Beyond Macworld Expo

By Matthew Rothenberg  |  Posted 2002-07-25

Beyond Macworld Expo

Even a world-class procrastinator like me has to admit its a little late for predictions about last weeks Macworld Expo/New York.

Regular readers know I generally uphold a (possibly masochistic) tradition of posting my best guesses about the announcements that will be featured at the next big Mac event (often to see them shot full of holes enough to rival Bonnie and Clydes Ford V8).

When it came to the 2002 edition of the East Coasts biggest Mac-focused trade show, I missed that window of opportunity: Summer travels took me out of the office (and away from much of the debate I helped spark over Macworld Expo press access for independent Web sites) until the eve of Steve Jobs Wednesday-morning keynote presentation. By the time I returned to my word processor, the sheer volume of speculation already circulating about Apples plans seemed to render redundant anything I could add to the discussion.

But while I muffed that chance to play Expo visionary, theres still time to review Apples major announcements from last weeks show and—looking forward—to cast them in the context of what Apple apparently has in store for the coming weeks.

Cost controversies. Lets get these out of the way first, since the volume of debate over Apples pricing for its enhanced online services and upgraded Mac OS X threatened to drown out the other themes at Expo.

Not even Jobs himself was able to elicit applause for the announcement that hitherto gratis iTools services unveiled in January 2000 will now be part of .Mac, a suite of online goodies that includes such niceties as virus checking and greater storage capacity but carries an annual fee of $99 ($49 the first year for current users). That includes users who simply want to continue using the e-mail addresses that Apple promised to supply them in perpetuity when they purchased Mac OS 9 two years ago.

And after they got beyond the feline packaging to the fine print, plenty of Mac users were heated up that those who purchased Mac OS X any time before the Expo will have to pay the full $129 price for Version 10.2 (a.k.a Jaguar).

I couldnt even play Apple CFO Fred Anderson on TV, but it strikes me that Apple is buying itself some significant grief in exchange for minor boosts to its bottom line.

What real difference would it make to provide a free e-mail-only option for the first 6-to-12 months of the new .mac regime? Company representatives told me that Apple had decided it simply wasnt its style to provide such a service slathered in third-party ads, a la MSN or Yahoo! If thats the case, Apple could distinguish itself even further from the competition by letting current owners retain their e-mail privileges for a year, ad-free, while the company demonstrates the advantages of making the .mac move.

As for Jaguar, I fear that users readiness to embrace the upgrades tremendous advances in performance and stability will be somewhat tempered by this draconian upgrade policy. Many serious Mac users have already ponied up for earlier versions of Mac OS X, only to conclude that their bugs and compatibility quirks were a bit too frequent for daily use. Why should these platform loyalists pay a $130 premium now for moving from a build that was inadequate then?

Page Two

: Hardware Enhancements">

Hardware enhancements. The 17-inch LCD iMac was a pleasant, if not unexpected, boost to a consumer desktop line that (Apples recent financial results reveal) flagged distressingly in fiscal Q3 after screeching out of the gate in January.

Ill admit that the spate of tube and flat-panel all-in-one consumer desktops—the 17-inch eMac and entry-level, $799 iMac on the CRT side and the range of 15-inch and 17-inch iMacs representing the LCD camp—initially struck me as somewhat convoluted. At first blush, it even inspired a few worries about the sort of market-blurring complexities that scuttled Apples worthy but unsuccessful Power Mac G4 Cube.

After talking with Apples hardware tacticians, however, Im pretty well satisfied with the logic behind the moves, as well as the companys apparent retreat from its January pronouncements that current Mac lines had converged on LCD technology. Considering the enduring inflation of flat-panel prices, shifting the PowerPC G4-based eMac from education only to retail channels and continuing to maintain (and even enhance) the bargain-basement iMac is the only way that Apple can field a range of models that will appeal to cost-conscious consumers—especially those potential "switchers" who might otherwise go with a Gateway or Dell system.

Then theres the iPod, Apples tremendously successful MP3 gizmo: Hardware enhancements (such as a solid-state scroll wheel and 20GB of storage at the high end), aggressive price cuts on existing models, improvements to the accompanying software and a new assortment of extras (such as a nifty case and remote control) should continue to generate buzz for Apples first (but not last) foray into consumer electronics. And considering that the iPod already seems ubiquitous while limited to the Mac-owning minority, Im fascinated to see how many of them I count on my commute once Apple delivers a Windows version in late August.

Software enhancements. If Apple manages to get its karma straight over software pricing, the features it introduced at Expo promise to boost the platform in a big way.

eWEEK has already ruminated at length on Jaguar, which Jobs first demoed at Mays Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., but Ill reiterate my excitement about the new OS performance, its features for consumers and pros alike, and its compatibility in mixed-platform environments. By the same token, I believe that my friends in the server closet will take similar pleasure in the Jaguar Server package, which also includes niceties such as Workgroup Manager and IP failover.

The rest of Apples new software announcements look like theyll strengthen the companys hand as the centerpiece of Jobs "digital hub" and (if it can solve the aforementioned unpleasantness over .mac upgrades) help leverage its strengths as a provider of consumer-friendly online services.

At Expo, I talked to a lot of institutional customers as well as individual users who were plenty excited about iSync, Apples new software for synchronizing data on the Mac with Bluetooth cell phones; Palm PDAs; and, of course, the iPod. The companys new iCal calendar utility fits tidily with a hosting feature on .mac and brings Apple interface panache to a mundane task.

Innovations like iCal (or the newly announced Version 3.0 of the companys iTunes playlist-creation utility) might not spark an en masse conversion to the Mac, but they provide Mac OS X with end-user perks that Windows doesnt match (at least this month).

Page Three

: Whats Next?">

Whats next? Back to the future, Apple is reportedly on the verge of announcing one key product it opted to omit from the Expo lineup: the long-awaited revamp to its professional-strength Power Mac towers.

Before the event, Think Secrets Nick dePlume had already cautioned eWEEK readers that those models wouldnt make it out of the door until August, but that didnt stop some professional users from hoping Apple would relent with an Expo announcement that its towers were finally going to break the venerable Power Mac G4 mold. (I really enjoyed a recent satire on the always-delightful that suggested Jobs had simply forgotten this announcement in the keynote rush!)

Now that Expo is behind us, the rumored announcement of new Power Macs looms as the Next Big Thing for the Mac community, and it promises to complement the competitive equation that Jaguar started.

Pairing the new OS performance boosts and enhanced cross-platform citizenship with pro models that feature a significant motherboard redesign modeled after some of the enhancements of the rack-mounted Xserve, notably faster processor speeds and a speedier system bus should afford a much-needed shot in the arm to Apples perennial hard core of graphics and publishing professionals.

I expect that Apple will have a compelling story to tell in time for Septembers Seybold Seminars San Francisco as well as the simultaneous Apple Expo in Paris. Watch this space, and tell me what you think of Apples announcements—present and future.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is online editor for Ziff Davis Medias Baseline and CIO Insight magazines.

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