Macworld After-Expo Report

By now you’ve no doubt heard about all the news coming out of last week’s Macworld Expo. There’s not much I can tell you about the new Apple products that hasn’t already been covered. But here’s my two cents worth…

I had a crazy week last week, so I only managed to crawl the Expo floor for most of Tuesday afternoon, beginning about an hour after the keynote. First stop: the swamped Apple exhibit.

iPod shuffles dangled from their displays like tiny white alien carcasses. You have to wonder about all those strangers putting those ear buds in their ears, but I held one to my ear with one hand and fiddled with the iPod shuffle’s diminutive controls with the other. After a moment of confusion, I managed to turn it on and music came tinkling out of the headset. Immediately, I wanted one. This iPod is jewel-like and featherweight, a piece of ergonomic candy in your hands. And the price is right. An ordinary 1-gigabyte flash card costs about a hundred bucks (I just bought one for my new camera), so essentially you’re paying another fifty to turn a memory card into your new best friend. The iPod shuffle holds up to 16 hours of music and the battery holds out for up to 12 hours. That’s long enough for a roundtrip flight to the east coast, or a one-way puddle jump to the UK. And this iPod is meant to be worn around the neck, like a sacred pendant. It’s sure to inspire the Mac faithful as well as win a few converts. I predict heavy adoption by the pre-teen set; every kid is going to want one of these and the price makes it easy for parents to indulge them.

It’s interesting to watch the media response to Apple announcements. The first response seemed to be bewilderment: why would anyone want an iPod if you can’t go immediately to the song you want? But what’s so surprising about that? That’s radio. The iPod shuffle is like your personal radio station without the commercials. Just as the iTunes Music Store is changing music buying habits, the iPod shuffle may change your music listening habits. How many times did you buy a single before the iTMS? I still favor buying an entire album instead of picking and choosing, but that may change. I used to listen to albums from start to finish, eagerly anticipating the next song I knew was coming. But now I load up iTunes with my new CDs, create a playlist, and listen to them on shuffle and repeat (and repeat and repeat) until I tire of them and get a new batch.

And the competition just doesn’t get it. They argue that they have more features in their players. But it isn’t about features. It’s about design, branding and cachet. Just ask Nike.

I couldn’t bring myself to go out and buy a shuffle on the spot (I have a third-generation iPod that is still serviceable—even after I dropped it on the sidewalk a few weeks ago—but it’s starting to feel brick-like after fondling a shuffle), but I couldn’t resist the new iLife and iWork. I ordered them from the Apple Store as soon as I got home (I should have them in the next day or two; look for my assessment in the coming days).

The most exciting announcement for me personally was the addition of RAW support in iPhoto. My Christmas gift to myself last year was a Nikon D70. I prefer to shoot in RAW so I can keep my options completely open to tweak things in Photoshop. The camera is great, but the included PictureProject software is less than perfect (and the interface is an eyesore), so I’ve been seriously considering using Extensis Portfolio or iView MediaPro to manage my growing photo catalog. There are still reasons to consider a more powerful media manager, but the new iPhoto should meet my current needs just fine. The new image editing tools also look promising.

An aside: What’s with the new semi-transparent Dashboard palettes? Introduced in Motion, this new interface design looks great, but the proliferation of interface designs on the Mac is beginning to irk me. First, the pin-stripped Aqua look began giving way to Platinum. And the Digital Production apps (DVD Studio Pro, etc.) have their own distinct look (I don’t even know what you call that). Does this bother anyone else?

I’m not sure what to make of iWork. I was hoping for an AppleWorks replacement. I can’t avoid using Microsoft Office because I still need Word’s Track Changes features for writing and PowerPoint for working with my corporate consulting clients. I’ve never used Keynote. Pages looks like a dumbed down Pagemaker. Still, I couldn’t resist it this time. At $79 for iLife and $79 for iWork, Apple is practically giving this stuff away, so I bought iWork even though I really have no use for it. I’ll let you know what I think after I’ve had a chance to play with it.

The Mac mini also looks like a hit. I just got my new dual 2.5GHz G5 and 30-inch Cinema HD display last fall (I’m really good to myself at Christmas, at least once every three years or so), but the Mac mini got me wondering if maybe I shouldn’t have bought half-a-dozen of them and strung them together into the world’s smallest supercomputer. I think the Mac mini may actually make switching from a peecee to a Mac a manageable exercise for the average cost-conscious consumer.

The argument is still raging about whether or not Apple has achieved price parity with Dell, but again, I think the competition just doesn’t get it. There’s a new generation of kids growing up with iPods glued to their ears, their favorite band (U2?) is all over the iTMS, and now not only do they have practically disposable iPod shuffles, but a Mac they can afford to buy with their own baby sitting or lawn mowing money. I’ve been trying to convert a few friends of mine away from the dark side and, if they didn’t have notebooks instead of desktops (so they can’t just swap out the box and use their old keyboards, mice, and monitors), I’m sure the Mac mini would have won them over (well, they do still need to run a few specialized PC apps for their business, and I wouldn’t subject anyone to having to live in Virtual PC).

I should also mention that Tiger looks sexier than ever. The most useful addition to the OS, besides 64-bit computing, are probably Spotlight and Automator. Dashboard is stunning, but I find it irritating that I can’t leave a widget on the desktop. But more on Tiger at some future date…

I think Apple was right on target with the new product releases this year. Time will tell, but the biggest questions facing Apple right now are:

1) Can Apple maintain, or even grow, share in the music player market? 2) Can Apple parlay it’s popularity with Windows users who own iPods and use iTMS and actually sell some boxes?

The stock has enjoyed a nice run this last year (I snipped enough from my Apple call options purchased just before the Expo to indulge a bit of techno lust) and Apple may confound the pundits again in 2005. Have you noticed that its critics haven’t speculated on Apple’s demise for quite a while?

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