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A real January surprise?

As Apple Computer Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs began yet another keynote speech Tuesday morning at the Macworld trade show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, he told the assembled faithful that he had “enough for two Macworlds.”

Though prone to hyperbole, Jobs wasn’t far from the truth.

His speech had more to offer than any in recent memory: two new hardware offerings, upgrades to most of its renowned media software and two completely new applications.

Hardware

Jobs confounded the preshow prognosticators, who foresaw no new Mac hardware, by introducing a PowerBook G4 with a 17-inch screen -- the largest display to date on a notebook computer. (Rumors of a video-capable iPod proved false.)

This $3,299 professional laptop incorporates three new connection technologies: a port for the next-generation FireWire 800 technology, as well as two wireless technologies, AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth.

FireWire, which Apple invented, connects peripherals with such heavy data-transfer requirements as digital video cameras and hard drives -- and FireWire 800 can pump such data twice as fast as the original.

AirPort Extreme is Apple’s name for new wireless networking -- often called WiFi and officially named 802.11g. This technology is nearly five times as fast as the current standard, 802.11b, yet compatible with existing WiFi hardware.

Wireless networking rapidly is becoming the preferred method for connecting computers to each other and to the Internet, so Apple is trying to stay out in front by being the first to adopt 802.11g.

The only pitfall could be a competing WiFi standard, 802.11a, which Jobs said Apple rejected because it lacked compatiblilty with older WiFi equipment. If the rest of the PC industry adopts 802.11a, Apple may find itself on a technological limb.

Meanwhile, the 17-inch PowerBook includes the new AirPort Extreme card, but the AirPort Extreme base station must be purchased separately for $199.

At that price, it’s a bargain. The previous, slower AirPort base station cost $299 and didn’t have AirPort Extreme’s Universal Serial Bus port for networking printers. Nor did it have built-in bridging capability for extending networks over larger areas with multiple base stations.

Bluetooth is another type of wireless connection technology, but it operates at much slower speeds and shorter ranges, about 30 feet, than either version of AirPort.

But Bluetooth is ideal for linking keyboards, mice, cellular telephones, hand-held devices and printers. While products with Bluetooth recently have started to appear, Bluetooth is expected to become standard on Windows PCs this year. That should encourage more perpipheral manufacturers to add Bluetooth to their devices.

One other sharp feature on the 17-inch PowerBook deserves mention: its backlit keyboard. The device activates when the ambient light dims. It’s the type of exquisite touch that’s become a hallmark of Apple design.

Further enhancing its pro line of laptops, Jobs also unveiled a 12-inch PowerBook G4 -- which, at 4.6 pounds -- is several ounces lighter than the 12.1-inch consumer iBook.

The 12-inch PowerBook also includes Bluetooth and a slot for an AirPort Extreme card, but, oddly, no FireWire 800.

Missing from both new PowerBooks, however, is a USB 2.0 port, the twice-as-fast incarnation of a common PC method for connecting printers and scanners. Apple so far has resisted adopting the Intel Corp.-invented USB 2.0, apparently seeing it as a competitor with its FireWire technology, because the new USB can match FireWire 400 speeds (though it is still only half as fast as the FireWire 800 port on the new PowerBook).

With PC makers gradually making USB 2.0 a standard, the appearance of more USB 2.0 peripherals eventually will force Apple to upgrade from the USB 1.1 ports installed in current Macs.

Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., announced no changes to its iBook line of laptops. Likewise, neither the pro nor consumer desktops even warranted a mention.

Instead, Jobs hailed 2003 as the “Year of the Notebook.”

Software

Apple unleashed a software bonanza, much of it unexpected.

Jobs discussed two applications released just days before Macworld, iSync 1.0 for synchronizing data between multiple Macs, as well devices like iPods, Palm hand-helds and cell phones. He also mentioned an upgrade to the iCal calendar program that addressed its sluggishness. Both updates had been expected.

But one Macworld rumor Jobs validated concerned an Apple-branded Web browser. Called Safari, the browser can render pages three times faster than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, according to benchmark data presented by Jobs.

Jobs surprised many with a $99 presentation program called Keynote, which began in software designed to help Jobs create his presentations. Most notably, Keynote can import and export files in Microsoft PowerPoint format.

Combined with the Safari announcement, Keynote demonstrates that Apple has become more willing to challenge Microsoft’s primacy on several critical software fronts.

Jobs further stunned participants with a demonstration of a $299 version of Apple’s film editing program, Final Cut Pro. It costs $999 and is popular in Hollywood for making movie trailers. The so-called “Final Cut Express” should appeal to amateur filmmakers who outgrow the limitations of the free iMovie program.

The parade of software announcements continued. Three of the four “digital hub” applications – iMovie, iPhoto, iDVD – have upgraded versions to be available on Jan. 25. While each “iApp” received some new features, the kicker is the addition of much tighter integration among them. (Jobs said last summer’s release of iTunes3 included “hidden features” designed to permit integration with its fellow iApps.)

For example, when choosing a song to accompany a slide show in iPhoto, the user’s iTunes playlist will appear automatically. The new version of iMovie will let users insert chapter markers that iDVD will pick up and automatically convert into scene-selection menus. Pictures in iPhoto much more easily can be incorporated into an iMovie project.

The integration of iApps exponentially improves their utility and underscores their role in Apple’s “Mac-as-media-center” vision. As such, Apple has given them a collective name, “iLife.”

Defying pre-Macworld hysteria that Apple would announce fees for the iApps, Jobs said all but iDVD (which is too large to download) would remain available as free downloads. For those who lack the patience or the bandwidth for the free downloads, Apple will offer the iLife suite as a $49.95 CD-ROM.

Conclusions

Apple watchers expected Jobs’ speech to define where the company is headed, and he didn’t disappoint:

  • First, Apple clearly realizes that desktops are its weak spot. Pro desktop sales declined 18 percent last year, and sales of the lamp-like iMac introduced at last year’s San Francisco show have turned as flat as its LCD screen.Help is on the way for the pro desktops, in the form of IBM Corp.’s potent PowerPC 970 chip, but that won’t arrive until autumn at the earliest.But the iMac poses a thornier problem, as it has failed to generate the sustained sales numbers of its predecessor, and Apple may not have a consumer desktop alternative for a while.Jobs noted that laptops comprised 32 percent of Mac sales last year, and are expected to reach 35 percent this year, compared with less than 25 percent for the general PC industry. “We believe someday notebooks will outsell desktops,” Jobs said.Until Apple’s desktop lines become more competitive on price and processing power with Windows machines, expect the emphasis on its notebooks to continue.
  • Second, Apple will continue to push the advantages of wireless connectivity: AirPort Extreme for networking and Bluetooth for peripherals. Just as Apple’s original AirPort helped establish wireless networking as an industry standard, its early support for the new standards will keep Apple at the forefront of wireless technology.
  • Third, expect further development of the digital hub, and not just in the realm of the iLife software suite. Among the slew of press releases out of Apple Tuesday came one describing how three companies – TiVo, Brother and Mac game-maker Aspyr -- had announced Rendezvous-enabled products.(Rendezvous is Apple’s name for a technology that allows networked devices to “see” each other with no configuration required by the user.)
  • Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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