The Vision Thing: No Strings Attached

New York -- Another Macworld Expo, another ground-breaking product announcement from Steve Jobs. Apple's performance at its major media events has become so predictably unpredictable that it's a wonder Steve doesn't just phone in the keynote from home. Then again, Apple's iCEO knows that the keynote address of the summer Macworld Expo is his biggest stage, deep in the heart of the world's media capital.

The iMac, the blue-and-white Power Mac G3, and now the iBook -- Apple just keeps knocking them over the fence. And while nothing is ever perfect, the iBook comes pretty darned close. It's relatively cheap, surprisingly fast, offers a full set of features, and has a beautiful design -- at first glance, you immediately notice that it looks exactly like a portable iMac should. If a product was ever born to be a runaway best-seller, this is it. The only question that remains is, how will people get their data on and off their iBooks? But if you consider all the issues surrounding the floppy-less iMac, that's a debate we've all heard before.

iBook and Verse

To me, the biggest thing about the iBook announcement was not the iBook itself. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not blasé about Apple's darling portable. (I hesitate to call the iBook little -- it's actually larger and, at 6.6 pounds, heavier than the new bronze PowerBook G3.) The price -- $1,599 -- isn't rock-bottom, but it certainly is impressive given the power in this little tangerine (or blueberry) package.

And while they're far from the top-level features of the iBook, the little details found on this new computer make all the difference. For example, a spring-loaded handle that lets you carry it easily; a latchless cover that opens and closes as easily as a jewelry case; and a power cord that actually includes a cable wrap, so that you don't have to stuff a wadded-up ball of wire in your bag every time you're on the move.

The iBook should especially appeal to students and anyone else who needs an easy-to-use portable computer that doesn't cost an arm and a leg ... and who appreciate style in their products. There's no doubt that the MTV generation will be able to get the most out this portable computer with its great mixture of style and substance.

But like I said, none of this covers the iBook's most important feature.

"I've got no strings to hold me down ... "

The most visible difference between the iBook and all other portable PCs is something as invisible as the air -- AirPort, Apple's wireless networking product. Imagine, if you will, setting up a network that's as fast as (or even a tiny bit faster than) 10Base-T networking without having to run any cables. Or even more impressive, imagine surfing the Net from your high-speed home DSL line while plucking cherries from the tree in the backyard. (Our tree turned in a bumper crop this year, so I spent a lot of time picking cherries this summer).

If you're like me, you've got a house full of computers and a house full of computer users but only one connection to the Internet -- in my case, DSL. Your options? Get down and dirty in your attic or crawlspace running wires throughout your house, use HomePNA (a networking system that piggybacks on your existing telephone wiring), or go wireless. Up until now, wireless networking has been far too expensive for most people, and hasn't been particularly Mac friendly. But the AirPort and its $299 Ethernet-friendly base station change things -- not just for the iBook, but for all Mac users.

Already Farallon has announced a $299 wireless networking PC card, compatible with AirPort, that will give older PowerBooks the ability to roam freely at Ethernet speeds. And it's only a matter of time before other hardware appears that will let you connect desk-bound computers in far-flung parts of your house without getting up close and personal with the Fiberglas insulation in your ceiling.

iBook 'Em, Dan-o

Does the iBook rid the world of Ethernet? Probably not-Ethernet cables and hubs are cheap, and Ethernet ports are built into every Mac, including the iBook. But the iBook does usher in a world where wires are no longer mandatory-and where portable computers can roam free without giving up the Internet one of the biggest reasons we use computers.

As more and more people attempt to bring their pre-Internet households into the networked age, as more schools have students taking their computers with them to class, the importance of wireless networking will be paramount. And it looks like Apple's beat everyone to the punch.

So where's the AirPort option for my Power Mac? I've got a home full of computers to connect, and I don't think I can bear to use my crawlspace now that I live in a world with the iBook in it.

Questions? Comments? E-mail them to Andy at visionthing@macworld.com.

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