Steve Jobs! Live in My Hotel Room!

It's not often that I attend a Steve Jobs keynote address in shorts and a "Too Much Coffee Man" T-shirt, but the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune commanded it. Keynote Address: 9 a.m. Ihnatko finishes with his morning ablutions: 8:10 a.m.

In the old days, back when both Bill Clinton and Bill Gates were merely alleged bad boys, my lingering over my vocal finale of The Pirates Of Penzance in the shower would have meant a dash out the door and missing the first half hour of the thing. Today, it means I shrug my shoulders, get another Coke out of the minibar, and watch it all on my PowerBook via streaming QuickTime.

(See, thanks to QuickTime, I'm not a layabout slacker incapable of keeping normal business hours; I'm merely an exploiter of the new media.)

And of course it's vital to catch the keynote. Any time a company CEO addresses a trade show, it's gonna be a dog-and-pony show...but when the company is Apple and the CEO is Steve Jobs, well, you're tempted to come up with a new analogy. Tic-Tac and Preakness Finisher? Mecha-Godzilla and Bugs Bunny? It's a blend of vast surprise and sullen predictability, and thanks to the nature of the Macintosh industry, his keynote sets the metronome for the rest of the year.

 

"It's been the most consistent source of complaint," Steve began, after the preliminaries were over with, "and Apple has listened."

With this, he introduced a replacement for Apple's USB keyboard (now based on the old ADB Extended Keyboard II's layout) and, amidst spontaneous cheers and public nudity, a mouse to replace the universally hated iMac puck.

Well, thanks, Steve...but couldn't you have listened, like, a year and a half ago? Nonsense. Sure, they could have had this problem fixed in no time simply by buying a couple million USB mice and re-stickering them, but where would be the fun in that? Coming up with a design that'll support the needs of millions of users is a snap. To create a mouse that'll support the needs of a television commercial takes something else entirely.

So mission accomplished: here we have the first input device that looks like what Volkswagen will do to the Bug in 2180. Where's the button? There is none. Or maybe the whole thing is the button. Tap your finger anywhere on its clear plastic surface, Steve promises, and a click will register.

Again, hooray for Apple. Here we get some derision from the Windows people for sticking with a one-button mouse, and how does the company respond? We make the first zero button mouse just to spite 'em.

The mouse and keyboard will be the standard for all new Macs, and we poor bastards who stuck with the old ones for the past two years will just have to fork over...$59? Just $59 each? OK, that's not so bad. Forget what I said.

 

Next comes the part of the keynote that's as dependable as Cody and Cassidy's musical number during a Kathie Lee Christmas special: The Speed Bumps. Here's the spot where Steve announces that all currently shipping Macs will (a) continue to ship and (b) get faster processors. "When you do the actual math," Steve explains, in a statistic that for the life of me I wish I had thought up, "A G4 processor can calculate an answer faster than it'll take the light from your monitor to reach your eyes."

The big news is the long -- long, long, long, long -- anticipated announcement of Dual-Processor Macs. Apple dabbled in this a few years ago, developing and promoting a multiprocessing architecture and even building one multiprocessor Power Mac, the Power Mac 9500 MP.

The idea took off with Photoshop pros (some of whom have been having children just on the off chance that someday they will be able to trade them for a 25-hour day), but it didn't prove to be a money mine for anyone. But the idea stuck, as well as the architecture, and now Apple's commiting to multiple processors as a nothing-special-folks addition to its product line.

Indeed, the dual-processor Mac isn't even its own product line: it's merely the most powerful member of the existing G4 Macs. This is certainly the way to go. What makes multiprocessing so valuable is the fact that individual processor speed becomes almost completely irrelevant. As a practical matter, it means that the best G4 on the market is now faster (in multiprocessor-savvy apps, anyway) than a 1 gig Pentium III-based machine by a factor of two. Best of all, the price for the fastest G4 Mac is still the same price...and you get Gigabit Ethernet (a way-expensive option) for free, too.

 

When JFK's speechwriters were drafting the famous address in which he mandated a moon landing, they crossed out 1969 from a previous draft and had him state that it would happen by the end of the decade. This was upon the advice of advisors at NASA, who knew that their timetable would be tight, and as a simple point of semantics, The End of the Decade was December 31, 1970. It wouldn't be their fault if the public leaped to the conclusion that it would happen by the end of 1969.

Similarly, last January Steve promised that Mac OS X would be in our hands this summer. If everyone leaped to the conclusion that it would ship at Macworld Expo NYC in July, well....

I had spent the previous month telling everyone I could -- TV and radio people, folks who read my column -- not to expect much by the way of Mac OS X during this keynote. It's still only two-thirds-done, so if the myth that Apple was going to ship something at Expo were allowed to persist, well, that would've been bad news. Apple simply must not break its promise to ship X this summer . Not after its deplorable history with Revolutionary New Editions of Mac OS.

Still, even I was a little agape at Steve's demo, which didn't go a single step farther than the demo he gave in January. I wasn't expecting him to, you know, use a Mac OS X edition of Internet Explorer to go to eBay and bid on a signed copy of Gil Amelio's tell-all book, but I expected some convincing evidence of forward progress.

There's been plenty of progress, of course, but most of it has been under the hood. Getting a printing architecture to actually produce a printed page is a big accomplishment but not exactly the sort of thing to get the proletariat stirred to action.

So someone at Apple realized that the summer doesn't actually end until September. And therefore is was announced that the public beta would ship in September.

The final edition of Mac OS X will ship in January. And if people just happen to assume that it'll be shipped at January's Macworld Expo in San Francisco, well....

 

The other certainty of a Jobs keynote is New Colors for the iMacs. It was actually sort of bold to have one unique color for the first iMacs; that shade was Apple for a great many months. And master of the Mac junkie's mind they were, for they knew that they'd send us into apoplexy merely by giving us new colors at a later date.

Now we've got, let's see here... four new colors (with customary speed bumps), and even a toad like me has become a little jaded.

No, I mean "saged." That's Apple's new word for green today .

But the seriously great news -- the equal of any other announcement that day, which is saying something if you know about the new line of G4s that were announced -- is the fact that now, the minimum buy-in for Macintosh is $799, which will buy you a very complete and nicely equipped iMac.

Apple desperately needed this. Go to any Best Buy store and $800 will buy any of a half-dozen different entry-level Intel boxes. Few are any good, but the point is that $700 to $800 appears to be the new magic number, the cheapest you can sell a computer for these days without making people think they're buying a toy.

$800 used to buy you Almost A Mac.

Apple's been doing great with first-time computer buyers; this will make the company do even better. Apple's been hemorrhaging users in the educational space; cheap Macs that are a snap to set up, trivial to maintain, and cost no more than a Wintel box will start the clotting process. And $799 makes the iMac a credible "appliance" buy -- a machine bought for little more than gaming and Internet use -- and if Apple is seriously serious about getting serious about Mac games for the first time since 1984, they needed a good cheap Mac.

iMac DV also broke a psychological price barrier by getting its price knocked down to $999; this, plus iMovie 2.0, makes now officially An Exciting Time. There's only one camcorder standard for moving video in and out of computers, and it's Apple's standard. The same store that sold some first-time parent their first camcorder can steer them to the computer department, where somewhere near the bottom of the price range they can find a sophisticated (and exciting) editing suite that (if the salesperson uses the grease gun on 'em) can also do absolutely everything a Wintel box can do, at almost the same price.

There was one great mystery, though. As Steve demonstrated iMovie 2.0 by editing together some video of some kids at the beach, the sound on my streaming Quicktime window cut out from time to time. Every time we were to hear the actual soundtrack of the video, zpp...no sound, and it would come back as soon as it finished playing.

Did Steve suddenly spot a member of the Recording Industry Association of America? Maybe he didn't want to go to the slam for using "Whipping Post" in his home video without paying the proper royalties.

 

By now you've almost certainly heard of the new G4 Cube.

I concur: Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

It really is an emblem of everything Apple stands for. Nobody wants a complete computer in an 8-inch cube. No marketing survey has mandated that this thing exist.

But it's a cool idea, so they had to do it.

And they had to do it right . It would have been easy to make everyone pay for this quirky design with annoyance and frustration. The close proximity of all of its components could have mandated a big honkin' fan. It could have also meant that getting inside and installing memory would have been only slightly less challenging than building the Ferris wheel depicted on the box that your Erector Set came in. And it could have been studded with buttons and knobs and blah.

Instead, it's air cooled, getting at its innards is like pulling Jell-O out of a mold, and of course you insert your DVDs like putting an Eggo into a toaster. Outside of the Apple logo, there's nothing blemishing its surface and you're likely to find the power switch only by accident.

Any implementation of this basic idea inspires a reaction of "Cool." When Apple does it, it inspires people to say "Cool," and then stay, and then buy.

But who will buy it? I kept fussing at this question. It's cheap enough that folks might pay a little more and get the Cube instead of an iMac; it's powerful enough that folks might prefer to save a little money and get it instead of a Mac G4.

"More than an iMac, less than a G4" is Apple's official statement on the subject. And you know, it's just right. A G4 chip has so much greater potential than an iMac's G3. And with USB and FireWire ports, the Cube can satisfy the expansion needs of anyone who isn't desperate for PCI slots.

My one worry, as I got in my own fondle-time with the thing, was (a) if this thing were on your desk, how could you resist the natural inclination to put your drink on top of it, and given that, (b) ain't it a pain that one of the two places where a sticky sugary beverage could pour inside is through that DVD slot on the top?

To introduce the Cube, Steve had to unveil a new graphical motif for the Macintosh product line. When he took over Apple, he cut out all of the clutter and made it into a cube divided into four: professional portable, consumer portable, professional desktop, consumer desktop.

Now it's a rectangle with two new squares tucked between the columns of Portables and Desktops. The Cube occupies the top square. The bottom one is empty.

My money is on a consumer media product in January, in the form of an announcement if not a shipping product.

 

At the end of the keynote, I stretched and took one final hit off the Coke and cold pizza that made up my breakfast. Maybe I'll just make this a new Expo tradition. Unlike all other Webcasts, the streaming QuickTime was flawless without a single outage or dropout or lag, and even with my lowly 56K connection, the audio was just fine and the video perfectly credible.

The only twinge of remorse I felt was when I thought about The Tables that would be outside.

When I attend these things, I stand at the back. I don't want to waste an hour waiting in line for a seat, and I don't want to take a seat in the press section where you're right in the front rows but have to wait for 3,000 other folks to clear out before you can leave.

And if you're standing at the back, you're the first to stroll past The Tables by the door, which more times than not have been loaded with nifty art-quality prints of whatever way-cool hardware Apple's just announced.

They're real sharp and I like 'em a lot. But I don't absolutely have to have them. Unfortunately, though, I have every single one of them and so I can't lose an opportunity to get the new ones.

But the remorse dissipated when I realized that there'd probably be a few thousand of them set aside for bins in the Apple booth on the show floor.

Then, of course, Steve closed his address by gleefully announcing that those new optical mouses are so cool that he wanted everyone at the keynote to have one, so if everyone would just walk past the tables on their way out....

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