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Macworld Musings: Notes from the Keynote Speech

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Macworld Musings: Notes from the Keynote Speech

by Victor Gavenda, Peachpit's technical editor

Steve Jobs's keynote speech was set to start at 9 on Tuesday morning, and I figured I oughta get there early because I needed a stinkin' badge. I decided to get to the Moscone Center as early as I could, wait in line for the registration booth to open at 8, then race for a spot in the keynote line. As the main entrance of Moscone came into view at 7:40 a.m., I could see there was already a line all the way down the block. Fortunately, the registration booth was open, and nobody was in line. Badge in hand, I dashed across the street and was the last person before the line started to spill onto Fourth Street, forming a hazard to navigation.

Eventually, we all got inside. I was about 10 rows from the back--I did some quick arithmetic and guessed that the hall held four or five thousand. Since I knew I was probably not going to get a ringside seat, I brought binoculars. No need to go through all of Jobs's talk, but I'll hit the highlights. (You can read the official spin on the event at Apple's site.)

The event started in darkness, then a red disk appeared on all the monitors. It was the eye of Hal, from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal apologized for the Y2K bug, from which Macintoshes are immune. He ended with, "You like your Macintosh better than me, don't you, Dave?" You can see the ad at Apple's site, or wait for its television debut during that annual advertising showcase, also known as the Super Bowl (supposedly during the first break after the kickoff).

Good news for Apple

Jobs started off with the biggest announcements, which concerned the new professional (Yosemite) desktop machines. Most people by now have heard how Apple has sold 800,000 iMacs since the model's introduction. But the desktop G3s have been quite successful, too: 1.6 million sold since they first shipped in the fall of 1997.

More good news for Apple: OS 8.5 sold a million copies to existing Mac owners in just the first 90 days. Add that to the million Macs that have shipped with OS 8.5 installed. Not bad for a platform supposedly on its last legs.

One of the most impressive demos had Steve playing around with FireWire (a cross-platform, high-speed serial data bus), hooking up a pocket-size 6GB hard drive to first one and then several Macs and a digital video camera, all without shutting anything down or configuring ID numbers or termination. Very cool.

After touting all the technical goodies in the new machines, Jobs finally rolled 'em out so we could see what the mysterious boxes looked like. The crowd cheered their approval, but the biggest applause came when he showed us how easy it is to open them and get at the insides. Must have been lots of IT managers in that group ....

A few unscripted moments

It was interesting to follow the crowd's reactions as various announcements confirmed, exceeded, or fell short of the pre-show gossip. It was well known that several new displays were going to be unveiled: two CRTs and a flat-panel, LCD monitor. It was rumored that the CRTs would be very nice, but expensive, while the LCD would be remarkably cheap, maybe even $500. So, the three new monitors roll out on their display tables, and Steve rattles off the prices: $1,499 for the 21-inch super-flat CRT with ColorSync built in, an amazing deal. The crowd ooohs. $499 for the 17-inch Trinitron display, also pretty cheap. The crowd aaahs. $1,099 for the LCD. Dead silence. Steve seemed stunned for a moment--he was getting used to the rhythm of the crowd's response. The crowd noticed this, and started to chuckle quietly, and eventually Steve got his wind back.

There was a funny moment early on, when His Steveness was describing the technical specs of the new Pro line. In the midst of a litany of impressive features, he proclaimed "The new Macs will ship with the fastest processors from Motorola and Intel." Audible gasps of amazement from the audience. Just how far did the secret deal with Microsoft go? Then we all looked more closely at the display screens above our heads that were showing the chips themselves; they were clearly labeled "Motorola" and "IBM." Audible sighs of relief and nervous laughter.

More than a dog-and-pony show

There were many great software demos. First of all, Final Cut Pro (Apple's new video-editing software) looks very cool. Then Steve showed off Mac OS X Server. This is the first commercial fruit of the NeXT acquisition, and an impressive piece of work it is. It's the closest thing to Rhapsody Apple will ever ship, quite a different animal from OS X itself, which will come out at the end of this year. OS X Server is not for everybody. It's a competitor to NT Server, and is not intended for use on individual workstations (desktops). For one thing, it's almost a thousand bucks. But you get a lot for your dough: WebObjects is included (though a somewhat limited version), which alone normally costs several kilobucks. So is Apache, which is free.

One cool thing about OS X Server, which I didn't know until the demo, is that it supports Net Booting. That means you can hook up certain Macs to an OS X Server network, and they can start up from the System Folder on the server itself. Steve gave (as usual) a dramatic demonstration of this.

Using an iMac as the client, he connected over the network to the OS X Server. The iMac was running normally, playing QuickTime movies, etc. Then Steve showed us that this particular machine not only had no floppy drive--it also had no hard drive! He pulled the iMac's hard drive out of his pocket with a flourish. Voilà--the long-awaited Network Computer, fabled in story and song. Then he pulled back a curtain and revealed a wall of 50 iMacs playing a QuickTime movie asynchronously from one OS X Server, without dropping a single frame. That's powerful stuff.

(The $995 price for the Server includes permission to connect an unlimited number of clients, a pretty good deal.)

Sir, you're no Steve Jobs

In what is becoming a tradition at these things (well, it's happened twice, anyway), Steve trotted out Ben Waldman, head of the Macintosh Business Unit at Microsoft. Unlike last year, there were almost no boos this time. Remember, Microsoft set up a totally separate office for its Mac software in Silicon Valley, far from the evil influence of Redmond. Today Waldman was announcing Internet Explorer 4.5, which has some cool Mac-only features (I grabbed a disk after the keynote and I've been using it ever since as my browser). In spite of the difference in numbering, IE 4.5 for the Mac is pretty much equivalent to IE 5 for Windows--and the Mac version shipped first!

Then, in a big surprise, Steve brought out John Carmack, of Id software (Doom, Quake), who said "Apple finally has their act together" with regard to games, and especially 3D software. (Id has been famous for failing to convert its most popular games to Mac versions, and Carmack has been particularly critical of Apple for some years). This was tied in with the announcement that Apple is licensing OpenGL, a Silicon Graphics 3D technology, and out came the CEO of SGI to share the spotlight. I feel sorry for other companies' executives when they have to share the stage with Jobs. They all seem pale and boring by comparison. This guy's shirt still had the creases to show that it was fresh out of the box--I had a momentary fantasy that he had shown up in a white shirt and tie and someone backstage said, "Eek! that won't do," so they stuck a green silk model on him at the last minute.

Everyone loves iCandy

Steve saved his favorite for the end: the multicolored iMacs. First, some market info: Apple sold 800,000 iMacs between the introduction in August and the end of the year. I did a quick mental calculation and came up with a cool billion bucks in revenue, thanks to turquoise plastic. (That's one iMac sold every 15 seconds, for those with stopwatches.)

The December market research showed that:

  • 32% of iMac buyers were first-time computer buyers.
  • 13% are Wintel converts (making 45% of iMac buyers new to the Apple market).
  • Of the 55% who are current Apple owners, 24% of the iMac buyers were adding to their stable of computers, and 31% were replacing an older Mac.

More astonishing news:

  • Of those iMac buyers, 82% are now connected to the Internet.
  • 66% got connected the first day.
  • It took 44% of them 15 minutes or less to get connected.
  • 62% were connected within 30 minutes.
  • 74% within an hour.

Apple also asked people which Internet search engine they used, and Yahoo, not surprisingly, won with 39%. But fourth on the list, tied with Netscape, was Sherlock (8%). Not bad for a program introduced just a few months ago.

Jobs was very proud of the multicolored iMacs--it was one of the few bits of real news (rumors started to leak out only the night before). He said something very perceptive, which goes to the heart of why Apple is doing well now, and will probably continue to do so. The company learned from market research that color was a major consideration for many consumers. He said they didn't care what was inside the box, as long as they had a choice of how the boxes looked.

As simple as this sounds, it's something that computer companies have taken a long time to learn. Back in the dark ages, when computers were used mainly by technical people, specs were crucial in making a sale. But now, computers are mass-market items. Most consumers don't give a damn about the minute details of what's inside, as long as the machine performs reasonably well. The fact that an iMac isn't expandable is a plus for these people. It keeps the machine simple, and means that if it works the day you buy it, it will probably work for a long time, because you haven't stuck any foreign objects into it.

This was the philosophy behind the original Mac, but it didn't quite catch on at the time; it was too expensive, for the most part, which is a failure of marketing, not engineering. And marketing is everything. Windows beat out the Mac in spite of inferior technology because of superior marketing--that's Bill Gates's genius. Now that Apple has great technology and great marketing, who knows what'll happen?

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