Reflections on the recent Apple Announcements from MacWorldExpo 2006

First things first, let me say that I am pretty impressed with what Apple rolled out this week. The thing to keep in mind about the Steve Job’s Keynote is that Mac World Expo is a hard date that Jobs and company must meet every year – there is no opportunity to delay the announcements that they make, and they need to do it with fireworks and pizzazz to satisfy the media, analysts and Mac Zealots who crave the types of surprises that Steve has delivered in the past. For typical media events, Apple sends out invitations about one month before the event, so they have total control of when it will happen and what will be announced. For MWE, however, the date is set a year in advance and Apple production schedules must make sure they are in-line with this premier media event of the year. And what’s been announced this week is very promising.

Jobs spent a good 45 minutes on iLife ’06 and I must say that I am pretty impressed. This is probably, by far, the most feature-filled software suite you can purchase for $79. Things that are really good in this release include significant performance improvements (I’ve personally confirmed this myself), much tighter integration between iLife apps (easy access to iPhoto pictures via the new iWeb, etc.), easier creation of Podcasts in GarageBand, and an overall facelift to pretty much ever core component. The two most significant new components, in my opinion, is the introduction of the iWeb web content authoring tool and the creation of features to support Apple’s newest social computing buzzword, Photocasting. Let’s face it, iWeb is not going to be the type of application that any moderately serious web programmer will be using to create websites, but it represents a significant addition, which will undoubtedly allow the masses to much more easily create and publish online content – especially content that takes advantage of core iLife rich content (photos from iPhoto, podcasts from GarageBand, video podcasts from iMovie, etc.). I took some time to review some of the HTML code generated by iWeb and I must say that I was quite impressed with how clean the code was – it’s actually readable and editable.

In regards to Photocasting (the ability to create, publish and subscribe to photo streams on the Internet), Jobs would like you to believe that Apple created this concept, but this isn’t the case. Photo subscriptions have been available via RSS feeds from sites like Flickr for years now, just as, what we now call, podcasts were available years before Apple introduced many of us to the concept. Apple, however, will be the one to make the concept widespread and more easily accessible. One of the downsides to RSS photo feeds has always been that nobody really knew what to do with them, other than look at low-quality versions of the photos in your RSS reader. Apple’s introduction of this concept within the iLife suite, as well as within the core operating system, will help evolve this concept significantly.

Moving on to hardware, the buzz is undoubtedly about the Intel chips and the focus has been heavy on the new MacBook Pro laptop. It’s incredible to see the introduction of an Intel-based Powerbooks and iMac this early – months before they were originally promised. I think what we see in this first release of the MacBook is quite promising, but there are a few things that just don’t sit right with me at this moment. First, it’s clear that the announcement was made a tad early, although this is understandable due to the MacWorld fixed-date factor that I discussed early. The shipment of the MacBook is leaning towards March and most of Apple’s own applications are not yet available as Universal binaries. I wonder if this will cause a loss in momentum, as people will actually get almost two months to ponder their purchases and the switch over to the Intel side of the fence? Steve wasn’t going to forego this major announcement at Macworld Expo, however. Second, there is sort of a “give a little take a little” feeling here – I love the added speed and overall design, but Apple took away some pretty significant hardware features that are available on the current line of PowerPC-based PowerBooks. For starters, the highly touted “improved” screen is smaller in size than the current 15 inch Powerbook. Smaller resolution and desktop real-estate is a surprise, given how Apple spent so much time focusing on their expansive PowerBook screen resolution in their October 2005 Pro release. They have taken away the SVideo output port, which was very handy for hooking your PowerBook up to a television screen. While I have never used my PowerBook for business purposes, I can see where this can hurt those of us who do regular dog and pony shows with their laptop. Personally, I travel with an SVideo-to-RBG composite cable, which allows me to play DVDs on hotel but I guess this is no longer an option for me. Along with SVideo, FireWire 800 ports have disappeared. This sucks for those of us who have high-performance external drives. C’mon Apple – FireWire 400 is soooo, um, 2001. Next on the list, Apple made the PCMCIA/PC Card slot disappear, replacing it with the yet-to-be-widely-supported and not-backward-compatible ExpressCard/34 slot. (I guess I would need to throw out my PC Card CompactFlash reader that I use to grab my digital photos?) And for their final trick, Apple took away the recently introduced dual-layer DVD burners, relegating us back to single-layer DVD burning for the time to come.

The biggest mystery about the MacBook, in my opinion, is the battery life – and I’m really surprised that most people are not making a bigger deal about this. Battery life is typically a significant factor in the decision process when a mobile traveler is shopping for a laptop, but Apple has refused to release any battery life numbers at this time. This is a bit alarming. While the battery capacity is increasing for this line, the real question is what the machine’s true battery utilization will be. It will be a real shame if the cost of the processor performance boost is an hour reduction is maximum battery life. We will wait and see.

Finally, the last thing that’s unsettling to me is the quoted benchmarks and the proposed performance enhancements. 4X improvements on PowerBooks and 2X boosts on iMacs is a pretty significant improvement and I am grateful for any exponential improvement that is made from only a single generation jump in a product line. But the benchmarks come from Apple and we all know that every farmer is going to tell you that his cows produce the best milk. The thing to be cautious of is that Intel created the SPEC benchmarks themselves. and they can be highly skewed using extremely optimized code built with Intel’s compilers. Other than the flashy graphs and Steve Job’s own word, there was no other information released about the benchmark tests, what conditions they were performed under, etc. You may say “So what? I still win if the performance boost is even 2Xs greater than what I had before” and I have to partially agree with you. But where the real number become a true factor is for those of us who will be running PowerPC-based applications on an Intel-based Mac. One of the key factors in early adoption of the Intel-based platform for existing Mac users will be how effectively the Rosetta PPC emulator can work. No one has any true benchmarks at this time, but history tells us that even the best instruction set emulators can produce a 50% performance hit. If the true speed boost in the iMac, for example, is only, say 50% over the “old” iMac, and the Rosetta emulator give you 50% performance hit when running PPC apps, the net gain in performance is a wash. Perhaps one of the biggest unspoken indications regarding Rosetta’s performance is from Apple themselves. who have stated that their own Pro apps (Final Cut Pro, Logic Studio, Aperture, etc.) will not run under Rosetta. No one is sure if this is because of a technical limitation, or if this is Apple saying, “Don’t even think about trying to run these under an emulator, because the results will be horrific”.

A few of the additions to the MacBook fall into my “nice to have” category. The built in iSight is sharp and will undoubtedly be a cool toy for mobile users, but I don’t see a ton of practicality it in. The addition of Front Row and the Apple remote control is senseless. Who is really going to use that remote control with a laptop? And will you ever really be sitting so far away from your laptop when watching a DVD that you need a remote control? And the Apple remote is still IR-based, which means you need line-of-site to the PowerBook for it to work, so forget about changing your iTunes song from the kitchen while your Powerbook is in the living room. Other than the dual-core architecture itself, my vote for best innovation in this release is an easy one: the new magnetic power adapter. What a cool thing this is, particularly given the perennial problems Apple has had with its existing power brick connectors.

In the short term, there are winners and losers with the changes in the Apple line and its shift to Intel. On the upside, consumers are getting a much more advanced platform to move forward with and a significant speed boost, only months after the prior generation of Powerbooks and iMacs were introduced. On the downside, some people will undoubtedly be unhappy with the removal of some core Powerbook hardware features, the undetermined battery life and the uncertainly about how the Rosetta PPC emulator will perform. Apple has done a spectacular job on the development support front to allow a fairly easy transition for developers to Universal binaries. The downside for the developers, however, is the accelerated time frame of the Intel hardware, particularly after everyone was initially told that we shouldn’t expect anything for another six months or so. This will undoubtedly cause some chaos within many software development organizations that have a lot riding on Apple’s platforms.

The fallout from Steve’s keynote included a number of other relatively quite Apple releases. Mac OS X 10.4.4 was available via software update later that evening. Other than a few new widgets, it mostly seems to be a collection of bug fixes. A QuickTime update appears to help resolve some video playback choppiness issues in iTunes. My personal favorite “unspoken” release was the 6.0.2 release of iTunes, coupled with a firmware update to the AirportExpress with AirTunes mini wireless base station. These versions give the user the ability to output iTunes audio to multiple output streams simultaneously, so you can now play music through, say, your PC speakers, living room stereo and bedroom stereo all at the same time. This effectively allows you to “wire” your entire house for audio with a minimal investment. iTunes also now allows you to convert video to iPod Fifth-Generation format with the click of a mouse, something that was previously only supported in QuickTime Pro (it works, but it’s very, very slow). A new iTunes music “mini store” appears at the bottom of your iTunes screen when you play a song. This is an annoyance, but it can be easily turned off.

So what else is yet to come? There’s a whole bunch of speculation that something was missing or, potentially cut out from Steve’s keynote, but who knows and who cares? I do think the iPod shuffle is due for an update sooner than later, as it just celebrated its first anniversary. The tired old Mac Mini is in desperate need of an update and I would welcome the speculation about Apple releasing a media-centric Mini with DVR and HD output capabilities.

All in all, I find Apple’s direction promising. I will hold out for the second generation MacBook before considering a purchase, but I like where Apple is going. More to come, I’m sure. There’s always more to come on the Apple front…

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