Apple has often been accused of lacking direction or being unable to explain how Macs are different from PCs - perhaps the most valuable thing Steve Jobs brought to Apple has been focus, particularly with the iMacs and iBooks. But although the success of those machines silenced naysayers temporarily, the criticism returned with Apple's recent financial difficulties. So it was incumbent on Jobs to re-establish control over Apple's direction with his keynote address at last week's Macworld Expo in San Francisco, and for the most part, he didn't disappoint.
He started out with details about the forthcoming Mac OS X 1.0, segued into the specifications of the latest generation of Power Mac G4s, and finished off with the drool-inducing PowerBook G4 Titanium. You'll read all about those announcements below and in next week's issue, but Jobs paused in the middle to explain Apple's vision for the future, saying "I'd like to tell you where we're going..."
The PC Is Dead, Long Live the PC -- Jobs begged to differ with quotes from PC maker executives about how the personal computer was dead. He then provided a timeline that labeled the years between 1986 and 1994 as the Productivity Age, when we were entranced by word processors and spreadsheets. From 1995 to 2000, he said, we were ensconced in the Internet Age, where the browser and email ruled. But now, Jobs feels that we're entering what he calls the Digital Lifestyle Age, which is marked by the electronic devices we carry around with us such as cell phones, PDAs, CD players, MP3 players, and digital cameras, along with consumer-level devices like DVD players. Sitting in the audience with my Palm V in my left pocket and my Samsung cell phone and Canon PowerShot S100 digital camera in my right pocket, I couldn't help but agree.
Apple's vision, then, is to make the Macintosh into the "digital hub" of our digital lifestyle, adding value and interconnecting all of these disparate devices. Because of the size and single-mindedness of these devices, Jobs argued that the personal computer offers compelling advantages as the glue tying everything together. In contrast with these tiny bits of consumer electronics, computers have large screens, connect to fast Internet connections, run complex applications, feature inexpensive mass storage devices, and write to cheap and standardized removable media. By inserting a computer into that web of devices, you can, for instance, move audio tracks from a music CD to your hard disk, arrange them as desired, and then burn them to CD-R for playing in your car. Or you could send a slew of photographs from a digital camera to your hard disk, perform minimal image editing, post some to a Web site for public display, and burn the whole bunch to CD-R or DVD for archiving.
Jobs claimed that the success of Apple's simple video editing software iMovie provided the hint that putting the Macintosh at the center of the digital lifestyle was where Apple should go. The success of iMovie relies on a popular piece of consumer electronics (a digital video camcorder) working with Apple's combination of hardware (the Mac, with FireWire), operating system (Mac OS 9, with QuickTime), an application (iMovie), and an Internet service (iTools' HomePage, for posting movies on a streaming QuickTime server), along with Apple's marketing and advertising support to get the word out to people who might not have otherwise considered a Macintosh. With that lesson under its belt, Apple has moved to connect other gaps in the digital lifestyle with the combination of the new CD-RW-equipped Power Macs and new software: iTunes and iDVD.
iTunes -- Apple's next push toward making the Macintosh into a digital hub focuses on audio with a new free program called iTunes. It's by no means revolutionary, combining MP3 encoding and playing along with the capability to work with portable MP3 players and burn audio CDs (though initially only with the CD-RW drives in the latest Power Mac G4s). Those functions are available today in other programs, but iTunes goes the farthest in integrating them in an extremely usable interface. (Jobs compared it with the MP3 software included by PC makers; needless to say, against those motley interfaces, iTunes fared extremely well.) This isn't the place for a full review, but it was common knowledge at the show that iTunes was written by Apple's Jeff Robbin, previously the developer of Casady & Greene's SoundJam (which remains available, though Casady & Greene president Terry Kunysz merely said that SoundJam offers flexibility not present in iTunes and that it remained to be seen how SoundJam would compete). Plus, a bit of investigation with ResEdit shows that iTunes is heavily based on SoundJam. The rewrite seems to have given Jeff a chance to rethink the decisions he made with SoundJam, and iTunes addresses some of the criticisms we've leveled at SoundJam over the years.
Nevertheless, releasing iTunes for free and bundling it with all new Macs makes sense from Apple's standpoint, since it brings home the digital hub role Apple wants the Mac to play by connecting pre-recorded audio CDs with MP3 playback, portable MP3 players, and audio CD creation, all of which are becoming increasingly popular. iTunes does further complicate an already-tough market for MP3 software, much as Apple's anointing of Outlook Express made the email client business even harder for the many other developers of email programs. However, the situation with iTunes isn't quite as troubling as with email, since there wasn't as much variability in MP3 players, no one spends as much time in their MP3 player as in their email program, and few people would argue that listening to MP3s is more important than email. Plus, a case could be made for iTunes introducing people to digital music who would not otherwise have tried it, thus possibly increasing the market for products that go beyond iTunes, offer alternate interfaces, or provide ancillary services.
Apple has also left the older Mac market to other developers. iTunes requires at least Mac OS 9.0.4, with Mac OS 9.1 recommended, and instead of saying which Macintosh models do or do not work, Apple merely says that iTunes "works with all Apple systems released in August 1998 or later" - though our limited tests on older machines running appropriate system software have been successful. iTunes is a 2.8 MB download - if you're into MP3s, it's worth a look.
iDVD -- While iTunes is entering an already crowded market, iDVD stands alone. Working in conjunction with the so-called "SuperDrive" DVD-R drive in the $3,500 733 MHz Power Mac G4, iDVD provides a simple interface for creating graphical, hierarchical interfaces to movies and still images written to DVDs; those discs can then be played in consumer DVD players that support DVD-Video, which is reportedly most recent ones. iDVD is free, but it comes only with appropriately equipped Power Mac G4s. (Jobs also quickly introduced the $1,000 DVD Studio Pro, which complements iDVD much as the professional-level Final Cut Pro complements iMovie.)
What's impressive about iDVD is that it takes a set of tasks that require significant design skill or are computationally difficult and builds them into a truly simple interface. You use drag & drop to add QuickTime movies to your DVD, picking an individual frame for each to act as the thumbnail. Similarly, you can drag folders of images into iDVD to create slide shows. Modifying the background image and choosing different fonts and colors can be as simple as choosing different themes, but it's also easy to add your own images and choose specific fonts and colors instead. Then, once you've set up the entire disc, iDVD does the compression and encoding necessary to convert the files to the format necessary for DVD-Video drives.
Apple claimed a software breakthrough in making that process take only twice as long as the video being recorded instead of 25 times as long (so a 1 hour movie takes only 2 hours to encode, rather than 25 hours); though I haven't been able to verify the truth of that breakthrough claim. Jobs's other claim, that the hardware and software necessary to create DVDs that would play in consumer DVD players cost about $5,000, is on target. Needless to say, going from a peripheral and program combination that costs $5,000 to building the same capability into the fastest Macintosh available (the 733 MHz Power Mac G4) and selling the entire package for $3,500 is brilliant work. Plus, Apple is also selling DVD-R blanks for $10 each, significantly less than the $30 to $40 the discs currently cost.
Thinking Digital -- So what do I think of Apple's new vision? It's compelling, in large part because it's a recognition of reality on Apple's part. Apple has been known for pushing the boundaries to provide new capabilities, as they did with iMovie, but I think the company has often looked too far out, rather than concentrating on the present. The fact is that vast numbers of people are living the so-called "digital lifestyle" right now, and by concentrating on that market, Apple could improve our lives in very real ways.
Over the years, I've written plenty in TidBITS about integrating Macs into everyday life, concentrating in large part on the "kitchen Mac" PowerBook Tonya and I have set up; it handles our calendar, lets us access the Web for activities like ordering groceries, and plays MP3s from a server in the basement over an AirPort-enabled wireless network. And since May of 2000, I've been writing columns for Macworld.com about living the wired life. Apple may be a little late to the party many of us been having for some time, but it's good to have them here at last. I look forward to seeing how Apple tackles the problems presented by some of the other common digital devices that litter our lives, such as digital cameras, cell phones, and PDAs.
Some of Apple's past and present moves in this digital lifestyle direction may feel gimmicky to those who can't imagine using them. We've been somewhat dismissive of iMovie in the past, and I'm sure many people have utterly no interest in burning DVDs with iDVD. But as Shawn King of The Mac Show reminded me while we were chatting at the Expo, sales and use aren't necessarily related. Apple is interested in selling products, and although they would like to see us using those products all the time, that's not necessary. So if iMovie helps convince someone to buy an iMac, Apple doesn't really care if that person makes only a couple of movies with it. Indeed, out of 160 people at this year's Netters Dinner (a geek-laden crowd if there ever was one), only about 10 or 15 had ever made a movie with iMovie, and only a handful had made more than two or three. Similarly, I'm sure that many people who get the top-of-the-line Power Mac G4 with the DVD-R drive will happily burn only a few DVDs for friends and relatives to watch; even if it doesn't happen on a daily basis, iDVD will still have been a success in helping drive a sale for Apple. In short, it's important to remember that just because people may not make movies at the rate they send email, there's no reason to assume that video products aren't successful or important to Apple or to those who do use them.
Let me leave you with one final thought. Jobs may be right about moving from the Productivity Age to the Internet Age and on into the Digital Lifestyle Age. But even though productivity applications and Internet clients have improved and become faster and easier to use, we're all still faced with a finite amount of time, and we haven't stopped using word processors or browsing the Web. Participating in the digital lifestyle doesn't necessarily come for free, as you've undoubtedly discovered while spending hours ripping audio CDs to MP3 files, shopping for a cellular phone, editing video tracks, or trying to manage a collection of thousands of digital photographs. The time necessary to participate in these digital activities has to come from somewhere, and I'd hate to see analog activities like cooking, exercising, or simply enjoying human companionship be pushed to the wayside. Or perhaps Apple will help us figure out how to integrate our Macs into those activities as well.
Cast Your Vote -- So what do you think? Is Apple on to something here? Or is the company just blowing smoke to cover the cracks in its strategy and execution that resulted in the recent disappointing financial results. Cast your vote in this week's poll on our home page, and let us know your opinion of Apple's new emphasis in TidBITS Talk at <email@example.com>.