There's No Business Like Show Business

Every Macworld Expo keynote has a defining moment, an image that sears itself into your retinas to be recalled long after specifics about processor speeds, software features, and iMac flavors have faded from memory. Think of the majestic sight of Steve Jobs holding aloft a shiny, metallic, wafer-thin PowerBook at January's Expo keynote or the Orwellian horror of watching the disembodied head of Bill Gates dwarfing Jobs at the 1997 keynote in Boston.

Key historical dates, anniversaries, and birthdays of loved ones, batting averages of Hall-of-Fame right fielders -- these sorts of trivialities fade from the brain the moment we so much as try and memorize a new phone number. But not even repeated blows to the frontal lobe could dislodge these lasting Expo images from the mind of your typical Mac devotee.

So when folks file away Macworld Expo 2001, New York Edition, into their noggins, the lasting image probably won't be Steve Jobs pointing with pride to the new QuickSilver G4 casings or developer after developer taking the stage to sing the praises of Mac OS X. Instead, there's a good chance that the defining moment of the Wednesday keynote could be the sight of an irritated Jobs tossing a digital camera to an unseen assistant after the confounded thing -- the camera, that is, and not the assistant -- failed to cooperate in a demo of OS X 10.1's new built-in support for digital cameras.

Well . . . they can't all be Marines-landing-on-Iwo-Jima-quality imagery, can they?

A Jobs keynote at Expo typically is part revival-tent testimonial, part locker-room pep talk. No matter how grim the news, no matter how tight the tech market, you walk into a Macworld Expo keynote, and more often than not, you leave fired up about Apple's prospects for the coming months, usually thanks to some wondrous new product Jobs unveils. Maybe things don't always wind up working out as spectacularly as you might envision in the keynote afterglow -- hello, G4 Cube -- but nine times out of ten, you walk out of the Jacob Javits Center inspired by what Apple has in store for Mac users.

Wednesday was simply that one time out of ten. G4 speed bumps, faster iMacs, and impressive-looking updates to iDVD and OS X that are still a couple months away -- these are solid enough product announcements, but hardly the sort of thing that steels the will of Mac partisans and sends them out on the street looking to rumble with the first hapless Windows user they stumble across.

This is a shame, since the pressure was on Jobs and Apple to deliver something to silence the nervous Nellies, whose clucking during the current tech slump has risen to a noticeable din. We're not talking make-or-break pressure -- Apple won't be closing up shop anytime soon, uninspiring keynote or no -- but pressure nonetheless.

Just a day before, when announcing quarterly earnings, Apple CFO Fred Anderson raised the possibility that the company might have a hard time meeting its revenue projections for the rest of fiscal 2001. That caused some alarm among Wall Street types -- not exactly the least jittery segment of the population -- who were doubtlessly looking to the keynote to see if any of the product announcements could assuage their concerns. It's just as doubtless that the return of snow and graphite iMac enclosures did little to ease their concern.

The Macworld Expo keynote also gives Apple a twice-a-year national stage, a chance for Jobs to speak his mind when people are likely to pay attention. And when Expo is held in New York City, the self-styled media capital of the world, that scrutiny is likely to be close. When the whole world is watching, it's nice to have something interesting to say.

Jobs tried mightily on Wednesday. He tried to establish Apple as the one tech company without a sky-is-falling mentality. "We're at a really interesting time," he said at the close of his two-hour-and-change speech. "There are some really tough economic conditions out there. Most of the industry is retrenching . . . We've decided to take a different path. Our path is innovation."

But in the end, apart from a product tweak here and a software update there, Apple didn't have much to offer Wednesday -- unless you want to count the inadvertent digital camera torture test Jobs performed during his speech. For the record, the camera survived its trip through space -- assuming no one smashed it to pieces after the keynote crowd dispersed.

It would be safe to call this the most disappointing keynote of the Jobs 2.0 era. You'd have to go back to Gil Amelio's 1997 San Francisco Macworld Expo address -- that nearly three-hour affair characterized by a never-ending string of celebrity cameos, more rambling improvisation than a Phish concert, and a collective yawn from the assembled Mac partisans -- to find a keynote that failed to bowl over the crowd the way this year's installment did. And when more than one person begins to invoke the name "Amelio" -- not exactly the first example you'll find if you ever look up the meaning of the words "dynamic firebrand" -- it should be readily apparent that the keynote didn't exactly knock 'em dead.

Still, that's not to say some people and products didn't fare better than others during Wednesday's keynote.

The Winners

Microsoft: Office 10 for OS X -- the Carbonized version of Microsoft's productivity suite -- looks spectacular. Back in January, Kevin Browne, Microsoft's Mac business unit general manager, promised more than just a simple port of Office, but a full-fledged update that would take advantage of OS X's special features. Office for OS X merits further scrutiny, of course, but on first glance, the initial reaction is that Microsoft's development team delivered.

"The number one thing we had to do was make an application that you could hold up and say, 'This is what an OS X product should do," said Browne, as he joined Jobs on stage for Wednesday's keynote.

To that end, Microsoft redesigned more than 700 tool bar buttons and poured over more than 800 dialog boxes. The result is an application that embraces the Aqua look-and-feel of OS X -- and that's not even getting into the stability and multitasking capabilities under the hood. More details about the OS X-native version of Office -- tentatively scheduled for a fall 2001 release -- should come out of Browne's keynote Thursday morning.

It is indeed a topsy-turvy universe we live in when one of the best looking products to come out of a Steve Jobs keynote is, in fact, developed by Microsoft.

The Rest of the 'Ten for X': Microsoft was one of ten Mac developer to get stage time during the keynote to talk about their OS X work. All ten companies are to be commended, not just for developing native applications for the new OS but for doing more to emphasize the value of OS X than all the talk about Aqua and Unix and preemptive multitasking could ever hope to do. Talking up the nuts and bolts of OS X is certainly valuable -- but in terms of demonstrating real-world use of the new OS, nothing beats seeing how elegantly an application such as Alias/Wavefront's Maya performs or how seamlessly a native version of a product like IBM's ViaVoice works.

Certain developers stood out, of course. Both Blizzard Entertainment and Aspyr Media enjoyed strong reactions from a crowd thrilled to see WarCraft III and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 running under OS X. No matter how many times I see it, I'll never get tired of watching Maya do its crazy 3-D voodoo on the Mac. FileMaker got an appreciative round of applause for vowing to have all of its products available for OS X by this fall.

Adobe executives probably worried that they would get booed off the stage in light of the company's decision to have a limited presence at Macworld Expo and its reticence to announce shipping dates for OS X-native products. They needn't have fretted -- Adobe got a nice hand from the crowd for its demonstration of Illustrator, GoLive, and InDesign for OS X.

Now just imagine how the applause would have been if Adobe actually announced shipping dates . . . .

OS X 10.1: Forget the frequently requested -- and much-needed -- additions such as DVD playback and disk-burning support. It's enhancements to the new OS's performance that makes this update so eye-catching. When OS X 10.1 appears in September, you'll be able to resize windows, scroll through menus, and open applications faster than in previous versions.

"You name it, it's faster," Jobs said. And if that's the case, OS X 10.1 is an important step in moving the new OS beyond the realm of early adopters and Unix-philes. With improved performance -- and a few of those native applications we talked about earlier -- OS X could soon be the operating system for the rest of us.

Would-be DVD Auteurs: Apple's strongly pushing DVD authoring, seeing it as an essential part of its "digital hub" strategy. Note iDVD 2.0's spot at the end of Jobs's keynote, a slot normally reserved for high-profile Apple products. And if you've ever felt the slightest twinge of interest in creating your own DVDs, Apple is making it very easy -- and very tempting -- for you to do so.

First, there's that iDVD update, slated for a September release. The updated application adds motion menus to give your DVDs a more professional look. Apple has also enhanced the encoding speed and given the interface-building tools greater flexibility.

That tackles the software of DVD authoring. As for the hardware, you can now get yourself a rather speedy Power Mac G4, with an 867MHz processor and a built-in SuperDrive, for writing your own DVDs. And you can get that for $1,000 less than a SuperDrive-equipped G4 would have cost you last week.

Bargain Hunters: Never have the cheap and tightfisted been given more reason to celebrate. With the product announcements Wednesday, you can now buy a whole lot of Mac without having to dig up that sack of bullion you buried in the backyard during the Reagan administration.

Want an iMac with a CD-RW drive for less than $1,000? Done. Want an iMac that nearly matches the entry level G4's processing power for less dough? Try the 700MHz model for $1,499. And if you want a 733MHz Power Mac G4, you can have one for $1,699. It no longer comes with a SuperDrive and you've got less memory and storage space than you would have had if you bought the machine a week ago -- but you're also saving yourself $1,800 on a machine with an appreciably fast processor. Speaking of which. . . .

The Losers

Recent 733MHz buyers: If you bought a 733MHz Power Mac G4 for $3,499 in the last week or so, you probably don't need me to remind you that it's never a good idea to buy hardware right before a Macworld Expo.

Camera makers: Just a guess, but if Olympus -- reportedly the maker of the digital camera that endured the Wrath of Steve -- ever decides it needs celebrity endorsements for its camera products, you can probably cross the Apple CEO off the list of potential spokesmen.

Then again, the clip of Jobs flinging away the camera might make for an interesting ad campaign. "Our cameras take a licking and keep on clicking," the voice-over announcer could say.

Maybe I should patent that before some crafty ad rep swipes it.

Showmanship: Whether it was opening the speech with ten minutes of two-month-old video footage of Apple Store openings or closing the keynote by rerunning commercials that even TV-eschewing Mac users have probably seen dozens of times by now, the pacing and organization of the keynote seemed a bit off. At two-plus hours, the keynote felt long. The product announcements seemed perfunctory. The entire presentation lacked a certain punch, particularly at the end.

Maybe it was the PowerPC-versus-Pentium showdown, by now such a frequent part of any Macworld Expo keynote that you begin to wonder if it's contractually required. Jobs included two such tests in his keynote this year -- one that compared the two processors running an Adobe Photoshop file, another that showed them decoding and encoding a QuickTime movie trailer. The PowerPC lapped the Pentium, of course, and all should have been right with the world -- except the tests seemed to run on forever. For lengthy periods of time, Jobs and Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president of worldwide marketing, stood on the stage staring at their monitors without saying a word to one another or the audience.

They have a term for that in the radio business -- dead air.

Maybe it was the ten-minute talk on how more megahertz don't necessarily mean a faster computer. The perceived megahertz gap between the Mac and rival computers is perhaps Apple's greatest public relations challenge, so it's certainly worth the company's effort to challenge that perception head-on. But you have to wonder if a Macworld Expo keynote -- where Apple executives are essentially preaching to the converted -- is the best venue for re-emphasizing that megahertz aren't everything. Ten minutes spent on that subject during a keynote feels like about nine minutes too many.

Maybe it was the order in which Jobs announced Apple's new products. The OS X news -- everything from the developer support to the forthcoming update -- seemed like the strongest news to come out of Expo. Jobs tackled it during the first half-hour of his speech. iDVD is certainly a fine upgrade -- but is it really impressive enough to send people out the door fired up about the next six months?

It seems odd that just a brisk walk away from where The Producers packs 'em in every night on Broadway, Jobs, the master showman, would forget one of the oldest axioms in show business -- "always finish with a grand finale."

Then again, judging by the entire keynote, maybe Jobs was guided by another show business axiom -- "always leave the crowd wanting more."

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