1/14/2005

Macworld Fun

Tuesday was the big day at Macworld San Francisco. Steve Jobs unveiled some great stuff and I feel like I've got plenty to comment on. It took me a while to get to see the keynote because I made a detour down to Princeton for a night to see and record Vaco (I'll have something about that later), but here goes, in order of presentation:





Apple Stores: The London store looks incredible. Much cooler than SOHO.





iMac G5: It is interesting that the iMac is Apple's best selling Mac right now since the iMac G4 didn't sell well and that was largely attributed to the increase in price. The new iMac isn't really any cheaper yet it is moving fast. This is most likely due to the iPod styling and marketing.





Tiger features: Most of this stuff we've seen before, but it is clear that the new features of Tiger are continuously being refined. The Mail-iPhoto integration looks great, especially the slide show features. The Spotlight and smart folder features look awesome as well. Dashboard seems to be moving ahead of Konfabulator in some ways but still lags behind in others (since you can only view your widgets if you're in the Dashboard mode). I can't wait until the release, but Apple offered no more details on the actual release date. Steve maintains that Apple is on schedule for the first half of 2005, so my guess is a June release.





Just a note on the application crash in Steve's demo. While demoing Tiger Steve somehow got into the slideshow mode of Spotlight by accident and couldn't get out. He made the comment "that's why we have backups" and he switches a KVM to a different Mac and picks up where he was. The crowd loved this. In contrast, last week at CES when a Media Center 2005 machine "crashed" on Bill Gates the web was buzzing with news of the blunder. While it is certainly unfair that Steve gets applauded for mistakes while Bill gets ridiculed, in this case there is a big difference. Bill was showing off a currently shipping product, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 while Steve was showing Mac OS X Tiger, a product that will not ship for at least another three months (most likely). That situation hurt Microsoft even more because they were reluctant to quickly switch to the backup device and admit defeat. The comparison is still interesting nonetheless.





Steve also got some laughs while demoing Dashboard. He first showed a slide of the stock ticker, which showed Apple and Pixar up and Microsoft down. The crowd enjoyed that one. Then when actually demonstrating Dashboard he saw Apple's stock and mentioned "We're down a little bit today. Well, we've still got a lot more to go in the keynote, don't we." The crowd also loved this one. Bill Gates needed to bring in a professional (Conan O'Brien) for laughs but apparently Steve can hold his own with the comedy.





Final Cut Express HD: The most important part of FCEHD (not a fan of that acronym) is the upgrade price, $99. Apple is trying really hard to get people into HD and this price is very competitive. It's also great to get Soundtrack (recently discontinued as a separate application) as part of the upgrade since Soundtrack and HD functionality were two features of the more expensive Final Cut Pro HD package.





iLife '05 apps:







iMovie 5: I'm hoping to get back into iMovie with this revision. I would often get frustrated in the past by the speed (or lack thereof). My dad keeps remind me that I was suppoed to make that movie of our European trip from August 2001 (yes, I know). As for HD, if the cheapest HD camcorder is $3500 then we're not going to see any iMovie users making HD movies, especially since you can't burn these things to disc yet. It looks like Apple is trying to get a head start on HD, but I highly doubt that 2005 will be the year of HD, more like 2008. Kinutake Ando, the CEO of Sony America came out and rambled about the expensive camcorder and Apple working together but he said one very interesting point towards the end, and it was that Sony was working hard to bring down the price of HD camcorders. This is the big news for iMovie HD since until these camcorders hit the market there really won't be many HD home movies being made.





iPhoto 5: Looks like a great upgrade. I'm going to try and bring back in my old iPhoto libraries of about 2000 pictures (which is still too slow in iPhoto 4). The calendar view looks most convenient to me. Nice to see Apple making their prints more cost competitive, and the books look nice but I don't think I would ever buy one.





iDVD 5: Basically its more themes. Not much else in terms of functionality, but since the themes are THAT good, it's a nice upgrade. The problem still remains that with the current formats, there is really no way to burn HD discs to play at home so there's no HD for iDVD. This is one of the main reasons why I don't see HD taking off this year.





GarageBand 2: WOOHOO! 8-track simultaneous recording, built-in instrument tuner, auto-tune vocals, automatic pitch shifting/key change, automatic time expansion/compression of audio with tempo change, track locking to save those CPU cycles, music notation, more automation features… can you tell I'm excited about this one? GarageBand has been my favorite application since day one, but a couple of annoyances have bugged me. It seems like Apple has given GarageBand the mythical "ProBand" features, most important of which is the multi-track recording. They've also addressed performance by allowing us to lock a track down so that it isn't processed in real time, effectively freeing up CPU cycles for other tracks. I'm loving the tuner idea since my current tuner solution is the Amplitube Live demo application. Notation is going to be very helpful for editing midi data, especially those drum tracks. The current midi editing interface is pretty lame, so I'm looking forward to the improvement. The automation features (like automated panning, in addition to volume) is definitely a "pro" feature in my mind, so I'm glad to see Apple including it. Auto-tune (they don't call it that) is an expensive plugin for the big apps like Pro Tools, and it is commonly used in commercial recordings by Ashley Sim- I mean, the big pop stars . It is great to see Apple giving us the ability to do what the big record labels do: turn a mediocre singer into a great vocalist.





The one big issue that Apple completely ignored is the fact that there is a lack of moderately-priced multi-channel audio interfaces available for the Mac. Steve was recording John Mayer and his pal play the song "Neon" in four tracks, but how was he doing it? He most certainly wasn't using the G5's line input since that device is stereo. Apple has added the M-Audio FireWire 410 to the GarageBand accessories page, which is $500 from the Apple store and that's probably what Steve was using, but it wasn't mentioned. 8-track recording means nothing without the hardware to support it. There were those prominent rumors of the "Asteroid" FireWire breakout box, which are apparently true since Apple has sued the rumor sites about it. Apple really needs to offer some aggressively-priced hardware to make multi-channel recording accessible to us "mere mortals" because right now the additional gear required to make GarageBand useful is pretty expensive. I've been putting off buying the M-Audio MobilePre USB interface because of the rumors of Apple's box. I can't stand the waiting.





I've got a theory as to why we didn't see the "Asteroid" firewire audio interface this week and it has to do with Tiger. AppleInsider has reported that Tiger will have the ability to aggregate multiple audio interfaces to allow applications to see them as one multichannel interface. So you could plug in 4 Griffin iMic devices, which are stereo devices, into your Mac and configure it to give you 8 input and 8 output channels over USB and any application will see this one device. Since the rumor was that Asteroid is stereo, I'm thinking that Apple is waiting for this feature in Tiger, that way they can offer you two, or three, or fifteen Asteroids, all working together simultaneously in GarageBand. That's big money for Apple and it would be great for us amateurs who don't have the big bucks for expensive multi-channel devices but are willing to spend slowly to add capacity. I hope I'm right about this one, but I can't wait anymore.





iTunes: It's interesting how Apple has now taken the iTunes updates out of the iLife product cycle. iTunes isn't exactly an iLife application anymore since it is so heavily dependent on the iPod, and vice versa.





Overall package: The price has increased by 60% to $80. This is a pretty big increase. The educational price has doubled from $30 to $60 (in contrast I was able to negotiate bulk licensing for iLife '04 at Princeton for $15 per copy). Yes, it IS free on all new Macs, but there are plenty of us who already have Macs and want all this great stuff. One increase isn't so bad, but if Apple plans on setting a precedent with annual price increases then we'll have a problem in the future. Last year's upgrade to iLife was much larger, adding an entirely new application with GarageBand yet this is the year they hike the price up.





iWork:





Keynote 2: Nice update to Keynote. I've only done one important presentation in Keynote and I found it to be a great app, but performance was lacking. It doesn't seem this issue has been addressed. The presenter display seems like the biggest addition, but the big question is if it will work on iBooks, since they don't support display spanning like PowerBooks and can't show different things on each display. We'll find out soon enough.





Pages: The templates look awesome but Apple didn't really focus on the basic word processing features. It doesn't have inline grammar checking, sadly a feature of Word that I have come to rely on. Spell checking is a system service so it is there "for free", but auto-correction also seems to have been ignored. Pages is looking like a low end Quark competitor, not so much like a Word processor. I'm writing this now in Word 2004, and I would love to toss this app due to it's non-standard UI and fake Aqua controls. So far we don't know if Pages can fulfill my needs.





Overall package: For $80 the package is competitively priced but there are some major problems here. Steve mentioned "building a replacement for AppleWorks" and that is what it seems like Apple is doing, but the AppleWorks replacement is nowhere near done. There is no drawing or painting capabilities, and no spreadsheet. Ideally the replacement would also include a database program (iFileMaker is a mouthful) like AppleWorks has. If Apple is pulling AppleWorks any time soon (probably not yet since the page for the program still exists) then they are creating a serious hole. Not to mention that the new Mac mini does not include iWork OR AppleWorks, meaning that this new Mac meant for switchers has no word processor, which brings us to...





iMac mini: I personally think the term miniMac sounds a whole lot cooler, but I'm not Steve Jobs, so what do I know about cool? In general Apple did a great job with this one, but there are some glaring issues that may or may not cause trouble for Apple. Steve's BYODMK (bring your own display, mouse and keyboard) idea is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Most budget PCs include a mouse and keyboard and most of the keyboards and mice that people have in their homes are PS/2, not USB. Apple's USB mouse and keyboard package for the iMac mini is $58. While I am a big fan of Apple's current USB keyboard, $58 is very expensive for a $500 computer. Any USB keyboard and mouse would work, but using Apple's input devices is very much a part of the Mac experience, especially the keyboard. On a PC keyboard the option and Apple keys (alt and Windows) are swapped. This is a nightmare when you switch between machines frequently. There are a couple of third party companies (Logitech, Macally) that support swapping these keys but those are not the budget keyboards that the potential customers for this computer would be buying. I hope those companies start offering inexpensive keyboard and mouse sets specifically designed for this machine, with a proper command/Apple key. CompUSA and other retailers seem to stand the most to gain by bundling these packages with a new Mac mini, since we know Apple will never bundle someone else's input device with their computers.





The second issue is TV connection. This device is practically screaming for you to hook it up to your TV. Yet Apple doesn't seem to want to help you with this task. There is so sort of software or hardware available from Apple designed to use your Mac from your TV and the adapter costs extra. I'm going to predict that a year from now Apple will be introducing a media center edition of this machine (with a flashy title like Mac mini TV) to really make this thing the center of your digital hub. It is very clear that OS X is the best platform to build a media center device on top of, due to the unrivaled multimedia capabilities, slick graphics and video features, and of course Apple's incredible style. However, so far Apple has left us high and dry in terms of actual functionality.





Hobbyists and enthusiasts may want to use this box for projects and devices (like a DVR, home media server, or even in your car). Apple has of course limited the expandability of this machine, which makes sense, but I have one question that I cannot find the answer to. Is the hard drive 2.5" or 3.5"? Dell makes some very small desktops (a little larger than the Mac mini, and sit vertically) but it uses entirely notebook components. If the drive is a notebook drive it severely limits the hack-ability of this thing, especially as a media center. There are tons of geeks itching to put a 500 GB drive in there but there has to be the room for it. Does anyone know the answer?





As I mentioned before, Apple is not bundling iWork OR AppleWorks with this computer. This means that a new customer who buys this machine for his kids will be ripping his hair out when his daughter has to write a paper only to discover the only thing that closely resembles a word processor in OS X is TextEdit. I think that Apple really needs to include either Pages or AppleWorks on this machine to make it a suitable entry level machine. Windows users think that a word processor is free since most cheap PCs at least include Microsoft Works with Word, or a low end Word Perfect. Even the AOL PC includes an AOL office suite based on Open Office.





One other small thing, I'm an IT manager and I see great applications for this machine in the corporate world since a Mac is now initially only a little more expensive than a PC, but after about a year the difference should pay for itself in support costs. A company can buy/build/scrounge together a PC for about $400 including Windows XP Pro. Add Microsoft Office on top of that and its about $600. A new Mac mini with iWork is cheaper, with Office it's a little more expensive, but factor in the $50 annual antivirus cost, and the many hours that are needed to support the beast and the Mac mini looks pretty competitive. It would be great if the Mac mini could be a drop in replacement for a PC box. Pull out the PC and replace it with a Mac, leave all other devices and cables in place. It's a little tougher with this box because the power supply is external and the aforementioned lack of PS-2 ports (CompUSA and the like would be wise to aggressively push those PS-2 to USB keyboard and mouse adapters). It's a little bit more of a process. I would have been willing to sacrifice the weight and size for a single-box computer. I'm sure any clips that might come out to carry around the machine with the power supply attached will make the computer comparatively expensive (any accessory for this thing is expensive since the computer itself is so cheap).





There is also the display issue. Apple only makes high end flat panel displays. If a new customer walks into an Apple store to buy a Mac mini they can't even walk out with a display. Apple offers nothing in the way of a low end CRT. Apple has reasons for doing this and I understand that, but it makes the sale of this machine particularly difficult at Apple's retail stores. Again, I think CompUSA is best positioned to sell this machine for that reason.





Another thing that irks me about Apple's consumer-level devices is the lack of analog audio input. Apple seems to believe that audio input is a pro feature. This I cannot understand. In 1990 Apple introduced the very first computer ever with audio input, the Macintosh LC. I had one (actually an LC II). It was tons of fun to record all sorts of sounds using both the PlainTalk microphone and line input from my discman and VCR. The LC was Apple's budget computer at the time, coming with practically zero software and was aggressively priced. Apple now believes that only pro users should have this feature and consumers need to purchase additional hardware for this basic feature. This effectively makes Apple's consumer level machines more expensive when you have to add $40 for an iMic. I was happy when Apple started bringing back analog audio input with the eMac and iMac G5, but the Mac mini and iBook still lack this feature. If a kid wants to use GarageBand with the Mac mini they are required to buy more hardware. I don't see how Apple can justify not spending the 30 cents on this "feature" when every PC in the world, no matter the price, has it.





All of that being said, I am trying to find an excuse to buy one of these things as soon as I can. It will certainly make my collection of old iMacs that I am using for various projects pretty useless.





iPod shuffle: On paper this thing doesn't seem all that impressive. Apple has a price advantage in terms of storage but it is lacking many of the features of other flash players, including an FM tuner, and the ability to actually see what song you want to play. The iPod shuffle certainly has a purpose though, and considering my 1 GB USB JumpDrive Sport drive cost me $45 after rebate, and they usually go for about $70, this thing isn't all that bad since it works easily as a key drive. Unfortunately Apple doesn't seem to have learned from the mistakes of the other USB key drive manufacturers with the use of the plastic cap that can easily be lost. Even worse, the included lanyard attaches to the cap and not the iPod itself, so it seems very likely that it could fall off when hanging around your neck. The last thing Apple needs is another "iPod's Dirty Secret" video showing iPods falling off peoples' necks and getting stepped on. I just wish it had some sort of display, even if it only showed the track number and time elapsed. Regardless it is still cool. There will most likely be a lot of nay-sayers in the press and Apple will most likely prove them wrong when demand will be so high that no one can get their hands on one.





Non-existent items:





I already touched on why I think Apple didn't introduce the Asteroid box, but there were also rumors of an Apple phone last month. All Apple really showed was a Motorola phone running an iTunes client that looks a lot like the iPod Photo interface, and Steve mentioned that there will be a whole bunch of Motorola phones running iTunes this year. That's all great but I personally dislike using Motorola phones. The interface on a Motorola phone pales in comparison with that of a Nokia phone. In general most cell phone UIs are cumbersome and I think Apple would be the best candidate to fix this problem with an iPod-like phone. I envision it similar to last year's Kyocera slider phone, which has a slide out number pad. Apple could make the device function just like an iPod when closed and transform it into a phone when the number pad slides out. It certainly is much more complicated than just combining the two, but if there's any company that can do it right, it is most certainly Apple.





There are rumors of a PowerBook G4 update in the near future, which I believe. While there are geeks worldwide anxiously awaiting a PowerBook G5 I think we all know that it is an extremely difficult task right now. At Apple's financial conference call Wednesday, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer said that getting a G5 into a PowerBook will be the "mother of all thermal challenges." This is most certainly being done to cool the excitement and speculation about the PBG5, since everyone knows that it will arrive eventually. What makes this comment more interesting is what Oppenheimer said back in October, "To date, we have chosen not to compete in the sub-$800 desktop market and have put that R&D investment in expanding our products in the music area, in software, and in hardware." This was a very deceptive statement, although not exactly a lie. I think the same can be said about the PowerBook G5 and Apple will probably unveil it at WWDC in June, but it won't be readily available until September. This morning The Register is reporting that the PowerBook G5 is on track for Q2 of this year, which is pretty close to my estimate. We shall see.





In all this was one of the most fun Macworld keynotes. I wish I could have seen it live but it is clear that QuickTime isn't all that great for streaming live events and it costs Apple a bundle. I think Steve's "Reality Distortion Field" (his ability to distort reality in order to convince you that whatever he is saying is "insanely great") is starting to affect more than just the Mac die hards. Wall Street is loving Apple, which they rarelly do, and the analysts are jumping all over the rumors, hype and speculation that us Mac fans love.





I'll probably have a lot more to say about this stuff, especially GarageBand, when my copy of iLife arrives. If you made it this far, thanks for reading this whole thing.