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MacWorld Expo '06: This Year's Biggest Hits

This year’s only MacWorld Expo was dominated by three things: Intel Macs long before anyone expected them to be shipping, an updated version of iLife, and sales of more iPods than anyone expected— and more iPod gadgets than you could shake a stick at. Author Ryan Faas gives you his take on the biggest news and trends to come out of the Moscone Center.
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By Ryan Faas

This year’s only MacWorld Expo was dominated by three things: Intel Macs long before anyone expected them to be shipping, an updated version of iLife, and sales of more iPods than anyone expected—and more iPod gadgets than you could shake a stick at. So, here’s my take on the biggest news and trends to come out of the Moscone Center.

Shipping Intel Macs— Something Almost Nobody Saw Coming

Without a doubt, the biggest news to come out of MacWorld Expo was Macs with Intel processors. Not only did Apple announce an iMac and a new notebook line powered by Intel’s newest processor, but it began shipping one that day—a full six months ahead of schedule. In an industry where new products are typically behind schedule, being that far ahead of your announced plans is extremely impressive.

The announcement was not without some raised eyebrows, however. In an uncharacteristic move, Apple did not inform any developers (including major Mac players like Quark or Adobe) that it would begin shipping Intel Macs at MacWorld. While this enabled Apple and Intel to keep a tight lid on their secret, it came at the price of having very few software applications capable of running natively on the new Macs. In fact, only the software bundled with Mac OS X and the new versions of Apple’s iLife and iWork are compiled as universal binaries that will run natively on both PowerPC and Intel Macs.

Not only is this limiting to consumers, but it also leaves developers holding the bag in terms of getting universal binary versions of their software available quickly. Most developers were likely operating under the assumption—based on Apple’s original public timeline—that they would have another six months to get applications to market.

This not only comes as a shock to developers technically, but financially as well. The indication from large developers is that they will simply build universal binary support into the next full versions of their products. With this expectation, someone thinking about buying Photoshop CS2, for example, might decide to wait for a universal version that will run on current and future Mac systems. Certainly, this is a logical course of action for any school or business that knows it will be buying new Macs in the next couple of years.

Fortunately for some developers, they were far enough along in their upgrade process to not be thrown completely by this sudden news. Quark, for one, announced a beta program for the next version of its flagship layout program QuarkXPress. The new version will be a universal binary with full support for Intel Macs. The interesting twist here is that Quark was one of the last pro application developers to embrace Mac OS X. It may be that the company learned a valuable lesson after watching Adobe's InDesign eat up a considerable portion of its marketshare.

Of course, Apple is no stranger to managing transitions that require retooling by developers. Apple completed the shift from the classic Mac OS to Mac OS X by giving developers the tools and support to move their products to the new operating system (and by using the Classic environment to run non-OS X applications). Apple also pulled off the transition to the Power PC processor line back in the early nineties. So, it should come as no surprise that Apple is giving developers a leg up through tools such as Rosetta, which allows the Intel chips to emulate the Power PC instruction set and run applications that are not universal binaries.

Rosetta—Bridging the Digital Divide Between Processors

We got to see Rosetta (the technology that allows Intel Macs to run non-native code) in action at MacWorld. The good news is that it isn't a separate environment like Classic (no separate startup or differing user interface). The user won't see any real difference when running an app, except perhaps in speed. When running programs like Microsoft Word, this slowdown isn't such a big deal—the difference in performance is hardly noticeable. But for creative professionals working with such apps as Photoshop, Illustrator, Final Cut Pro, and Quark, the speed difference could be a real deal breaker until the respective companies recompile their product code to run natively on the Intel Macs.

iMac—Why was it first? What’s Different from the iMac G5?

All of this explains why Apple chose the iMac as its first Intel Mac. Most people who buy it won’t be running Photoshop, Illustrator, and Quark all day long. This lets Apple sell Intel Macs now, while giving developers time to gear up before they have pro customers demanding universal binaries at the top of their lungs. However, Apple’s plans to transition all new Macs to Intel by the end of the year does put a fair amount of pressure on developers of the major pro apps to start shipping universal binaries quickly.

As for the Intel iMac itself, there really isn’t anything overtly different about it compared to the iMac G5 that it replaces. Most of the specs are the same though the video offerings have been improved and the iMac can now drive an external display as an extension of the screen area, rather than simply mirroring the built-in display. Apple clearly knew that it would be building the Intel chip into the iMac's design when it was released and patterned the features appropriately.

The big news is that the Intel iMac has a vastly more powerful processor (or technically, two processors). The core duo processor also comes with a significantly faster system bus and RAM, meaning that data can be moved in and out of the processor more rapidly, which is key to helping a machine realize the speed potential of its CPU.

The MacBook Pro —Ahead of Its Time or a Long Time In Coming?

The MacBook Pro was perhaps bigger news than the Intel iMac. In addition to being the second Intel Mac model, it's the first major change to Apple’s notebook lineup in a couple of years. And, given the limitations of the Power PC architecture for mobile computing, it's a sorely needed upgrade.

The performance of the core duo processor versus the G4 is distinctly noticeable when working with some of the iLife applications. It’s difficult to tell how much difference users will see with applications that require Rosetta, particularly high-end applications.

But Apple did more than include the core duo processor; it revamped the entire design making it thinner, slightly wider, and introducing a host of new features. The new Magsafe connector is ingenious and incredibly sensible given the amount of damage that can be caused to a notebook by tugging on the power cord.

The new Express Card slot is a sign that Apple's looking ahead to the next generation of technology. Although it may irritate PowerBook owners upgrading from a machine with a PC Card slot who need to buy updated peripherals, the performance offered by the Express Card specification are positively incredible (up to 2Gb/second). It will provide for a host of next-generation devices and super fast storage options, including external SATA.

The removal of the 800megabit FireWire port is a little surprising (even if the standard never really caught on) though at least a 400megabit port is still there after rumors that Apple was considering abandoning FireWire completely. Likewise, there has been some minor controversy over the use of a slower model Superdrive, although this is logical given that the versions used in the PowerBook G4 can't fit in the MacBook Pro.

The inclusion of digital audio in and out is a very nice touch, particularly for the home theater buff, who might want to use the MacBook Pro as a media machine. This possibility is made even nicer with the inclusion of Apple’s Front Row technology and infrared remote control, which was introduced with the iMac G5.

Also, like the iMac, the MacBook Pro sports a built-in iSight camera, which is an excellent addition. Videoconferencing technology has been around for sometime, but to have it easily accessible, with the camera not only connected, but also properly placed out of the box, is huge. It really lends the computer to being more of a remote collaboration workspace as well as making it into an easy way to stay in touch with people, regardless of distance.

All in all, the MacBook Pro looks like it will be a great notebook computer with plenty of power and great design that's so typical of Apple products. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Apple fill out the line, both with a smaller version and a larger version to match the PowerBook lineup. I think both additional models would have great niches in the market. An equivalent to the 17-inch PowerBook would make a killer entertainment system, while a smaller model would be great for users on the go.

iLife and .Mac

With the exception of hardware, the biggest announcement from Apple had to be iLife ’06. Apple has definitely continued the effort to provide consumers with media applications that allow them to achieve highly polished and professional results. The new iLife applications proved to be both a response to trends in personal media on the Internet as well as an attempt to introduce new trends.

iDVD and iMovie both include nice new features, even if they aren’t the stars of this upgrade. The ability to skip most of the layout tasks and put together a DVD quickly with the new Magic iDVD features will no doubt be useful to small businesses or groups looking to quickly package media (such as a portfolio of information or a presentation). Consumers who want to make their own DVDs with as little effort and technical involvement as possible will also be pleased. The fact that iDVD joins iMovie in supporting HD content is also worth noting, as it brings the suite up to the current standards of home entertainment.

GarageBand 3 shows how much Apple has embraced podcasting—not only as a content type that users may want to have easily accessible through iTunes—but as a medium for home users to be able to produce. GarageBand 3 truly brings podcast production into the realm of the average user, adding a great deal of value to GarageBand, which, up until now, has been one of those apps that a lot of people might play with only once or twice. The emergence of podcasting and the ease of creating podcasts will probably mean that users who right now are just listening to podcasts and writing blogs will not only start podcasting, but start realizing just what can be done with GarageBand.

iPhoto, on the other hand, illustrates Apple’s attempt to create, or at least influence, media trends with the creation of photocasting. Apple has typically been hit or miss when unveiling features expected to create trends like this. As a result, it remains to be seen if photocasting will take off. The ability to directly access other people’s albums within iPhoto is interesting and I can see some use to it, but the parallel idea of an RSS feed of photos (something that isn’t quite a photoblog), is more appealing to me.

That users can share photos easily without being forced to build a Web page or use some clunky online photo service is certainly a big plus. And using RSS to ensure that people are aware of updates is a nifty touch. Personally, though, I’m not sure whether I'd rather subscribe to photocasts through an RSS reader or through iPhoto. I do have to applaud the option of calendars and cards in addition to photo books.

iWeb, of course, steals the show. As blogs and online photo albums become ever more prevalent, home users are constantly looking for easier ways to share their content. iWeb is an incredible tool for doing that in a very personalized manner. Apple has done a fantastic job making consumer Web design easy and fun. iWeb alone almost makes the cost of iLife ‘06 worth the upgrade. That Apple designs all the iLife apps to integrate so well, making it easy to publish podcasts, blogs, photo albums, photocasts, and movies in such a slick environment, is just icing on the cake (although the playlist from iTunes that links into the iTunes Music Store feature does seem a little too obvious of a marketing tool).

The only thing that would make iWeb (and photocasting in iPhoto, which requires .Mac membership) better would be improved options for publishing content independent of .Mac. That said, the combination of iLife ’06 with a .Mac membership is a winning one that I think many consumers will love—even if it does place them somewhat at the mercy of Apple’s whims in terms of pricing and service.

iPod Add-Ons

Echoing the huge success of the iPod this year, there was an incredible assortment of iPod accessories featured at MacWorld including car stereo support, cases and skins, docks, speaker sets, and external batteries. Every manner of iPod accessory was on hand for demonstration and, in many cases, purchase. Identifying them all in this article would be near impossible, but one can easily say that the iPod is a great success and is here to stay—and with it, every possible gadget that you might ever need for it.

Apple’s use of a single dock connector for all but the very first iPods (and the iPod Shuffle) has made it relatively easy for manufacturers to create products that will work with almost all iPods and many are. This is great for people upgrading to a new iPod and for families where different members may own different models.

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