Miracles on 34th Street

Miracles on 34th Street

Along with Macys, New York’s 34th Street also hosts the Javitz Conference Center and the annual summer MacWorld convention. Though July might seem far-removed from Christmas, I can reliably report that, based upon what happened at the July MacWorld Expo, “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.” There will be those that will argue that I was prey to a ‘reality distortion field’ or that I’m just another ‘true-believer,’ but I was at the keynote speech and I saw the (not so) “jolly old elf” pull out a sack of presents. I even took one with me and it is a dandy!

Though Steve Jobs has often been accused of sleights of hand in front of the press and/or distorting the public’s perception. The truth is that Steve and the creative folks at Apple often change the reality of computing for millions of Mac and PC users. The list of past Apple innovations that transformed personal computing is truly staggering and at MacWorld 2000, Apple, once again, demonstrated what is meant by true innovation.

As I sat listening to Jobs announce the new Apple mouse and keyboard, the revamped iMac line, and the dual processor G4 desktop computers, on occasion I caught myself starting to applaud. I felt more than a little uncomfortable as the others in the press section showed more restraint. These new products are terrific, the prices are amazing, and Apple appears to have captured much of the old magic.

The optical mouse will soon become standard on all personal computers, because it is now standard on the Mac (remember the CD ROM drive). Cool colors and a stylish design are still ‘in’, despite Compaq and Dell’s recent retreat from style. Dual processors will soon become the industry norm, because Apple went there first, even if in a limited implementation. Clever engineering eliminates the need for an internal fan on the iMacs – an accomplishment that is sure to pressurize (?) the competition to remove one of the most vulnerable and annoying parts of a computer. The iMovie update could will have a significant impact on home and education use of personal computers. Finally, Apple got has the pricing right with a sub-$800 iMac and by foregoing price increases for the dual processor G4 line.

There was plenty to get excited about and when the Apple CEO played new iMac commercials featuring the likes of Elvis singing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ as the camera swirled around the beautiful new Indigo iMac, I applauded without restraint. Some of the press looked at me like a misplaced Apple zealot, but zealotry had nothing to do with how I felt. Once again, I was grateful to Apple for leading the way and doing it with class. Alas, the keynote speech could have ended there and Apple would have been adjudged to have ‘delivered the goods.’

I shifted around in my seat and got ready to hit the exit before the masses, but apparently, there was more to come. I had read the rumors about a new ‘cube’ design for the G4, but after the dual processor announcements I had dismissed the notion as one more bad guess by a few overly anxious web sites.

When Mr. Jobs showed the new Apple product matrix, there were two new entries sporting question marks to accompany the iMac, G4, iBook, and Powerbook cells. The top one was quickly filled with the Power Mac G4 Cube. (The bottom one, which was replaced with an Apple will undoubtedly be a cause célebre for these rumor sites for months to come!)

By any definition, the G4 Cube is an amazing feat of engineering. An eight-inch cube suspended in a clear plastic shell, “the Cube” includes a 450 Mhz G4 processor (equivalent in most ways that matter to a 900 Mhz Pentium III), a 20 GB hard drive, 64 Megs of RAM, a ‘pop-up’ DVD ROM Drive, an internal modem, and a graphics accelerator. Like the iMac, there is no internal fan as “the Cube” is designed to silently expel heat out the slots in the top. To many of the attendees I spoke to, at first sight “the Cube” looked like a new Harmon Kardon speaker, not an entire computer.

To get to the innards, all you need to do is turn “the Cube” upside down, push in the pop-out latch, and then gently pull the cube out of its stand. All the RAM and expansion slots are instantly available! Jobs also displayed new 15 and 22 inch flat panel displays and a new 17 inch CRT that incorporated USB within the monitor cable allowing USB devices to be attached directly to the monitor instead of “the Cube.” Perhaps, needless to say, the introduction of the G4 cube brought down the house as even the conservative press was awed.

So how could I be so sure it really was Santa bringing all these presents and not some impostor? All I had to do was look on the bottom of the cube and it was obvious. Adjacent to the new proprietary USB/monitor connection is a standard VGA connector. In the bad old days, Apple might have omitted this connector, requiring a consumer to purchase both a computer and a monitor. The new Apple marketing team appreciates that millions of PC users, who might be tempted to buy a ‘cube,’ would be more likely to do so if they could use their current monitors.

Finally, if there were still any lingering doubts in the back of my mind, Jobs quickly dispelled them by giving a new Macintosh Mouse to each authorized attendee of his keynote address. Though some might suggest it was another piece of showmanship, I believe that the Apple folks were genuinely proud of their accomplishments and this was a way of unabashedly showing it.

Despite the impressive performance by Apple, there are still technical and marketing concerns about some of these products. The fact that the dual processor G4’s will not be fully supported until the introduction of OS X early next year is slightly disconcerting. That is, Apple is selling a product that works fine with older software but presently only functions fully with a handful (if that!) of programs that feature special plugins. I also have reservations about the possible channel conflict between the low-end G4 tower and “the Cube.” It seems clear that the prospective buyer, who may not be interested in the increased power of a dual processing Macintosh, would be more inclined to purchase a G4 cube, rather than the low end single processor G4 mini-tower. Therefore, I see only a very limited market for the low-end tower.

Then, there is the non-scrolling mouse. Though the optical, curtsy-button mouse is cool, I am surprised that Apple omitted a page-scrolling button. I’m also a little surprised that the keyboard and mouse come in only black instead of matching colors with indigo, ruby, sage, and snow.

The division of the iMac line into iMac, iMac DV, iMac DV+, and iMac DV SE (we’re back to having a Plus and an SE, did you notice that?) is based on the interfaces, the type of removable drive, the speed of the processor, and the size of the internal hard drive. This all seems a bit confusing to me and I wonder why the company doesn’t simply sell an iMac made to order. That is, call them all iMacs without the verbose baggage and let the users decide what type of schtick they need.

Finally, there is the name of the Power PC G4 Cube. That is a handful, and, dare I suggest, BORING name. Since MacWorld, some writers from the dark side have suggested that Apple may even be facing legal action from other manufacturers who have used the ‘Cube’ moniker. That sounds a little silly since, Steve’s former company, Next created the concept more than 10 years ago, but then, I am not a copyright lawyer. I suggest Apple bypass the whole controversy by renaming the ‘Power PC G4 Cube.’ The company might even hold a user ‘Name that Cube’ contest. My entry would, of course, be ‘the Borg,’ and I would use the advertising slogan ‘Resistance is futile!’

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