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Last Macworld keynote: a little hardware, a lot of software and the death of DRM

More mundane than magic, Apple's final Macworld keynote produced no blockbuster iPhone-caliber product, with the bulk of the 90-minute presentation consumed with product updates.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the musical guest at the end – legendary singer Tony Bennett, rather than the usual more pop contemporary John Mayer. Steve Jobs made not so much as a cameo.

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Jobs' designated replacement, Apple Vice President for Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller, spent more than half of the keynote demonstrating features in the new versions of Apple's iLife and iWork software suites. The lone hardware announcement concerned the high-end 17-inch MacBook Pro.

Schiller saved one long-awaited chunk of news for last – as of today, 80 percent of the songs on the iTunes Store will no longer have copy protection, with the remaining 20 percent following by the end of March.

The lack of copy protection means users will be able to copy the music they buy on to as many devices as they like without restriction. The issue has caused much controversy since the iTunes Store launched in 2003.

Other online music vendors like Amazon have been selling DRM-free songs for over a year, so this move just catches Apple up. But because iTunes is the market leader, the move hammers the final nail in DRM's coffin, at least for music. Schiller made no mention of TV shows or movies.

Apple also said as of April it will offer flexible pricing at the iTunes Store, finally caving to years of pressure from the major music companies. Instead of all songs for 99 cents, some will cost a mere 69 cents – 5 cents cheaper than even a Wal-Mart's discounted downloads – or $1.29. Some songs will remain 99 cents; most albums will remain $9.99.

Expect new releases and popular songs –in other words, most of what people will want to buy -- to tip toward the $1.29 price.

Those who have purchased a lot of songs and music videos from iTunes over the years can obtain DRM-free versions, but at the cost of 30 cents per song and 60 cents per video.

The new MacBook Pro Schiller unveiled really belongs to the family of new MacBooks announced in October, the ones with shells carved from a single block of aluminum. At the time many noted the missing 17-inch model.

Maybe Apple felt it needed to save this monster MacBook Pro for the keynote so it would have at least one cool piece of hardware to show. The new 17-inch MacBook Pro is less than an inch thin, weighs a sleek 6.6 pounds, and comes with 4 gigabytes of memory and a 320 GB hard drive. Alas, the processor is a 2.66 Intel Core 2 Duo, not a quad core as I had hoped.

The most compelling feature of the 17-inch MacBook Pro is its battery. Schiller said this MacBook's custom-made battery can supply an amazing 8 hours of computing time on a single charge – 3 more hours than the previous 17-inch Pro -- and that it will endure 1,000 recharge cycles, roughly five years of use.

The down side is that the cell is not user-removable, but Apple has a program for exchanging the battery. In all probability, a typical user would only need to exchange the battery once over the machine's life.

And it can be yours for (ahem) a reasonable $2,799.

The bulk of Schiller's talk covered the new features in fresh versions of the iLife suite (iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand) and iWork suite (Keynote, Pages and Numbers).

The noteworthy twist here is the beta launch of a Google Docs-like service called iWork.com. People using the iWork apps will be able to share documents over the Internet via iWork.com. However, users will only be able to edit the documents if they download it to their computer and, presumably, have a copy of iWork on their Mac. Apple doesn't make an iWork version for Windows.

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All that means Apple will have to do better if it wants people to give up using Microsoft Office for creating and sharing of word processor, presentation and spreadsheet documents.

Google might have something to worry about if Apple 1) didn't plan to charge separately for the service and 2) if Apple did what I've suggested and create platform-independent online versions of its iWork apps that people could access via its MobileMe service.

Schiller didn't say how much iWork.com would cost, or whether it would be a monthly or annual fee, but charging for it is bad strategy. As a new player competing against free services Apple needs to find a better way to monetize it, like my MobileMe suggestion.

Schiller gave lengthy demos of new software features that should appeal to many Mac users, though perhaps not enough to inspire them to pay for an upgrade.

iPhoto '09 offers several nifty new organizational tools. Faces will remember a person's face and create a category of photos of that person.

Better yet, this feature can integrate with such Web 2.0 sites as FaceBook and Flickr. Slowly Apple has shown recognition of the importance of making its products more Web 2.0 friendly. (Note to Apple: Better integration of iMovie with YouTube would also be a good idea.)

Places uses the GPS data in some cameras (and, as Schiller pointed out, the iPhone) to organize photos according to location. You can see where you've traveled by looking at an iPhoto map that puts virtual stickpins in the places where you've taken photographs. If your camera lacks GPS data, you can tag your photos manually.

Schiller half-admitted last year's version of iMovie wasn't quite a hit with many customers: "not every feature was there for every customer." This year's iMovie adds several appreciated features, such as auto-stabilization for shaky video (like those taken on a bumpy car ride) and animated travel maps.

GarageBand, the music creation part of iLife, adds a "Learn to Play" feature that provides nine video lessons each on how to play the guitar and piano.

Once you've completed those, you can learn how to play a some individual songs tutored by the artists themselves. Yep, you can learn how to play "Proud Mary" from John Fogerty himself. Other artists include Sting, Sarah McLachlan and Norah Jones. Apple will provide more lessons via download for $4.99 each.

Among the iWork apps, the coolest addition was not part of the suite but a 99-cent iPhone app called Keynote Remote that turns your iPhone or iPod Touch into a touch-screen remote control of the Keynote presentation program.

The iLife 09 suite ships in late January at the usual price of $79 -- $99 for the Family Pack. The iWork suite is available today, at the same prices. It requires the Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) operating system. You can get both suites along with Leopard as part of he new "Mac Box Set" package for $169.

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