Boston Macworld: Less Flash, Less Trash, More Questions
As I sat in my Boston hotel room on the first night of Macworld Expo, the local public television station was running "Triumph of the Nerds," a somewhat silly documentary about the history of the personal computer industry.
When asked by the interviewer about Apple’s historical arch-rival, Steve Jobs replied, "Microsoft has no taste, and I don’t mean that in a small way; I mean it in a big way." With Jobs’s surprise keynote announcement of a broad deal with the software giant, his sentiment seems to have changed to, "Microsoft may have no taste, but it’s got cash and clout." (See Adam’s article in this issue for more on the Apple-Microsoft deal.)
A Bombshell Keynote in Plain Brown Wrapping — After enduring the celebrity-heavy, effects-laden, razzle-dazzle keynote of Gil Amelio’s Macworld keynote last January, I was surprised by the lack of flash in Jobs’s performance. Dressed in black pants, white shirt, and a black casual vest, Jobs delivered a straightforward "status report" on Apple. Only the crowd’s cheering and screaming belied the fact that Jobs is the computer world’s equivalent of a rock star.
He began by saying, "Apple is executing wonderfully on many of the wrong things." News that Apple had dumped its old board of directors was met with surprise by the crowd of approximately 1,500, while the appointment of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison to the board elicited a number of boos. Jobs noted that a board chairman wouldn’t be announced until Apple picks a new CEO.
After a long period of apparently rudderless direction, Apple will focus more on its core markets: education and what Jobs termed "creative content." Education, for example, provides Apple with revenues of nearly $2.5 billion annually; likewise, 80 percent of computers used in advertising, graphic design, prepress, and multimedia production are Macs. Jobs also said that the company intends to capitalize on its core assets: the Apple brand, the Mac OS, and Apple’s users, to whom Jobs commented, "I don’t think we’ve been taking care of you." Addressing the need for valuable partners in the industry, he then announced the Microsoft deal, followed by a guest appearance by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates via satellite. (Originally, Gates was supposed to be present at the keynote, but since the deal wasn’t inked until 3 A.M. that morning, there wasn’t enough time to jump on a plane.) The keynote ended five minutes early with a new slogan mounted beneath the Apple logo: "Think Differently."
Keynote Reactions — I was genuinely surprised at the negative reaction to the Microsoft announcement during the keynote, where most of the crowd booed not only at the news that Microsoft was investing $150 million in Apple stock (though people cheered when Jobs said that the shares were non-voting), but also that Internet Explorer would be the default browser to ship with the Mac OS.
I haven’t subscribed to the Evil Empire theory for the last year or so, believing that the whole "good versus evil" attitude is starting to hurt Apple more than help it. I also have to admit that I use Internet Explorer – if a company makes a product that’s smaller, faster, and requires less RAM, I don’t care who developed it; the point is that it serves my needs best as a user.
Despite the boos, most of the people I talked to on the conference floor were happy about Microsoft’s investment. Not only does it give Apple some working capital, it should improve Apple’s stature in the industry by way of association: if Microsoft likes Apple, maybe everyone else should too.
The Spectre of Mac OS Licensing — Aside from the Microsoft news, most talk at the show centered around Power Computing and Apple’s hardball stance on licensing the Mac OS. The process of hammering out licensing agreements for Mac OS 8 and beyond has been a protracted, bitter affair, and to date there is no signed agreement covering this vital area. Various rumors have indicated that Apple might be considering abandoning OS licensing altogether, though I suspect the company is just playing tough to convince the clone makers to toe the line.
Power Computing, known for making a splash at previous Expos, took every opportunity to make their feelings known about licensing. The most vocal Power proponent was Joel Kocher, Power’s President and COO. During a post-keynote session where vendors displayed their wares, Kocher spent only a few minutes touting the new PowerPC 750-based Power Tower Pro G3/275 and the rest of the time railing against Apple. Lifting a prototype Mac OS laptop clone powered by the PPC 750, Kocher said, "You can’t have this."
Although his point was valid, his presentation struck me as veering several degrees to the side of being whiny. Other people I talked to felt that Power was hurting itself by taking such an offensive stance, even expressing that the company came across as an immature child. However, they also pointed out that Power’s approach ensured a hefty amount of discussion and brand awareness. Other clone makers, namely Motorola and UMAX, were noticeably mum about the whole affair.
Enough Politics, What About the Show? This being my first Boston Expo, I can’t compare it to previous shows. Several people commented that the show was smaller than last year, pointing out notable absences such as Macromedia and Iomega. But at the same time, this Macworld wasn’t the ghost town that some anticipated. The floors were crowded and attendees were generally upbeat.
One interesting mini-trend this year was the floor presence of industry leaders. Be’s CEO, Jean-Louis Gassee, could be seen just hanging out at the Be booth, chatting with people and answering questions; Power Computing’s CEO Steve Khang was spotted in several locations. I also heard stories of attendees striking up conversations with the product manager for Mac OS 8 and the president of Claris Corporation; in both cases, the attendees spoke their mind about products before realizing to whom they were speaking. Such interaction is highly commendable.
Hardware — On the hardware side, speedy new machines from Power, Motorola, and UMAX appeared in nearly every booth. Motorola’s boxes were actually CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform) machines, and a vendor I know claimed that her machine positively screamed.
The coolest product that made people turn around and gawk was Mitsubishi’s Leonardo monitor. This huge 40-inch gas-plasma display boasted good image quality and a 160-degree viewing angle despite being only 4.4 inches deep. The carpet was a bit damp from attendees drooling on it.
My personal favorite, and the item that elicited the most "wows" when I told people about it, was Canon’s STARS system. This Specialized Transfer Art Replication System combines computers and a special press into a system that creates images and transfers them to surfaces such as glass, ceramic, wood, or plastic. Canon showed examples of images that had been applied to ceramic tile, showing how anyone with access to the system could redesign a kitchen or bathroom with custom designs.
Also fascinating was Hitachi’s MPEG Cam (see TidBITS-391 for its features), which popped up not only in Hitachi’s booth, but also connected to several machines in Apple’s area. Because Hitachi is a new TidBITS sponsor, I particularly wanted to see its digital camera in person, and I noted that the unit is built with the field user in mind: it’s built tough, with black rubber shock absorbers.
Software — Also garnering attention was Sienna Software’s Starry Night Deluxe, an astronomy package that boasts a database of 19 million celestial objects, photo-realistically rendered 3D planets, an Orbit Editor for adding new comets, asteroids, and other objects, and more.
Wandering through the Developer Greenhouse, I saw a demo of J*Stream’s WiredWrite, an application that uses Java to publish electronic documents. Unlike Adobe’s Acrobat PDF technology, which tries to duplicate an original, WiredWrite creates files the way electronic documents should be created: it retains style information, allowing you to change fonts, size, spacing, and other attributes, but these formats remain flexible in the reader software. Most impressive are WiredWrite’s compression ratios and Java output: a sample 190-page FrameMaker document containing text, images, and diagrams ended up being less than 400K. Because the resulting file is a Java applet, anyone with a Java viewer or Java-enabled Web browser can read it, regardless of platform.
Final Impressions — Overall, this Macworld Expo had an air of solidity to it – many of the products and solutions were geared toward getting work done, enhancing productivity, and offering functionality that made computing easier. The show almost carried with it an air of maturity, as people come to realize that although the Macintosh is cool, it’s also extremely powerful and functional. Of course, we’ve known that all along, haven’t we?