including Bare Bones Software and CE Software. Internet server software like StarNine's WebSTAR Web server and Maxum's caching proxy server and content filter WebDoubler also face an uphill battle as Apple continues to ignore the fact that the Mac OS makes a good Internet server platform.
The number of products for the Palm devices from Palm Computing was also impressive. Although often only peripherally related to the Macintosh, the ethos of the Palm device is similar to that of the Macintosh in earlier years, and users thronged Palm's booth. A Palm device doesn't make much sense for me, but I felt behind the times when a friend wanted to beam me his new business card information. At least I was able to point to Jeff and deadpan, "I don't have a PalmPilot, but I have people who do."
Continued Evolution -- I'll be interested to see how the Macintosh world evolves between now and Macworld Boston next August. Evolution is often marked by spurts of change separated by periods of inactivity. We're in an active phase now, which is nice after the dark days of Apple's death spiral and the constant armchair quarterbacking from Macintosh users. Hopefully, Apple will continue making positive changes on an intentional path. It makes watching the industry far more enjoyable, and in the end, if being a Macintosh user isn't fun, what's the point?