Macworld 2008 – looking beyond the Steve Jobs reality distortion field
Before the Apple fanboys call me a hater, I’m not a PC bigot. I’ve written here many times about how a PC is a PC, and that the MacOS X vs. Windows vs. Linux thing has gone too far, with advocates of each platform treating theirs as the one true approach to personal computing with the kind of fervour normally reserved for religious purposes. I also like my Apple hardware and have a Mac, three iPods and an iPhone to prove it (as well as an assortment of Windows and Linux PCs), so I think I can be pretty objective in this area.
Having established my credentials, let me take a few minutes to dissect Steve Jobs’ keynote at the recent Apple Macworld conference and push aside the hype to get down to what Apple’s major announcements for 2008 really mean.
- As is now traditional with Macworld conferences, it started off with a PC vs. Mac advert complete with all the usual bias, lies, and claims that PC (i.e. Windows) copies the Mac in everything… hmm. I’ve not upgraded to MacOS X 10.5 Leopard as for me it doesn’t represent a huge leap forward but I am glad though to hear that it is selling well – Apple claims 4 million copies in first 90 days making it the most successful version of OS X ever. That’s only half the story though. It may only have affected a minority but, from the reports I’ve heard (in the Mac-focused press), Leopard upgrades have not been without their problems (how dare users run non-Apple applications!). And as more and more consumers switch to a Mac (I see no evidence of major businesses switching – except perhaps the odd director here and there who is senior enough to tell the IT department what he wants to use) problems with upgrades between OS releases will appear more significant.
- The next major announcement was Time Capsule – a companion product to Time Machine consisting of an Airport Extreme and hard drive in a single device to backup Macs wirelessly. It sounds great, but suffers from the same problem as Windows Home Server does for PCs – support for heterogeneous networks is just not as good as it could be (and, as for Time Machine, Windows PCs have had snapshot-based backups for years). What’s particularly worrying is that Apple claim the device has a "server grade" hard disk yet according to the technical specifications the Time Capsule uses a SATA disk. Those of us who frequently specify servers know that major vendors such as HP do not recommend SATA disks for intensive workloads due to the higher MTBF (hence the 1 year warranty that HP offers on a SATA disk compared with three years on a SCSI disk) and consequently I consider that to call the Time Capsule disk "server grade" is taking things a little far.
- Looking at consumer media devices:
- There’s little doubt that the iPhone has been a huge success with 4 million devices sold in 200 days (although that is still quite a way off the original target of 10 million in the first year). Apple is claiming 19.5% of the United States smartphone market but what also has to be considered is that the iPhone is not a business phone. The new iPhone software is great too, although I’ve upgraded mine and am a little underwhelmed with the location awareness, which often seems to think I’m a few streets away (or even the next village). As for the software update being free – I should hope so given how much we are paying for our iPhones!
- Continuing the theme, Apple has made some of the iPhone applications available for the iPod touch, for a small charge, with the purchase via the iTunes store (could this be a demonstration of the model for future iPod and iPhone software purchases once the SDK is launched?).
- The iTunes store has now sold over 4 billion songs with 20 million in one day (Christmas Day 2007). It’s hard to deny that it’s been a huge success although the decision of some record companies to distribute DRM-free music on competing platforms should certainly be viewed as a threat (as long as it’s DRM-free then that’s no problem for consumers!). Apple is claiming that they are doing well with TV show downloads too (precious little content over here) but have revised the model for selling films, launching iTunes Movie Rentals – and it seems the studios are all on board! The bad news is that international rollout is not planned until later this year and I for one am sick of Apple treating everyone outside the US as second class citizens. It does look good though – the DRM is not too onerous with 30 days to start watching a film after rental, and 24 hours to finish (just like physical store) – and one nice touch is the ability to start watching on one device (e.g. a PC) and then finish on another (e.g. an iPod). US pricing will be $2.99 for "library" films or $3.99 for new releases (so less than my local DVD rental store – that is good).
- The Apple TV was originally an accessory for iTunes running on a computer and has sold reasonable well but even so there is little doubt that it has not been as popular as Apple had hoped. Now Apple is trying again with new software for Apple TV (a free upgrade for existing users and a reduced price for new hardware purchases – at least in the US) and it will still synchronise with a computer but is no longer required to do so. Support for iTunes Movie Rentals is extended with the ability to access DVD or HD quality (HD will cost an extra dollar) with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound as well as direct access to podcasts, photos (from Flickr or .Mac) and YouTube. For me though, the Apple TV is still missing what it really needs – television! Add a tuner and PVR capabilities and I’ll buy one.
- Finally, Jobs claims that Apple makes "the best notebooks in the industry" (I think they are among the best – Lenovo’s ThinkPads are also great) and at MacWorld he announced the MacBook Air – "the world’s thinnest notebook". That it may be, but I think it’s expensive (relative to the MacBook and MacBook Pro), underpowered (an Intel Core 2 Duo may not be slow, but 1.6GHz is slow for a Core 2 Duo), lacks the ability to be upgraded and, whilst the main device may be thin, it does require me to carry a load of peripherals with me (power, optical drive, USB hub – it only has a single port) and doesn’t even have built in wired Ethernet. It does have some nice touches though, like the additional gestures on the trackpad. Remote Disc sounds good as an alternative to providing a build in optical device but why is an application required to simply share a CD/DVD drive?
Last year wrote about how didn’t want an iPhone but by the time it launched over here I’d changed my mind (and shunned the touchscreen widescreen iPod that I had originally craved!). This year I wanted either an aluminium MacBook with a PC Express Card slot and upgraded graphics, or a MacBook Pro with a MacBook-style keyboard. The MacBook Air is neither – it’s just a thin, aluminium, MacBook, with reduced functionality and increased price – but I guess the lesson for me is to never say never…