Apple may set the agenda for Macworld Expo with Steve Jobs’s leadoff keynote, and a few developers may receive a few minutes of keynote time (as did Microsoft’s Roz Ho, who said at the end of her presentation that – take note for the future – "we’re looking forward to another 20 great years of working together"), but many of the most interesting products are to be found only on the show floor. Here are a few that caught our eyes.
Schweet! If you own a Power Mac G4, or a blue & white Power Mac G3, take a look at GeeThree’s $130 Sweet Multiport, which uses one of your Mac’s open front drive bays and an empty PCI slot to provide a slew of front-mounted ports, including 2 FireWire ports, 1 USB port, and a 5-in-1 memory card reader. The PCI card connects to your existing FireWire and USB ports, but provides two more FireWire and USB ports as well. The memory card reader supports CompactFlash, IBM Microdrive, Memory Stick, Secure Digital, and MultiMediaCard formats; the only format not supported is SmartMedia, which is in decline because it maxes out at a paltry 128 MB. The Sweet Multiport is compatible with Mac OS 9.1 and later, and Mac OS X 10.1 and later. No drivers are necessary, and the memory card reader works with iPhoto. [ACE]
Griffin Gadgets — The Griffin Technology booth has become a required stop at every Macworld Expo, since Griffin pulls out all the stops to showcase neat technology they’re working on, even if it’s not yet available. This year, Griffin’s Andrew Green showed us the SightLight, a clever little LED-based light that fits around an iSight camera to improve your look in iChat AV video chats. It has several brightness settings and is powered from FireWire. It’s due out in a few months for $40. Also cool was the iTalk, another pre-release device that turns your iPod into a voice recorder. The Belkin iPod Voice Recorder hasn’t gotten rave reviews for quality, and although some of that is limited by the iPod itself, the iTalk may prove better. It’s also $40 and due out in April; if you pre-order now you can save $5. [ACE]
Mac Answering Machines — Short for "phone link," Phlink is a new product from Ovolab, an Italian company staffed by veteran Mac developers Alberto Ricci and Alessandro Levi Montalcini. Phlink consists of a small USB device that plugs into your Mac and into your phone line, and custom software that turns your Mac into a flexible answering machine and automated response system. You can create multiple voicemail boxes, store all the messages on your Mac, and even forward them automatically via email. Automated response systems can be essential for businesses, but I could see Phlink being a ton of fun for individuals too: "Press 1 to leave a message. Press 2 to start global thermonuclear war. Press 3 if you’re my mother." Phlink can tie AppleScript-based actions to each response, use speech synthesis to provide feedback or responses to callers, and, since it understands caller ID, Phlink can play custom greetings or trigger different actions based on who is calling. Small offices and households could put Phlink to great use, but the audience that might benefit the most from Phlink’s capabilities would be students sharing a house, thanks to support for multiple voicemail boxes for each resident, and email forwarding for those who might not be home much of the time. Phlink costs $150 and requires Mac OS X 10.2 or later.
Phlink isn’t alone, and Parliant Technology, makers of the PhoneValet telephone utility, also announced PhoneValet Message Center, an add-on that integrates with the PhoneValet call log to provide multiple voicemail boxes, call recording (complete with automatic notification for the other party), notes about stored recordings for easy searching, and more. PhoneValet Message Center supports multiple lines and works even when no user is logged in to Mac OS X. Parliant expects PhoneValet Message Center to ship within the first three months of 2004; you can pre-order now for $200, or receive PhoneValet now for $130 with an additional $70 charged when PhoneValet Message Center ships. Upgrades for existing PhoneValet users can also be pre-ordered for $70. [ACE]
Most Effective Demo — It’s not always easy to demonstrate your product on the Macworld Expo show floor – just ask some of the audio and speaker vendors whose gear gets drowned out by the surrounding noise. But Apple hit on a fun and effective way to demo iChat AV: a line of iSight-equipped Macs featured live video chats with Apple call center employees in Sacramento, CA and Austin, TX. You could put on a pair of headphones and converse with someone hundreds of miles away to get a sense of how well iChat works (including the full-screen video mode). Despite the surrounding noise, it was easy to carry on a conversation through the iSight’s microphone. When a Mac became unoccupied, the employees held up laser-printed signs that read, "Hello from Austin, Texas!" or "Put on the headphones!" [JLC]
Wi-Fi Tunes — At last year’s Macworld Expo, we highlighted the Ethernet-only SLIMP3 music player from Slim Devices and the Wi-Fi/Ethernet HomePod, designed by Gloo Labs and marketed by MacSense. The SLIMP3 proved to be one of 2003’s hottest geek devices, and Andrew Laurence reviewed it for us in "SLIMP3: MP3, Get Thee to the Hi-Fi" in TidBITS-676. The HomePod didn’t make it out in 2003, but in the interim underwent a complete redesign, so it now looks more like an iPod than a piece of stereo gear and features a backlit LCD screen with an iPod-like interface controlled by a jog wheel. It lets you play your iTunes music on your stereo, streaming it over a wired or wireless network, or playing it locally on small speakers built into the case. MacSense is finally shipping the HomePod for $250.
Slim Devices hasn’t been idle all this time either, and late in 2003, they released Squeezebox, the next generation of the SLIMP3 player in a sleeker form factor. Squeezebox comes in both Ethernet ($250) and Wi-Fi ($300) models, and streams your digital music collection over your network from your Mac, also integrating with iTunes. Which to choose? At the moment, the decision seems to come down primarily to the form factor you prefer, though we hope to be evaluating these devices in the future. [ACE]
Kind of Blue — We love to discover product prototypes at Macworld – devices which may or may not end up for sale, but are being shown in proof-of-concept stage. This year, the device of choice appeared to be audio receivers that enable you to broadcast your music from a computer or iPod to a stereo via Bluetooth wireless networking. Both Griffin Technology and XtremeMac showed off working prototypes. Neither product was shipping, and release dates and final pricing (or even a product name, in the case of Griffin) have not yet been set.
While Bluetooth audio components are intriguing, some of us on the TidBITS staff are hoping the technology ushers in the next logical step: Bluetooth wireless headphones. There are only so many times we’re willing to put up with untangling iPod earbud cables, or snagging them on a drawer knob when standing up from our desks. Of course, while we’re looking ahead to the future, we’d love such a headphone to switch over to act as a wireless headset automatically when our Bluetooth-enabled phones receive calls! [JLC]
Make That Acrobat Sit Down — It’s becoming inevitable that every Macworld Expo brings another interesting product from Greg Scown and Philip Goward of SmileOnMyMac. This time around, they were showing PDFpen, a $30 utility for editing PDFs that offers many of the features found only in the $450 Adobe Acrobat Professional. You can extract pages, crop them, insert text and images (like a scanned signature), and mask the sending information of a fax (received in the company’s PageSender software, for instance) to retransmit it back out. PDFpen requires Mac OS X 10.2.5 or later, and is a 1.6 MB download. [GF]
Toastiest Tchotchke — Kudos to Roxio for their, umm, tongue in cheek giveaway of custom Jelly Belly packets containing jellybeans in buttered toast and jam flavors. We tore ourselves away from debating whether the toast flavor was truly weird in a jellybean to check out the new capabilities in the Toast 6 suite of software, including burning video discs directly from DV camcorders, making slick slideshows from still photos, backup, compression, and encryption of data, and sharing of CD and DVD players across a network. Toast 6 costs $100, with $10 (download) and $20 (boxed product) rebates available at the moment. [ACE]
Inexplicable Exhibitors — Sure, Quark didn’t come to Macworld Expo, but they never do these days. More disappointing was the lack of the humorous Mac-unrelated organizations that didn’t make repeat appearances from last year, including Andersen Windows ("The best windows for Mac users!") and the IRS ("Free audits; just slide your badge here!"). In their place was Discover (the credit card company) offering as a signup enticement – get this – a free digital watch. All we could think of was the line from the late Douglas Adams about how humans were so amazingly primitive that they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea. Another head-scratcher came from the appearance of Acura, which had parked several cars inside Moscone Center and was proudly displaying signs labeling Acura the official automotive sponsor of Macworld Expo, or something equally incomprehensible. Next year: Tinactin, the official anti-fungal cream of Macworld Expo! [ACE]
The Power Browser — Safari’s a pretty neat Web browser, but we’re watching the Omni Group’s forthcoming OmniWeb 5, which promises to meld the rendering speed of Apple’s WebKit framework (which powers Safari) with a slew of fabulous browsing features we’ve been agitating for years. OmniWeb 5 will store and index the full text of every Web page you visit, enabling you to search your personal browsing history far more fully than is possible in any browser now. It can also use the full text cache to tell when page content changes, providing you with a collection of changed sites to visit quickly and easily. And it tracks how many times you visit every page and presents you with a collections of most-visited sites, much along the lines of the iTunes most-played playlist. Then there is tab support, in a drawer instead of across the top of the page, site-specific preferences (so you can block pop-ups on most, but not all, sites), and workspaces that remember and automatically load a specific set of pages. Add to this an auto-complete feature that looks at the full URL and the title of the page, and you have a browser that will be well worth the $30 Omni will charge when it ships in a few months. This is the sort of competition we like to see for Apple’s bundled applications; users win when each developer tries to outdo the other. [ACE]
Share and Share Alike… Via USB — Tired of having to connect your printer or scanner to your laptop every time you want to use them? Or perhaps you want to share them among an entire office? Apple’s AirPort Extreme Base Station introduced USB printer sharing, but Keyspan’s forthcoming USB Server provides sharing of up to four of any standard type of USB devices to an entire network of Macs. You connect to the devices over an Ethernet network, so AirPort-enabled laptops gain full access via the wireless network as well, assuming you’re bridging wireless to Ethernet. The USB Server’s device support includes even USB input devices like mice and keyboards, and USB storage devices like hard drives, although you must first set which Mac should virtually connect to those type of devices (nonetheless, the concept of a shared USB mouse that moves the pointer on every Mac on the network is quite amusing, in a MacHack kind of way). The USB Server will cost $130 when it ships in the first quarter of 2004. [ACE]
FileMaker Synchronization — Imagine you need to share a set of FileMaker databases with a set of colleagues, but you’re not all connected to the same network to use a shared server. WorldSync’s new SyncDeK product solves this problem by extracting just changed data from a FileMaker database – at the field level, with conflict detection and resolution – packaging it up in an XML file, and replicating it to other users via email. That’s cool, but what excites me is that since SyncDeK is written in Java and uses XML for data interchange, WorldSync could write appropriate plug-ins (or, better yet, publish a public specification on how to do so) to enable synchronization of data within other applications as well. With some effort, SyncDeK could fulfill the promise of a general purpose synchronization engine that Apple’s iSync has so far left relatively empty. [ACE]