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Macworld New York 1999: Return to the Consumers

This year’s Macworld Expo in New York City opened with a stunt-filled keynote in which actor Noah Wyle briefly impersonated Steve Jobs and Apple vice president Phil Schiller jumped from a 30-foot ledge holding an iBook to demonstrate its wireless networking. The rest of the show was decidedly upbeat and somewhat larger than last year’s Macworld Expo in New York, though still significantly smaller than January’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

That said, the big news was Apple’s introduction of the iBook, the long-awaited and overly rumored consumer portable. But the iBook unveiling was more than just the most notable announcement: it set the tone for the entire show, highlighting a somewhat awkward transitional moment in the Macintosh industry.

For the most part, Apple isn’t making overt moves toward the business world right now. Why should they? The business world has generally scorned the Macintosh, denigrated Apple, and bought into the Microsoft-and-Intel message. Apple would love to break into the business market, but there’s little chance of that happening soon with the death spiral days of 1996 and 1997 still a recent memory.

The light that Apple has seen is a spotlight on Jack and Jill Consumer, credit cards in their hands. Compared to business users, consumers place a higher value on industrial design, worry less about specifications, and aren’t as susceptible to the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) tactics that work so well on suits trying to plan for a future that involves not being fired.

Tension — Herein lies the problem. If Apple points the way to the consumer market, the Macintosh industry will follow. To paraphrase Jesse James, it’s because that’s where the money is. But think briefly about the implication of the industry orienting more on the consumer. Those of us who have been in the Macintosh world for quite some time aren’t novices, aren’t happy about having to switch existing peripherals to new interfaces like USB or FireWire, and have numerous older Macs that still serve us faithfully.

In short, we’re a different audience, one with overlap certainly, but different nonetheless. Reactions to the iBook are most telling, because it’s not really aimed at Macworld Expo attendees. People complain about the iBook’s lack of FireWire, a video out port, a microphone, PC Card slots, and media bays, plus its somewhat hefty size and weight. These complaints would be totally justified if we were talking about a PowerBook – but we’re not. We’re talking about an iMac to go, as Apple puts it. Repeat after me: the iBook is for consumers. Consumers don’t hook up external monitors, plug in PC Cards, or need more than 3.2 GB of hard disk space. Consumers want low prices, and lighter parts would have driven the cost up.

Sophisticated Mac users want something else. We want a PowerBook that weighs less than four pounds, has a form factor closer to the PowerBook 2400 or the PowerBook Duos, features USB and FireWire and PC Card slots, and offers connections via a 56 Kbps modem and wired and wireless Ethernet. And many people in business would like something without a gaudy color scheme. Such a PowerBook may one day appear (I’d strongly encourage it!), but it’s a far cry from today’s iBook.

So we have these two positions, as exemplified by the iBook and the hypothetical PowerBook I just described. The two positions aren’t mutually exclusive, and the connection between them is that the more experienced Macintosh users are often the ones who recommend and support the novices. We may not buy the iBook for ourselves, but we’ll buy them for our kids and extol them to our friends, just as we do with the iMac.

Who then should Macintosh industry companies target? Both segments of the market, obviously, but doing that successfully is more difficult than it may sound. The tension created by the clash of product strategies marked a number of things I noticed at the show.

Microsoft’s Moves — Watching Microsoft can be revealing, since Microsoft’s deep pockets enable it to devote more resources to research and product development than other companies. Microsoft’s announcements at the show, Word 98 Special Edition and early looks at the forthcoming Internet Explorer 5.0 and Outlook Express 5.0, reflected the fact that Microsoft learned that the three most common activities of the 1.9 million iMac users were Web browsing, word processing, and email. There wasn’t much to see with Internet Explorer 5.0 (and Web browsers are often shallow applications with little differentiation between the needs of novice and experienced users), but the $99 Word 98 Special Edition was aimed squarely at the consumer market, adding a variety of templates and clip art, plus wizards for creating different types of documents. Outlook Express 5.0 featured numerous new features and interface elements intended to address problems novices have with email.



Look more closely at Word 98 Special Edition and Outlook Express 5.0 and you’ll see the tension between the consumer and professional. With Word 98 Special Edition, Microsoft wants to make Word more attractive to consumers, but we’re talking about a powerful and sometimes obtuse word processor that’s overkill for most users, let alone novice consumers. To convince people to switch from the bundled AppleWorks, Word 98 Special Edition uses the carrot of templates and clip art for consumers, along with the stick of cross-platform file compatibility for professionals. The free Outlook Express 5.0 already owns the coveted bundling spot, making it the first and perhaps only email program many consumers will see. Thus, Microsoft’s emphasis on making the program easier to use makes perfect sense and will be welcome. But the Outlook Express team has by no means limited itself to ease-of-use, adding neat features like a message history that tracks everything you’ve done with a message. Consumers don’t need such a feature, but professionals might. This and other additions to Outlook Express 5.0 point toward a desire to satisfy both markets.

Personal Publishing — I saw a few different programs trying to meet the same need – personal publishing – but doing so with different levels of consumer and professional features. As I noted above, although Word 98 Special Edition is aimed at iMac and iBook owners, the features are grafted onto a powerful program. Moving down the spectrum, you run into Corel’s Print House 2000 and Print Office 2000, a pair of programs that simplify the process of creating documents like calendars, greeting cards, brochures, and business cards. (The difference between the two products is the types of documents they create – those useful for individuals and those generally seen in office settings.) In Corel, we see a company refocusing on the consumer space, although it is previously been best known for the high-end illustration program CorelDRAW and the word processor WordPerfect 3.5. Whether that transition will be smooth and successful remains to be seen, but the new products seem to show a renewed interest in the Macintosh. Finally, Nova Development’s Print Explosion appeared to be unabashedly aimed at the consumer market, providing an easy interface and boasting extensive help implemented using all of Apple’s help technologies: balloon help for quick explanations of interface elements, Apple Guide for tutorials, and HTML Help for reference.

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MP3 Goes Mainstream — The vast interest in online music and the MP3 format (see "Move Over MTV, Now There’s MP3" in TidBITS-455) revealed yet another facet of the move toward consumers at Macworld. I saw many tiny devices for playing MP3 audio files downloaded from a Mac, including the I-Jam, the jazPiper, and the Diamond Rio 500. Not all were shipping, but the fact that multiple companies were showing these devices indicates that MP3s, once the domain of geeks with appropriate hardware and too much time to spare, are now something companies expect consumers to want. One company representative said that by this time next year he expects to see as many as 50 competing MP3 players.





Fueling much of the fire was Casady & Greene’s SoundJam, which offers the first complete solution for MP3 creation and playback. Several features show how SoundJam straddles the fence between geeks and consumers: a variety of "skins" (user interface changes along the lines of the modular interfaces available for the shareware MacAmp MP3 players) and several visual plug-ins that display mesmerizing patterns in sync with the music. Such eye candy seems superfluous to the program’s tasks of creating and playing MP3s, but I think the visual fluff will appeal to both the geek and consumer crowd simultaneously.



Get Some Color — Finally, color is here to stay, something that may concern business users or those bothered by Apple’s push to brighten up our lives. Many peripherals came in at least blueberry, if not in the full panoply of iMac colors. The largest was probably the Tektronix Phaser 840, a beefy color printer dressed in blueberry, and even Radius’s tiny iBug color calibration devices had evolved in all five iMac colors.

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I worry somewhat about this adherence to Apple’s fashion lead. The previous platinum, dark grey, and brushed aluminum looks (which remain solidly entrenched in the digital camera market) clash with the blue and white Power Macintosh G3s, the iMacs, and the new iBooks, but the current crop of colored peripherals are tied too tightly to today’s colors. I don’t trust Apple not to introduce new colors, eliminate existing ones, or switch to an entirely different look. Some companies are being appropriately cautious: at least one manufacturer showed a keyboard in pure white ice so it would match any iMac, and Apple’s own AirPort Base Station sports a flavor-free look. I’d encourage peripheral manufacturers to think creatively about participating in Apple’s design revolution without being left in the dust by any significant design changes. As much as I like Apple’s design direction, the iMac and iBook designs will look quite dated in five years. Peripherals often have a longer life span than computers, so designs that can outlast the current fad would both aid longevity and mollify the business and professional users for whom color is a negative.

Final Thoughts — It’s important that the Macintosh industry welcome new users with products designed to meet their needs, but it’s equally important that the industry continue to provide experienced and professional users with powerful tools. We’re seeing the Macintosh market expand after a time of contraction and focus. With that expansion comes some confusion, but with luck, we’ll find ourselves at Macworld Expo next year with an increasingly large, healthy, and broad-based Macintosh market.

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