The most common question I was asked at last week's Macworld Expo in New York (apart from the much-appreciated "How's Tonya?" - she stayed home with Tristan) was the standard, "So what's the most interesting thing you've seen?" This year nothing could compare to the iBook, which made its debut during Steve Jobs's keynote.
What Is the iBook? When Steve Jobs regained the reins at Apple, he outlined a four-square product matrix with desktop and portable products for both consumers and professionals. The blue and white Power Macintosh G3 and the PowerBook G3 occupied both squares of the professional column, and the iMac was in the consumer desktop square. Left tantalizingly blank until last week was the consumer portable square. If you missed the massive media coverage, the iBook fills that final space. Or at least it will when it ships in September.
As with the iMac, Apple didn't skimp much on features with the $1,599 iBook, which boasts a 300 MHz PowerPC G3, 12.1-inch TFT active matrix color display capable of up to 800 by 600 resolution in millions of colors, 32 MB of RAM (expandable to 160 MB), a 3.2 GB hard disk, a 24x CD-ROM drive, internal 56K modem, a 10/100Base-T Ethernet jack, one USB port, a "full-size" keyboard, and a supposed six hour battery life. Those are impressive specs, and Jobs claimed the iBook would be the second-fastest laptop currently available after the PowerBook G3.
Attention to design detail is also evident in the iBook, which will debut with a choice of either blueberry or tangerine coloring. More interesting is the handle mounted where the two halves of the clamshell-style case connect. Using the handle makes the iBook's 6.6 pounds feel lighter than the bronze keyboard PowerBook G3's 5.9 pounds. Apple eliminated easily broken doors from the recessed modem, Ethernet, and USB ports. Also new is the complete lack of a latch: Apple took a hint from cellular phone designs in creating a hinge that holds the screen shut. (The previous three PowerBook designs - the PowerBook G3, the PowerBook G3 Series, and the bronze keyboard PowerBook G3 - all feature different latches.) Finally, Apple outfitted the iBook in polycarbonate plastic edged with hard rubber for durability.
Wireless Networking -- The most amazing aspect of the iBook, though, is its support for Apple's new AirPort wireless networking, based on technology from Lucent and the 802.11 DSSS (Direct-Sequence Spread Spectrum, as opposed to the incompatible FHSS, or Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum) wireless networking standard. With the addition of a $99 card under the iBook's keyboard and a $299 AirPort Base Station, iBooks can share files, play network games, and generally do anything possible on a normal network, all without a single wire. This invisible networking is enabled by the AirPort card and a pair of internal antennas on either side of the iBook's screen.
The AirPort Base Station is shaped like a flying saucer or a pudgy Hershey's Kiss with three connectors in back. A 10/100Base-T Ethernet jack lets you connect an AirPort Base Station to a wired network for communicating with desktop Macs, printers, and dedicated Internet connections. A standard telephone jack belongs to a 56 Kbps modem, so the Base Station can connect directly to an Internet service provider. The third jack is a relatively dull AC power connector, but I heard that it uses 12 volts, making it easy to run via an adapter in a car or boat.
AirPort is theoretically capable of 11 Mbps, although it remains to be seen what sort of performance AirPort networks will enjoy in real world situations. Other limitations include a 150 foot range (diminished by thick walls or floors) and a 10 user per AirPort Base Station recommendation. The 10 user limit is not etched in stone; I heard of successful tests involving over 30 iBook users working with a single AirPort Base Station, although performance may suffer under heavy network use. AirPort will require Mac OS 8.6 or later.
Details on AirPort are still sketchy, but from conversations with knowledgeable people, it appears the AirPort includes NAT (Network Address Translation) and DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol). Combine those with the 56 Kbps modem and any iBook connected to an AirPort Base Station that has dialed up an ISP can share that single Internet connection. That's amazingly useful, and better yet, if you have a wired Ethernet network connected to the AirPort Base Station's Ethernet jack, that network can also share the modem-based Internet connection. According to Apple, Airport Base Station Access Point software can enable an iBook to function as a base station; the network could then also connect to the Internet using the iBook's internal modem.
Software will let you protect your AirPort network, since otherwise anyone could sit on your porch with an iBook and use your network without permission. The connections reportedly use 40-bit encryption to prevent other people from eavesdropping on your network traffic as well. In addition, users must enter a password to log onto an AirPort network.
AirPort's pricing sets a new standard in the wireless networking market. Before this, you could expect to spend at least $300 on a PC Card and between $700 and $1,100 for a base station for a total of $1,000 to $1,400. Compare that to the $400 you'll pay for a complete AirPort solution, and you can see how Apple intends to bring wireless networking to the masses. My guess is that within a year, we'll see AirPort antennas available across Apple's entire line, with various styles of AirPort cards available from both Apple and other manufacturers.
I can't decide which superlatives to use with regard to AirPort, assuming the reality lives up to the promise. Just imagine the possible uses. Suddenly your entire house becomes network-capable without stringing a single wire. Classroom networking becomes much more of a reality than in the past. With AirPort Base Stations placed in strategic locations, college dorms and libraries could provide ad hoc Internet access to iBook-toting students. (Yes, this raises unknown issues about scalability, but we're imagining here, remember?)
If you want to add wireless networking capabilities to older PowerBooks, you'll need a WaveLAN PC Card from Lucent or the just-announced SkyLINE PC Card from Farallon after their testing confirms it is compatible with AirPort. (Both run at 2 Mbps.) The AirPort press release from Lucent also claims that Apple will offer a wireless card for the PowerBook G3.
Quibbles and Bits -- Although I'm impressed with the iBook and AirPort networking, I have a few quibbles.
A mere 32 MB of RAM is rarely enough, even for a consumer. Every iBook should have at least 64 MB of RAM, and I expect dealers will install additional memory at the point of sale as they do for iMacs. Dealers may like this setup, since RAM can be a high-margin addition. I don't know what form factor the memory modules will be, but I hope the iBook uses the same RAM as the current PowerBook G3.
The 12.1-inch screen, with a maximum resolution of 800 by 600 pixels, seems small and was undoubtedly one of the places Apple skimped to keep the price down. I wouldn't be surprised if future iBooks increased the screen size to 13 inches or more with a higher maximum resolution. The plastics would seem to be big enough to accommodate a larger screen.
Limiting the iBook to two colors - blueberry and tangerine - seems an odd decision, especially since tangerine is the least popular iMac color. I've heard various speculation, including the simple requirement for an alternative to blueberry, the need to use up an enormous vat of orange plastic, and the claim that tangerine is Steve Jobs's favorite color. The most credible explanation was that the other three iMac colors - grape, strawberry, and lime - simply didn't look good in the iBook's rubber attire.
The iBook keyboard has the fn (Function) key in the lower left corner of the keyboard, like the PowerBook G3s. I hate that location because it creates confusion when switching back and forth from a desktop keyboard, where the Control key is in that position. With Control being used heavily for contextual menus and applications using Option and Command with ever-increasing frequency, I wish Apple wouldn't change the order of modifier keys relative to the left edge of the keyboard.
It isn't clear if the AirPort Base Station's modem can connect to America Online or other non-Internet services. AOL is the most important, because the iBook is aimed at consumers, who often use AOL.
I could see an argument for adding FireWire so digital camcorders could connect to the iBook, but I suspect Apple's stance is that since the iBook's 800 by 600 screen isn't ideal for digital video, it's better to point roving digital video aficionados to the PowerBook G3.
The iBook is both heavier and larger than I'd like. Consumers want small and light portable computers as much as professionals do, so it would have been nice to see Apple drop the weight by a pound or two and shrink the footprint. The weight is probably due to the durable plastics, and also because Apple was trying to keep the price down: lighter components cost more.
Target Markets -- The iBook has been a topic of discussion on TidBITS Talk, with some people expressing disappointment and others raving about how perfect it is for their modest needs.
Remember that the iBook is not designed for professional use, and as much as a typical TidBITS reader might want additional features and capabilities, many of us aren't the target audience. Apple is targeting the consumer market with the iBook, and the designers obviously thought long and hard about which features could be cut to save money while at the same time differentiating the iBook from the PowerBook G3. Unless some as-yet-unforeseen problem surfaces, I think we'll have another iMac-style hit on our hands.