Ihnatko's Final Take on Expo

It's been a few years since the summer Macworld Expo moved from Boston to New York but still, this new locale still seems to be looking for an identity.

The January edition in San Francisco has always been La Enchilada Grande. At first that was just a perception, but the general contraction of the computer industry coupled with the fact that the Valley is Where The Action Is turned that idea into incontrovertible reality a few years ago; moving the summer show away from Boston--away from the hotels and hangouts and humidity that Expo regulars had become attached to over the course of a decade--only helped to finalize the perception of San Francisco as "The Real Macworld Expo" and New York as "The Other One."

So it's no longer alarming when you arrive at the Javits Center and find that a lot of big and familiar names have chosen to stay at home, all the way from industry biggies like Adobe to friends of yours who can usually be counted on for an evening of drinks and such. The first year of Macworld New York, it invited speculation regarding the robustness of the Mac platform; today you just shrug and say "Forget it, Jake... it's New York," which I find to be a handy tool whenever anything associated with this city alarms or confuses me.

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Still, the most important function of Macworld has always been about Mac people interfacing with the community--their fellow humans--as opposed to with products and merchandise. You can watch Steve Jobs' keynote address from the room-serviced comfort of your hotel room via QuickTime--I did once, and naturally that was the year Apple gave everyone in the room free mouses afterward--but the reason why Wednesday morning found me cursing the slings and arrows of an alarm clock that was set to wake me at 7 PM instead of 7 AM, leaping into clothes and hopping out of my hotel still tying one shoe wasn't the electric dynamicism of Mr. Steve Jobs' address.

No, it was because after the keynote, the crowd would either be incredibly snarky or in a state of grace that immediately precludes having to go away and change one's underwear. Either way, it pays to be there to bear witness.

Not since the morning after the final episode of "Seinfeld" have I heard the phrase "That was it? uttered so often and with such sincerity of spirit. We've been pampered by all of those previous Steve-notes, in which the most trivial of gestures (a new color of plastic, a redesigned mouse) is played up and presented as humanity's statement to God that we are worthy of our future existance on this planet. This time, Steve was delivering a very content-filled keynote, one that laid ideological groundwork for the future rather than one that dumps more flashy products into the pipeline. The only real excitement was when Steve threw a balky digital camera at one of his flunkies in the first row. Even so, I mean, come on... he threw it underhand. The Old Steve, circa 1986, say, would have Nolan Ryan'ed it straight into the crowd. One must speculate as to whether this new, soft-and-fuzzy Apple can be good for the Republic.

One fellow I spoke with had become fascinated by the carpeting on the stage. "You notice that during the keynote, only one cart was rolled out," he said, leaning in so as not to be overheard. "Yet the rug has marks with three sets of wheels!"

He went on to explain his theory that Steve had the strongly-rumored flat-paneled redesigned iMac, that it must have been used during the keynote's rehearsals...but Some Unknown Factor prevented him from actually announcing it then and there.

I nodded sagely and took a note, but as he was a nice guy I chose not to suggest that perhaps three sets of tracks would more readily be explained by a cart being rolled out during rehearsal, rolled back at the end, and then rolled back out again during the keynote.

Yeah, folks were counting on those new iMacs. I was ready for it if it turned up, and had to wonder if the oddly drawn-out and down-tempo demo of a two-months-from-shipping version of iDVD 2 wasn't just a hasty last-minute substitution for something that Should Have Been Ready. But all of the scuttlebutt I had gathered in the previous month said that it almost certainly wasn't going to happen.

There was enough going on in the keynote, anyway. The real impact comes when you sit down (ideally with Apple's press releases) and absorb it all. No, there was no 1-gigahertz PowerPC processor (not Apple's fault), but the G4 and the iMac lines have simultaneously become faster and cheaper. MacOS X is going to be a for-real proposition by the end of the year, with a faster and more full-featured release that's far more practical than the current version and rock-solid commitments from publishers to create software for it... much of which will actually require X instead of begrudgingly agreeing to work outside of Classic mode.

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So maybe there's something good to New York's status as The Other Show. If the big players save their PR guns for San Francisco, it gives the lower-magnitude stars in the Macintosh constellation a chance to be noticed. Most of my favorite new products came from smaller companies:

Griffin (www.griffintechnology.com) will soon be coming out with a USB device that will not be, but should be, called simply The Knob. That's what it is: a nice, weighted, blue-tinted brushed-aluminum knob a couple of inches in diameter that sits on your desk.

Ostensibly, it's a volume control. It plugs into a little USB box that's also an audio in/out bridge and power amplifier. But the keen thing about The Knob is that it's configurable.

It knows when there's a finger on its surface, meaning it can wake a Mac from sleep. It can be configured to act as a jog-shuttle for editing iMovies and audio. I'm reasonably sure that you could set it up to work with MacSoft's new 3D version of "Pong," also being shown off at Expo.

It's elevated from Cool to Wicked Cool with the addition of glowing pulsating lights hidden underneath its bottom diameter. I saw it in operation in Griffin's booth and I wanted one: a glowing indicator light on my flat-panel display is nice, of course, but you know, it's not like I don't already have monitors with lights on them. But a metallic disk on my desk that pulsates with blue light until I touch it? Gimme one. I can program it so that the lights pulsate when I want them to, like an email from a Cranky Person Who Can Fire Me? Gimme two. Not only because of the cranky guy because with two, I can probably make a digital Etch-A-Sketch.

Another item in the category of Weird But Cool Controllers is Essential Reality's (www.essentialreality.com) P5. It's not the first data-glove I've seen but it's the first that makes me think it's got a shot at establishing hand-gestures as a common way of communication with a desktop. It's got five finger flexors (to sense the bend of each finger) and a realtime optical tracking system that senses the x/y/z position of your hand... as well as another sensor in the glove that senses pitch/yaw/roll. All of that translates into a little dock on your desk that can sense more or less everything your hand is doing within a three or four foot cube of air in front of it.

Like the Knob, you immediately think of one thing for this gizmo: Games, in this case. And indeed, in the demos it's cool to be playing a first-person combat game and automatically switch to the crowbar weapon whenever you grasp an imaginary one in your hand and pretend to swing it at your target, or to use a gun by pointing your finger like you used to do as a kid and pretending to pull the trigger.

Again, what makes it really cool is its programmability. The P5 has a mouse/joystick emulation mode that actually works rather well, but Essential Reality is bringing software developers (game companies, makers of 3D art and rendering apps, even makers of browser plug-ins and the like) on board to make the P5 an item that software will want to look for and exploit. When it ships (in January) it'll sell for well under $150, so there's a real chance it'll actually be worth developers' time to do so. I have no particular interest in seeing Essential Reality specifically make a lot of money here, but I'm keen to see what will happen if the geek community gets these sort of devices en-masse and starts to develop a common vocabulary for controlling computers with gloves.

The mouse wasn't such an obviously cool thing when the Mouse 1.0 was built and shipped. Then the vocabulary--click to select something, click and drag to move it, double-click to open it--came along and gave it a common frame of reference for everyone. A glove has real potential to become a more casual form of keyboard, something you slip on when you just want to scroll through docs and browse the Web. It'll take a Glove 1.0 to get that rolling.

And I was glad to see what Real Software (www.realsoftware.com) was doing with Realbasic. What was a fun (but powerful) little tool for creating little apps in a fun way back when has steadily been building into a full-bore kick-butt application development tool that gets professional results without placing any limits on the programmer.

3.5 (shipping Real Soon) ups the ante, particularly in its ability to script and control Microsoft Office apps. The Code Editor has received additional refinements, too, all of which makes programming a lot more fun. Though I'm a longtime fan of Realbasic, I haven't used it much since Version 2.0; when my beta of 3.5 arrives in a few weeks I might be tempted to switch to the thing for most of my personal apps. I feel like I've used every programming environment under the sun over the years and Realbasic's is probably the only one still shipping that gives me the same pleasure as I had working with Applesoft and my Merlin assembly-language compiler back in my Apple II days.

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On a personal note, I do have to mention a couple of career milestones. Or signposts. Well, some sort of divot or skidmark along the road that differentiates that patch of asphalt from the bit just before it.

This week, Macintosh Daily Journal updated its list of the 25 Most Powerful People in the Macintosh world. Last year I was number 14. This year, I dropped a few slots. OK, well, it doesn't mean anything. It's nice just to be nominated; it's important that we just went out and gave it out best; let's have a big hand for the parents who stayed up all night making the costumes.

It's just ego. And to be fair, a lot of new people were added to the list, most of whom were (appropriately) people at Apple. But the real reason why my dropping in the ratings isn't getting me down is the fact that I've climbed another rung on the Ladder of Celebrity, one that's rather different:

At the big Apple Developer Party at Webster Hall Wednesday night--aside: Apple's Neil Kent is officially and unquestionably the Macworld Major-General Of Nightlife, topping even his previous parties by booking The Wallflowers to play for us this time--at this party, for the first time in my career, a pretty woman asked me to autograph her butt.

Somehow, in the face of that experience, dropping a few positions on some list seems to fade into insignificance.

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