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Macworld Expo SF 2002 Keynote: Hip or Hype?

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I hope the noodles are soaking in preparation for a serious flogging of the people in Apple's PR machine. This keynote was perhaps the most hyped event Apple has ever done, making it sound as if the reports on the rumor sites were nothing compared with what Apple would announce. (The Crazy Apple Rumor Site took up the challenge, deciding in the end that the only thing Apple could do that would top the wild rumors swirling about was to introduce anatomically correct sexbots.)

<http://crazyapplerumor.blogspot.com/>

But let's face it, the only people who didn't expect Apple to release an LCD iMac are those for whom news is the winners at Saturday night's Bingo tournament. There's no question the new iMac design is cool-looking, and numerous people have said they're not sure quite whether they like it or not - which is probably a good omen for what could be called an edgy design if it weren't so rounded.

Overall, for a keynote as heavily hyped as this one, the actual presentation was bland. Aside from the iMacs, iPhoto generated the most talk, but it too has been expected for a year, at least in these pages (see "iPhoto Joins the iFold" in this issue for more details). And the enhancements to the iBook are mostly just larger numbers in the spec sheet, including a model with a larger screen. Are we expecting too much from a Macworld keynote? Yes, but although that's always been the case, this time Apple deserves blame for overheated expectations.

Mac OS X -- The biggest news about Mac OS X is that all new Macs will ship with Mac OS X as the default operating system, starting with the new Macs introduced today and extending to the entire product line (well, not the iPod, we assume) by the end of January. That's sooner than we had expected, and frankly, sooner than we feel is warranted. Apple deserves credit for improving Mac OS X so significantly during 2001, but it's nowhere near the maturity level of Mac OS 9, as Adam and I just found out when trying to share files and an Internet connection using Mac OS X. For those using their Macs merely to browse the Web, read email, listen to MP3s, and manage their digital photo collection, Mac OS X is fine, but it's still easy to find things that Mac OS X simply can't do. And that's despite Apple's claim of 2,500 shipping Mac OS X applications.

Nonetheless, the parade of developers during the keynote was welcome. Adobe's After Effects 5.5 is now shipping, and GoLive 6.0 and LiveMotion 2.0 were announced (with no expected ship dates yet). But the most eagerly awaited application, Photoshop, remains a distant promise. Adobe did show it off, though, including a built-in spelling checker, a feature that was greeted with much applause, presumably from the people who do all their writing in Photoshop.

The highlight of the Mac OS X portion of the keynote - dare I say the entire keynote? - was Theodore Gray of Wolfram Research. Demonstrating Mathematica for Mac OS X, he engaged the audience by saying, "Okay, it's math... but look at the typography!" To round out his appearance, Gray demonstrated modeling a complex formula with the quip, "This would have been incredibly useful for people designing vacuum tubes."

Dan Gregoire of Lucasfilm began his presentation with a video clip of director George Lucas welcoming the Macworld audience and explaining how Macs have been used extensively to build around 4,000 animatics (low-resolution pre-visualizations of scenes) for the upcoming movie Star Wars: Episode II, Attack of the Clones. Judging from the circles under Lucas's eyes, using the Macs hasn't helped so much that he's gotten a lot of sleep of late, but it's no doubt an improvement from earlier methods of creating effects. Gregoire then briefly showed how the animatics designers use Maya for Mac OS X and After Effects to build the shots.

iBook's Big Brother -- Until today, the iBook's bigger sibling has been the PowerBook G4 Titanium - little did anyone know there was a half brother lingering on the family tree. Available now, the 14.1-inch iBook sports the same design as the existing iBook, but expanded slightly to accommodate a 14-inch screen. The new machine includes a larger battery, which Apple says offers a six hour charge. The 14.1-inch model, which also has a 600 MHz G3 processor, 256 MB of RAM, and a Combo drive, sells for $1,800 and weighs about a pound more than the existing model. Hopefully it won't suffer the fate of the Cube, orphaned as that machine was between the iMac and Power Mac lines, but this larger iBook fits more neatly into the price gap. More the question is if it will seriously damage sales for the Titanium, given that screen size was a primary difference between the PowerBook and iBook lines before.

The other iBooks received some attention, too: the entry-level model with CD-ROM is now $100 cheaper at $1,200, and the previous high-end 600 MHz iBook with Combo drive now sells for $1,500.

Flat-Panel iMac -- Based on the semi-exuberant reception to the new iBook, it was clear that the audience was itching for new hardware announcements, specifically the rumored flat-panel iMac. Jobs teased the crowd, noting that Apple has sold six million iMacs since its introduction in 1998, and running a succession of iMac commercials, allegedly to demonstrate the model's progression (conspicuously absent was any mention of the Flower Power and Dalmatian models). He even started quickly running down the impressive list of specifications before unveiling what we really wanted to see: the design.

On a platform rising from the middle of the stage was the most amazing table lamp you've ever seen. Okay, that's not a fair description, but it's the comparison I've heard most since the keynote. Retaining the iMac's all-in-one design, the new model has a 10.6-inch diameter white hemispheric base that contains all the components, including the power supply, which in the G4 Cube existed as a bulky external power brick. Despite that, the iMac still doesn't have a fan, making it near silent. The 15-inch flat screen sits on an adjustable metal neck that rotates 180 degrees left-to-right and 90 degrees top-to-bottom; the screen itself also tilts up and down, and even retains its angle when you move the neck (in other words, a screen that's vertical remains vertical when you adjust the neck). A lip around the screen's front face makes it easy to move the armature around - no doubt the models in the Apple booth will undergo massive user testing over the next four days. The screen's viewable area is the same as a 17-inch CRT monitor, running at resolutions of 1,024 by 768 or 800 by 600 interpolated (you can also choose 640 by 480 if you've attached an external monitor).

The base appears rather ordinary at first, but a peek around the back reveals a host of ports: two FireWire connections, Pro speaker jack, headphone jack, Ethernet, power, modem, three USB ports, and an iBook-style video-out port (video mirroring only). The machine's sole power switch is a button on the back left side, which seems somewhat awkward, especially now that Apple's keyboards no longer feature a power button. On the front, looking like a white-on-white smiley face, the media bay houses either a tray-loading CD-ROM, Combo drive, or SuperDrive, depending on configuration.

Looks aside, what about the iMac's power? Here, the iMac's designation as a consumer model is purely a side effect of its marketing. The low-end configuration, priced at $1,300, includes a 700 MHz PowerPC G4 processor with Velocity Engine, 128 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard disk, and the CD-ROM drive. The mid-range model, for $100 more, has the same processor and hard disk, but includes 256 MB of RAM and the Combo drive. The $1,800 high-end iMac sports an 800 MHz G4 processor, 256 MB of RAM, a 60 GB hard disk, and a SuperDrive. Each model also comes with an Nvidia GeForce2 MX graphics card, can support up to 1 GB of RAM, and is AirPort-ready. The AirPort antenna goes around the outside of the monitor, so range should be good, and the RAM and AirPort slots are easily available by removing the base's bottom plate. It's unclear how easy it will be to perform other upgrades such as swapping in a new hard disk.

Anticipating high demand for what is now an inexpensive SuperDrive-equipped Mac, the 800 MHz iMac will be available at the end of January, with the middle-tier model arriving in February and the entry-level machine showing up in March as the company ramps up production.

Apple is selling the new iMac as the ideal digital hub, and it's clearly more than capable in that regard. In fact, the biggest question seems to be whether potential buyers will accept or reject the new design - an interesting predicament, considering that until Apple introduced the original iMac, design was usually at the bottom of the list of considerations. But given that the "new" iMac will no doubt be the only iMac Apple offers (the two previous low-end models are still available, though I'm guessing only until Apple can clear out its inventory), the machine's impressive capabilities will win over even the most skeptical eyes - especially if they belong to someone looking to reclaim a fair bit of desk space.

 

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