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Mac Industry Marching to a Different Beat

The Macintosh industry continues to grow and gain steam, but it’s no longer purely following in Apple’s footsteps, a significant new trend that became evident at last week’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco. The last few years of the show have all been upbeat, energetic, and increasingly large, and this year was no exception. But where this year’s Expo diverged was in the extent to which the exhibitors are capitalizing on the overall success of the Mac and the iPhone but showing products and services in areas that Apple has left more or less untouched.

As a starting point, consider Apple’s own keynote announcements. The updates to the iPhone, iPod touch, and Apple TV all underscored Apple’s ever-increasing focus on consumer electronics, and the addition of movie rentals to the iTunes Store was the latest salvo in Apple’s battle to maintain its position as the dominant provider of online entertainment. The MacBook Air, on the other hand, supports Apple’s core Macintosh business and may prove more influential than its somewhat anemic specs would indicate due to the attraction sub-notebooks have for travelling executives. Time Capsule is interesting mostly in the way it aids Time Machine backups; it supports the Apple backup story in ways few third-party developers have been able to do
so far.

But despite the numerous vendors showing iPod and iPhone cases at Macworld Expo, and a wide variety of iPod-compatible speaker systems, numerous companies exhibited products that have little to do with Apple’s primary markets.

For instance, there was much speculation before the show that Apple would announce a tablet Mac or scaled-up iPod touch, but not only did that not happen, another company – Axiotron – finally shipped their long-simmering ModBook (announced at last year’s Macworld Expo), which converts a standard MacBook into the much-desired tablet Mac. Perhaps Apple considers the tablet Mac market too much of a niche, but the crowds around the Axiotron booth clearly wanted to get their hands on one.

Enterprise companies like Iron Mountain (organization-wide backup) and IBM (corporate databases) were out in force at the show, despite Apple’s focus on the consumer world. The Iron Mountain rep told me that the company didn’t have any particular intention of creating a Macintosh client for their backup system until their enterprise customers started buying Apple laptops and asking to have them backed up with the rest of the company’s Windows-based computers. In the past, companies would get into the Macintosh space because they were passionate about the Mac; now we’re seeing companies almost
forced to create Mac products purely because there is a customer base to satisfy and money to be made.

We even saw companies like Polar Bear Farm showing iPhone applications in advance of Apple’s release of the iPhone software development kit (SDK). This is a company that can’t even use the iPhone without jailbreaking and unlocking it, since Apple doesn’t sell the iPhone in New Zealand yet. The company was demonstrating applications that can’t be purchased, based on a business model – how Apple will allow iPhone applications to be sold – that remains unknown. (And no, there are no polar bears native to New Zealand – they live only in the northern hemisphere.)

Other companies showed products that were even further afield. CodeFlare’s makes it possible to create Web applications from old HyperCard stacks; the company’s HyperTalk compiler also enables the creation of entirely new Web applications. (For those who haven’t been using the Mac as long as we’ve been writing about it, HyperCard was an innovative “software erector set” created by Bill Atkinson and distributed for a time with every Mac; we published TidBITS in HyperCard format for the first two years. Apple never understood the utility and popularity of HyperCard and let it fade away many years ago despite impassioned pleas from the HyperCard developer community.) Another company, reQall, was showing a technology that enables you to create to-dos by voice recognition on a toll-free telephone number (you could also use a Web site); it could then remind you of your tasks via email, instant message, SMS, RSS, or a Web interface. The only connection with Apple was that you could use reQall on an iPhone – that’s pretty tenuous.

The industry’s different beat extends to the traditional Macworld Expo schedule as well. Although the show date has been known for at least a year and was even a week later than normal this year, a surprising number of companies were showing products that weren’t shipping. EMC was perhaps the most notable among this group, showing only screenshots of Retrospect X and promising a public beta for the third quarter of 2008. There were also plenty of other examples: Parallels Server and VMware Fusion Server, which enable users to virtualize multiple
copies of Leopard Server, were in beta and preview releases, respectively. DisplayLink’s product for adding up to four monitors to any Mac via USB 2.0 clearly worked, but was far too slow for actual usage; the company anticipates a usable release in the first half of 2008. The iTornado device for easily transferring data between Macs and PCs (or between two Macs) is slated to ship in March 2008. Now Software’s Nighthawk update to Now Up-to-Date & Contact is now slated for release by the middle of 2008. Iron Mountain is beta
testing their Connected Backup Mac client. And so on…

Clearly, appearing at Macworld Expo was deemed important enough to justify the significant cost and effort, but seemingly not sufficiently important to ensure that the products were ready in time to be purchased at the show. Perhaps, and I realize I may be stretching to make a point here, just as we’re seeing the Mac industry exerting an increasing independence from Apple, we’re also seeing the industry treat Macworld Expo more as face time than as the drop-dead date for shipping new products.

In the end, seeing all these companies extending the Macintosh (and iPhone) platform in ways that Apple hasn’t is indication of the ever-increasing strength of the industry. It has been many years since I’ve seen such a broad representation of companies at Macworld, and that’s good for everyone involved: users, developers, and even Apple itself.

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