Super-thin MacBook, new Apple TV, iTunes Movie Rentals dazzle Macworld attendees

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Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivered no huge surprises in his keynote address this morning in San Francisco, but still hit home runs with the new Macbook Air laptop and the iTunes Movie Rental Service.

Both had been rumored in recent weeks, but one can never be sure what's going to happen in a Macworld keynote.


Though he saved the MacBook Air for last, the iTunes Movie Rental Store announcement was probably more significant in terms of what it will mean to Apple in the long term. This move should position Apple to dominate the realm of video downloads.

Jobs said that all the major film studios were on board, a major coup for Apple. The rental service will offer new films 30 days after their release on DVD as well as a library of older films. New films will cost $3.99 to rent, older titles $2.99. The iTunes Store also will continue to sell movies and TV shows at their current prices.


Customers will be able to watch the movies instantly, and can view a film as often as they like within 24 hours of starting the stream. If a user wants to finish watching their movie on their iPod or iPhone, they can do that, too. Users have 30 days to launch the stream before the rental expires.

The iTunes Movie Rental Store service launches today, Jobs said, with 100 titles, but will have 1,000 by the end of February. At first the service will be available only in the United States, but Jobs said it will be available internationally "later this year."

Just as significant as the announcement of the iTunes rental service is the vehicle with which many customers are likely to access it: a much-improved Apple TV.

No longer does the Apple TV need to be tethered to a computer for functionality. As I had hoped, the device can access the Internet directly through a wireless connection, allowing it to link to the iTunes Store directly. Customers can browse movies, TV shows and music on their TV screen right from the snazzy Apple TV interface. You can buy or rent.

After you've made your choice you can watch the content on your TV or your computer – or your iPod or iPhone. The Apple TV still syncs with your computer, but now it also syncs backwards. So stuff you obtain via Apple TV will be available on your computer, too.

Apple didn't stop there. The new Apple TV can access photos from Flickr or a .Mac site as well as YouTube videos. Apple has vastly improved Apple TV by allowing a variety of ways to access digital content (though digital rights management was never mentioned … hmmm). And on top of all that, the company dropped the price of Apple TV from $299 to $229. The few who bought an Apple TV last year will get a free software upgrade to enable these features. I think Apple will sell a lot more Apple TVs in 2008 than it did in 2007.

The MacBook Air gave Jobs some sexy new Mac hardware to show off. The 3-pound notebook is wedge-shaped, just .76 inches thin at its thickest point and an astonishing .16 inch thin at its slimmest. It sports a 13.3-inch LED display and a full-sized backlit keyboard (the keys are black). The trackpad is oversized to allow the use of iPhone-like gestures, such as twisting your fingers to rotate an image in iPhoto.

The MacBook Air uses a tiny 80-gigabyte hard drive like the one found in the iPod Classic, and comes standard with a generous 2 GB of memory, the same as the MacBook Pro. The price: $1,799.


But the MacBook Pro's most distinguishing feature is what it doesn't have – an optical drive. One can buy an external SuperDrive that connects via USB for $99, but Jobs argued that people won't bother. "We don't think most users will miss the optical drive or need the optical drive," Jobs said. As an alternative Jobs said the MacBook Air will be able to access the optical drives of other Macs or PCs over a wireless network.

The omission of an optical drive recalls Jobs' introduction of the first iMac in 1997, which omitted a floppy disk drive (though external ones could be purchased as an option). Clearly Jobs foresees optical media – CDs and DVDs – suffering the same fate as floppies.

Jobs also introduced new software features for the iPhone and iPod Touch, as well as a new wireless hardware backup device, Time Capsule. Designed to work with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard's Time Machine automatic backup feature, Time Capsule uses the fast 802.11n wireless protocol and comes in two sizes: a 500 GB version for $299 and a 1 terabyte version for $499. I wish I had known about this before I bought a Buffalo LinkStation a few months ago. (sigh.)

I may have more thoughts on the keynote later.