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MacWorld 2005: Boom and Bust

Posted by johnm on January 12, 2005 at 1:22 PM PST

MacWorld Expo 2005 is the consumer-focused show/exhibit/conference for all things related to Apple Computers. I've been going to the show for the last two years because Steve Jobs is funny as a keynote speaker and because I switched to a 17" Al-PowerBook when they came out. Alas, in stark contrast from years past, Apple seems to have stopped giving out goodies to attendees of the keynote (which, lets face it, is the real reason that a geek would want to sit through hours of rah rah marketing amongst a sea of Apple fanatics :-). Now that you have some idea of my bias, here's my take what did and did not get announced...

iLife vs. iWork

Lots of improvements to the various applications which are part of the "iLife" suite (iTunes, iMovie, iDVD, iPhoto, and GarageBand). Basically, the key takeaways are that Apple is lowering the price to $79, they seem to be listening to the user base and actually implementing a lot of features that people have been clamoring for (such as multi-track recording in GarageBand) while redesigning the internals (to better support e.g., RAW image formats and Hi-Definition Video) and externals (to actually make the programs easier to use). There's definitely a lesson in there for software developers.

Apple also introduced the new iWork suite of so-called productivity applications. [I qualify such things as "so-called" because of the inordinate amount of time and effort that we spend using them but that doesn't result in anything useful.] iWork consists of a significantly upgraded Keynote presentation maker and the new Pages document maker. I call Pages a document maker rather than a word processor because it's really targeted at the user who wants to quickly create various types of complete documents. How so? One of the areas that Steve Jobs hammered on in the keynote is how all of the Apple applications are trying to help users get started via e.g., "Themes" (ala Keynote), "Books" (aka photo albums in iPhoto), and "Templates" in Pages. I.e., Apple is working to help kickstart their users. That way, users can quickly focus on (a) adding content and (b) tweak the look rather than getting stuck in the purgatory that is a blank page. Yes, other folks have tried the same thing but it's definition instructional to see how a bit of extra focus on the aesthetics and actual user experience goes a long way. Lest I become repetitive, I'll refrain from saying that there's a lesson in there for software developers.

From a gossip- and conspiracy-addict's point of view, it's quite interesting to note how iWork does not contain either a spreadsheet or a personal-scale database. This is a deft deflection of the whole question of whether Apple is going to war with Microsoft in the work applications space. As with the iPod strategy, Apple is playing from their strengths and can slowly encroach into the MS Office market with each new generation of the suite. I don't know what Apple may be playing with in terms of spreadsheets but they certainly have a strong, existing community around the FileMaker database system. At $79 for the suite, there's hope yet that ridiculous pricing for office suites will be improving in the future -- but I won't be holding my breath.

mini-Mac

Oh, yeah, well that's what the new Mac mini should be called. There's plenty of folks getting all excited about this but I'm a bit skeptical. $499 sounds like a good price but that's for a machine which only has 256MB of RAM. Going to a realistic 1GB of RAM will cost you another $425 (buying it from Apple) -- that's highway robbery. To get a "Super" CD/DVD drive instead of the baseline "Combo" drive adds another $100. Apple is pitching the mini-Mac as a good machine for things like build farms (and hence, cheap render farms and the like) but note that the mini-Mac doesn't have gigabit-ethernet -- only 100Mbit.

Now, all that said, I think there are a couple of interesting markets where the mini-Mac will be effective. The first is to upgrade the machines of the relatives who are always bugging you to keep their MS Windows boxes running (but aren't anywhere near ready for e.g., Linux). If they already have a nice monitor then getting them a mini-Mac seems like a very reasonable option. I switched my Dad and one of my Aunts to 17" iMacs awhile back and even with the transition pains, my support load has dropped dramatically (i.e., it's almost all just senile user errors these days :-). The second interesting use is for people who travel but don't really need or can't afford a desktop replacement laptop. If you're not a power user then having a nice monitor, etc. at work and at home and just throw the mini-Mac in a bag and you're all set.

iPod Kerfluffle

Well, Apple finally answered my complaint about the high price of the iPod mini... Apple has released the iPod Shuffle. This time, they hit the price points spot on with a $99 base model which has 512MB of flash memory and a 1GB version for $149. The iPod shuffle is a brilliant answer to the flash-base MP3 player market. It's tiny, it has a very competitive price/capability ratio, and it's simple. The genius is that Apple simplified the entire model of how a flash-based player works. How? They completely got rid of the general purpose display. How can they do that and still create a usable device? They realized that all of the heavy lifting with the tiny device would be done in the iTunes software when you've connected the device to your computer. That is to say that Apple looked at the notion of mobile music playing as a complete system and focused making the systemic experience better. The iPod Shuffle is going to decimate the competition. There's a big lesson here for people who consider themselves architects.

Now, for some balance, the prices and capabilities of the iPod mini and the full-scale iPods still a bit sore spot. Given the unit volumes that Apple is selling iPods, the price/capability ratio sucks. I was hoping for a shock and awe announcement of a new high-end iPod that had built-in WiFi and support for WiFi delivered VOIP telecommunications. Now that would be a brilliant bit of sidestepping of the whole cellular carrier wars and would drive the mobile communication market into new territory.

Java Developers Get the Shaft

In the past, Apple has said that they care about Java. Alas, the patterns of fact show that to be a very arguable point. Java support on the Apple platform has always been and continues to be a third-class citizen. Heck, developers in general are only, at best, considered second-class citizens by Apple. The fact is that the Mac OS X 10.4 ('Tiger') release is at least 6 months late and that Apple has locked Java v1.5 to the Tiger release. Jobs was extremely vague about the release date for Tiger, saying that it will be out in the first half of 2005. That means that Java v1.5 support on the Apple platform will be about 1 year behind the Sun FCS release. Yeah, sure, that's commitment to Java and Java developers. Various folks have been pestering Apple to release a version that runs under the current Mac OS X 10.3. The gossip that I've heard is that Apple has cut back on the staffing of the Java team and just doesn't have the resources to make that happen. For shame! Of course, there are lessons in here about how backwards businesses are in their indignant misunderstanding of the value of developers as business catalysts but I won't bore you with that rant. :-)

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