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Macworld Expo SF ’99 Keynote Notes

One of my main reasons for attending Macworld Expo each year is to gain some sense for the state of health of the Macintosh by feeling out the crowds and the exhibitors. If I had to describe this year’s Expo in just two words, they would be "crowded" and "upbeat." The two go together, of course. I recall last year’s keynote speech, at a gloomy, uncertain time for Apple, as being remarkably (almost frighteningly) well-provided with empty seats. This year’s keynote was full, and as for the show floor, you couldn’t move without jostling or being jostled. The excitement was electric.

Of course, it’s difficult to measure the show’s size in terms of human density, since the show floor is of indeterminate acreage; the Moscone Center simply curtains off unused portions. Thus, one’s sense of the crowd’s size is actually due to a ratio between the number of people present and how much room they’ve been given to move in. That, in turn, depends partly upon the number of exhibitors: a show with fewer exhibitors and more attendees will feel more crowded, but for reasons that should elicit pessimism.

This year’s show didn’t make me feel pessimistic. Far from it. For one thing, the crowds seemed dense even outside the exhibition areas, suggesting that raw numbers were genuinely good. For another, exhibitors were not, as last year, confined mostly to well-known heavy hitters. I saw many small booths occupied by companies I’d never heard of. To me, that suggests a Macintosh on the mend.

Steve Jobs’ keynote address was as notable for what it didn’t say as for what it did. There was, for instance, no mention of HyperCard, QuickTime 4, consumer-level PowerBooks, Carbon, Mac OS 8.6, or breaking the $1,000 barrier. In general, speculation on future directions and future technology, long the bane of Apple’s existence, was stoutly discouraged in favor of a summary of where Apple has been lately, and announcement of products shipping now or in the very near future.

The speech went on too long, in part because it was constantly prey to interruptions by tinseltown production numbers which I found repulsive. For instance, we were shown several advertisements, and Jobs chatted irrelevantly on several occasions with a HAL 9000 look-alike. Also, the keynote was prolonged unnecessarily by a visit from Microsoft demonstrating Internet Explorer 4.5, which was a more effective method of showing Microsoft’s Mac committment than the company’s increasingly repetitive assertions of said committment. Show us, don’t tell us.

Jobs reminded us that Apple has just completed its fifth consecutive profitable quarter. An astonishing 800,000 iMacs have been sold since their introduction 15-Aug-98; the iMac is, by some measures, America’s best-selling computer model, and is certainly the best-selling model in Apple’s history. The December sales figures reveal that 32 percent of iMac sales are to first-time computer buyers, with an additional 13 percent going to PC converts – that means 45 percent of iMac buyers are new to the Macintosh.

Three iMac-like displays were, uh, displayed: a 21-inch Trinitron CRT with a built-in USB hub for $1,500, a 17-inch DiamondTron CRT for an excellent $500, and the repackaged 15-inch flat-panel LCD at a new price of $1,100, far more competitive and realistic than its original $2,000.

As a sort of preview to Mac OS X (definitively pronounced "Oh-Ess-Ten" by Jobs), a subset of its features will be available as Mac OS X Server. This is the only Apple product Jobs mentioned which is not yet shipping. The discussion of Mac OS X Server culminated in a dramatic demonstration in which a huge rack of 50 iMacs was produced; all the iMacs simultaneously proceeded to download and play the same streaming video from a single server machine.

And what was that server machine, you ask? It was the new Power Macintosh G3, heretofore dubbed "Yosemite," the star of the keynote and, I think most attendees will agree, of the entire Expo. You can read Geoff Duncan’s overview of new Power Macintosh G3 hardware elsewhere in this issue, so I won’t repeat the specifications here. During the keynote address, Jobs made much of the fact that the machine comes with 3D graphics support – the ATI Rage 128, with 16 MB of SDRAM and support for QuickDraw 3D. Apple also announced it has licensed the OpenGL 3D graphics software from Silicon Graphics and plans to integrate it into Mac OS X and the next release of Mac OS 8. This caused a claque of gamers in the audience to cheer wildly, so I take it to be a good thing. Jobs also demonstrated the new Power Mac G3’s FireWire capabilities by downloading video from a digital camcorder to two computers at once, and, most dramatically, he pulled the wires out of the computers in the middle of the download and nothing crashed.

Jobs saved the best part for last: how do you get into the machine to insert cards or drives? As he said, it’s called a door. Seen from the side, the new machine is a square (except for the four plastic handles at each corner, the bottom two serving as stabilizing feet, the top two serving as handles). Jobs pulled a knob at the center of the top edge of this square, and the computer’s entire side swung down, hinging along the bottom, to rest on the table. The whole works turned out to be attached to this side of the computer, so cards and memory that previously had projected sideways into the box now projected upwards from the door resting on the table. I do not believe access could be made more trivially easy.

Apple is taking risks with its new Power Macintosh G3s, breaking definitively with its SCSI and serial past and concentrating on the mid- to high-end range (with, amazingly, a maximum of three free slots) while the Intel-based world abounds with sub-$1,000 systems. Time will show whether these are the right risks, as well as what else Jobs may have up his sleeve. I’m not one to predict the future – and if this keynote has taught me one thing, it’s to believe no rumors – but surely, with Steve Jobs at the nominal helm, Apple’s moves will be focused and deliberate. The feeling radiating from every corner of this Expo is that Apple is back, that Apple is solid, and that Apple has a future. Let’s hope those feelings count for something.

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