Wrapping up Expo

Macworld Expo is without a doubt the high point of the year for anyone who follows Apple. Every January, the most important people in Apple’s sphere of influence congregate in San Francisco to show off their latest inventions and pore over the details of Apple’s latest announcements. While this year’s announcements were not on a par with last year’s mind-blowing unveiling of the iPhone, they were still fascinating to behold.

MacBook Air

For Mac users, the talk of this year’s Expo was almost certainly the MacBook Air, Apple’s new super-thin lightweight laptop. But that talk wasn’t all positive; opinion on the show floor and online has been decidedly mixed.

Unlike most of Apple’s recent Macs, which could plausibly appeal to most Mac users, the MacBook Air is designed for a minority of a minority: it’s a laptop for mobile users who want the smallest, lightest machine possible and are willing to pay a premium price and sacrifice some features to get it.

If you’re sitting there shaking your head, wondering who would actually want such a thing, the MacBook Air’s obviously not for you. But if you’re nodding in agreement, if you’d happily make sacrifice some features to save weight and bulk, congratulations: Apple had you in mind when it built the MacBook Air.

If I’m not a part of the Air’s target market, I’m dangerously close. I opted for an iBook rather than a 15-inch PowerBook, and then replaced it with the 12-inch PowerBook. When the 13-inch MacBook arrived, I traded in my three-month-old 15-inch MacBook Pro without hesitation. But even I have to agree that the MacBook Air isn’t for everyone.

If you’re the glass-half-empty kind of person, you could be angry that Apple’s big Expo announcement is a Mac you’d never consider buying. If you’re more glass-half-full, you could see MacBook Air announcement as a sign of Apple’s remarkable resurgence. Right now Apple is riding so high, it feels it doesn’t need to focus solely on the mainstream market. Instead, it’s addressing a major—albeit comparatively narrow—hole in its product line.

If you love super-tiny laptops, using a Mac has until now required you to take on more weight and size than comparable super-small laptops on the PC side. With Apple successfully converting Windows users to the Mac, why not offer a product that will convince those Sony Vaio users to make the switch?

Apple TV and rentals

The MacBook Air may have been the talk of Macworld Expo, but I suspect that the broadest, long-ranging announcement that Apple made at the show was the one-two punch of iTunes movie rentals and a massive update to Apple TV.

Let’s start with the movie rentals. These days there are all kinds of ways to rent movies—you can do it through your cable or satellite company, via a set-top box from the likes of TiVo or Vudu, from a service like Netflix, even your neighborhood rental store (if your neighborhood still has one). With Apple getting in the game, the big difference is that you can watch your rented movies on your iPod. Imagine bringing a handful of rented movies with you on your next trip, movies you can keep for up to 30 days (though once you start playing one, you’ve only got 24 hours to finish it).

What makes Apple’s movie-rentals announcement more interesting is its transformation of the Apple TV from a set-top box that played iTunes movies, TV shows, and music stored on your Mac to one that lets you rent movies directly from the comfort of your couch, without going to your Mac at all. (Yes, Apple TV still plays iTunes music and videos the old fashioned way, too.) The combination of iTunes, iPods, and Apple TV with the addition of movie rentals gives Apple a pretty formidable line of home entertainment products.

In the first few days after Apple announced the revamp of Apple TV, I heard several people—none of whom had ever expressed an interest in Apple TV, including a few who viewed it with downright antipathy—talk seriously for the first time about ordering one. As someone who bought an Apple TV last year, I’m delighted that my investment won’t be obsolete quite yet: The new Apple TV software is available as a free update for all Apple TV users.

For Apple watchers, perhaps the most interesting thing about this entire announcement was Steve Jobs’ admission that the original Apple TV simply wasn’t successful. Now, I love my Apple TV—but I’m a tech-savvy person who’s comfortable using HandBrake and VisualHub to convert DVDs and other videos into Apple TV-savvy formats. But I understand that I represent a fraction of a percent of the potential Apple TV audience. By adding easy movie rentals, Apple has made the Apple TV a broad appeal that it never had before.

And much more

Of course, Apple made other announcements at Macworld Expo, including a nice iPhone software update. And the show wasn’t just about Apple. It was packed with hundreds of companies selling Mac-related products and thousands of enthusiastic Mac users, too. In the months to come, we’ll be getting our hands on all the interesting products introduced at Expo—including the MacBook Air and the new AppleTV software—will arrive in our hands. Stay tuned to macworld.com for our first hands-on reports, lab tests, and reviews of the latest and greatest Mac products.

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