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Analysis: After the Keynote

Apple's realities versus expectations By Dave Nagel
With Steve Jobs's annual keynote address out of the way, it's pretty safe to say that the major announcements coming out of the Macworld SF 2003 conference have now been made. Not that I can take the rest of the week off or anything, but you know what I mean. The "big news"--the stuff we've been waiting to hear for the last few months--has been made. And it's now time to compare Apple's offerings against expectations.

But whose expectations?

If you're anything like me--a cynical, sarcastic, overweight yet somehow terrifyingly charismatic leader of public opinion--you had no expectations for this year's Macworld show. You thought we might see some new iMac colors, maybe an iTunes update and some relatively minor third-party announcements, all framed by a Steve Jobs/Phil Schiller denial-fest. Just the same kind of junk we've heard at these shows for the last three years. You, then, have been pleasantly surprised in some ways.

However, there are many out there who expected more, especially on the hardware front. Where, for example, are the G5s? What about this news about Mac OS X running on Intel chips? What about something--anything--that I can use to convince my IT department that a Mac is a better investment than a peecee? You, my friend, have been sorely disappointed ... in some ways.

And then they're are the Mac Superpsychofanatics out there who start drooling whenever Steve Jobs gets on a stage. You know who you are. You're the one who clapped when Jobs announced Apple was going to keep charging for the .Mac service. "Hooray! I'm screwed out of another $99!" You, of course, were in orgasmic convulsions throughout the keynote. This column is not for you.

For the rest of us, this year's Macworld expo has amounted to something of a mixture of anguish and elation. Let's break it down.

The hardware
If you care more about processors than anything else, forget about it. This show was a total loss. No G5s. No alternative processors. Nothing. However, I should note that Apple hasn't, of late, used the Macworld SF convention as a forum for launching processor updates or new hardware or software for creative professionals. If new machines aren't ready at least for preorder, Apple isn't going to announce them. And they're certainly not going to tell you in January that they'll be switching to Intel processors in the fall (if that's the case), when such an announcement would mean zero hardware sales between now and then. That's just marketing strategy. You can't announce something like new or significantly faster processors too soon, or you're doomed. (Of course, the same is true if you announce them too late....)

So just put any processor fantasies out of your mind for now. Apple will announce new systems this year, but not before they're available to order, which could be as soon as a few weeks or as far off as a few months.

Aside from processors, Apple did have some significant hardware announcements to make. The most obvious, of course, is the new 17-inch PowerBook "Aluminum." (We'll see how that plays in Australia and England!) The new device is somewhat notable for its larger screen, new graphics processor (the Nvidia GeForce 440 Go), incorporated SuperDrive, slim form factor and light weight. But more significant, I think, are the new-new technologies this mobile system heralds.

FireWire 800, of course, is the most important, offering twice the transfer speeds of the older version of FireWire, along with apparent backward compatibility (through an interface adapter) with the newly old FireWire 400 standard.

Along with this, there were also the developments in wireless technologies, most notably the arrival of AirPort Extreme. AirPort Extreme (also known as 802.11g) is the next generation of wireless networking technology known previously as just "AirPort"--were we ever so young?--and boasting transfer speeds of 54 Mbps, up dramatically from the old 11 Mbps of 802.11b. It too offers backward compatibility with the old and allows for wireless daisychaining for extending range throughout large installations. An AirPort Extreme wireless card is included in the new 17-inch PowerBook Aluminum, and the new AirPort Extreme base station sees a generous price drop to $199.

And then there's Bluetooth wireless networking, which has been available for Mac OS X for quite a while but has never been integrated into Apple hardware. Bluetooth now makes its way into both the 17-inch PowerBook and the new, dinkified 12-inch model as standard equipment. (And speaking of the dinkified PowerBook, I'll reserve comment on that until I've seen it for myself and had a chance to work with it a bit.)

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