Expo Keynote: Tale of the Tape

You ever have one of those fights with your husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend or significant other? I'm not talking about one of those wake-the-neighbors-and-here-comes-a-camera-crew-from- Cops kind of fights. This is a perfectly reasonable disagreement between two people that somehow escalates into a test of wills, complete with suffocating silences, withering looks, and sotto voce grumblings about the vagaries of the human heart.

It doesn't even have to be a fight over something that's a big deal. Maybe you forgot to call and tell her you were going to be late. Maybe you slighted him in public, and now his feelings are hurt. Maybe you just didn't take the time to appreciate the little things you enjoy about one another in the first place.

Or maybe your company's about to report a quarterly loss for the first time since you took over as CEO, your stock has tumbled, your inventory channel is clogged with aging machines that nobody's buying, and everyone's calling for your scalp.

Something minor like that.

That's exactly what Steve Jobs walked into before Tuesday's keynote address at Macworld Expo. The folks who have been cooing sweet nothings into his ear the past three years have soured on the Apple CEO as of late, and it was incumbent upon Jobs to rekindle the romance. A lukewarm keynote, and, at best, Our Steve is sleeping on the couch for the next couple of days while the Mac Faithful stew in the other room. At worst, the disillusioned start tarting around with that Windows crowd.

And that can only lead to heartbreak.

Faced with a similar charge, most of us would buy a bouquet of flowers, maybe a box of chocolates, and hope that did the trick. Jobs, he announces a ship date for OS X, faster CPUs, exciting new apps, and then throws in a shiny metal laptop just to pick up the spare. An irrepressible romantic, Our Steve.

Still, you had to wonder what kind of tone Jobs would take during his speech. Defiant? Remorseful? Ready to rumble?

As it turns out, Jobs came the closest to sounding apologetic as he's ever likely to. Which is to say, he briefly acknowledged Apple's current woes and then moved on.

"The last several months of 2000 have been particularly challenging for Apple and our industry," Jobs said. "We've decided to start 2001 with a bang." And that was it. No recitation of the litany of woes that had befallen Apple since its fortunes peaked last summer. No tearful mea culpas and solemn promises that it would never happen again. Not even the ritual sacrifice of a couple of underlings. Instead, Jobs spent the next two hours answering Apple's critics by serving up products that cut right to the heart of their complaints.

Tired of all those OS X shipping delays? OK, it'll ship March 24. Unhappy with parts of the OS X public beta? Fine, you can have your OS 9-like pop-up menus and a working Apple Menu and all the other stuff you've been complaining about. Our processors are too slow? All right -- we'll bump 'em up to 733MHz. Our PowerBooks are huge and in need of an upgrade? Well, try this 1-inch-thick, 5-pound model on for size. And did I mention it has a G4 processor inside?

Jobs even had a stinging retort for anyone ready to write-off the PC industry and, with it, Apple -- not so fast. "We don't think the PC is dying at all," Jobs said. "We think it's evolving."

On a day filled with announcements, that may have been the most important thing Jobs said. It shows that Apple has a plan to make it through the current downturn in the market, perhaps even emerging in a better position once things begin to brighten a little bit for PC makers. If nothing else it gave Jobs a mantra for the day -- "What's next?" -- at a time when most people in his line of work are asking, "What now?"

That doesn't mean everything's imported beer and gourmet sausages down at Cupertino now that Jobs has told us what's what. Tuesday's announcements are unlikely to have any short-term impact on Apple's fortunes. Indeed, the company is still likely to struggle with inventory troubles, a flagging stock market, and the general malaise that has hit the tech industry like an unshakable winter cold.

And the products announced Tuesday have their own potential headaches. The changes to OS X while welcome are unlikely to eliminate griping about the new interface or calm the worries of some developers who wonder, off-the-record, if the operating system is ready for prime time. It's great that Power Macs have faster CPUs, and yes, I realize that even at 733MHz, a G4 can outperform a nominally faster Pentium PC in many tasks -- but to the man on the street, 733MHz is still less than 1.5GHz, and that perception is hard to shake.

As for the Titanium PowerBook G4, I want to get my hands on one as soon as I can muster the necessary financing. But I wonder how cool a G4 chip can run inside a laptop. I mean, my Wall Street PowerBook has a G3 chip, and if I leave that on my lap, it makes me feel all warm inside -- not the good kind of warm either, but a "grab the swabs and get this man a skin graft" kind of discomfort. I worry that G4 processor + heat-conducting metal casing = surface hot enough to grill steaks on.

Still, the keynote's a start. Going into Macworld Expo, Apple was fighting the perception that it was just another adrift tech company with gloomy prospects and a murky future. Now, at least, it comes across as a company with faster machines, cool new apps, an OS X shipping date, and a clue.

Other hits and misses from the Jobs keynote:

WINNERS

Maya: Unlike past keynotes, which have seen a steady stream of developers parade in front of the crowd, only Alias/Wavefront shared stage-time with Jobs on Tuesday.

It was a good choice.

The mere news that Alias/Wavefront is bringing Maya, its 3-D modeling, animating, and rendering application, to the Mac is encouraging enough. But the sight of Maya running on Mac OS X blew the crowd away. "The combination of OS X and Maya is going to be awesome," said director of Maya technology Richard Kerris. Film, video, and gaming professionals are going to trip over each other to purchase Maya when the Mac version ships in the second quarter of 2001.

NVidia: One month, you're a graphics processor maker who's just getting acquainted with the Mac market. The next, your chips are now standard in Apple hardware. The news that nVidia's GeForce2MX chips would be included in the 533MHz, 667MHz, and 733MHz Power Mac G4s garnered a big pop from large segments of the keynote crowd -- no doubt from the folks who have visions of all-night Quake III sessions dancing in their heads.

Titanium PowerBook G4: All the products announced Tuesday received a warm reception from the crowd. But when Jobs pulled back the curtain on the new PowerBook, I distinctly heard whooping from certain sections of the audience.

All right, it might have been just me.

Apple's vision: Jobs isn't the first high-tech CEO to talk about the PC as the center of a web of MP3 players, handheld devices, wireless phones, and other digital gadgetry. But he's one of the few that has some level of success carrying out that grandiose scheme -- think iMovie and the way it brings together digital video camcorders, Apple-developed software, and Mac hardware. Throw in the new iDVD software which transfers your digital video to DVD, and you're also adding commercial DVD players to the mix.

What's more, as a company that makes both hardware and software, Apple has the wherewithal to make its computers the "digital hub" Jobs talks about in a way that the Microsofts and Intels of the world can't. "Apple is uniquely suited to do this because we're the last company in this business with all these components under one roof," Jobs said.

LOSERS

The PowerBook G4 TV commercial: For such an exciting product, Chiat-Day sure did produce a drab commercial. It's only been a few hours since I first saw it, but I'd be hard-pressed to recall any detail from the ad, other than Jeff Goldblum's monotonous baritone droning on about the wonders of titanium.

Lest you think this is merely the product of some lingering ill will toward Transylvania 6500 or The Fly, the reaction at Moscone Center seemed fairly muted to the TV ad. Most Apple commercials are greeted with enthusiastic cheers; this one got polite applause, which, at a Macworld Expo, is as close as you're going to come to getting gonged off stage.

iTunes limitations: I like Apple's new MP3-playing and CD-burning application; I really do. The software's search function is outstanding, its tools are extensive, and its interface is simple enough for a dullard like me to master. I think iTunes is a great addition to the Apple lineup.

And then I hear Steve Jobs tell me that the current version only supports CD-RW drives built in to Apple's new Power Macs. Oh, there will be plug-ins to support other CD-RW drives someday. Just not today.

And that really harshes my mellow.

OS X pricing: I'm sure $129 is a perfectly fair price. I'm certainly willing to pay it once I think developers have rolled out enough Carbonized applications to make an upgrade to OS X worthwhile.

But what about the 100,000 or so people who supported Apple by shelling out $30 for the OS X beta? You know -- the people who sent the 75,000 feedback submissions that Apple has found so helpful in working the kinks out of the operating system? It seems like they deserve a rebate on that $129 price tag -- sort of a thank you from Apple for all the support and constructive criticism about OS X.

After all, it's that kind of lack of gratitude that leads to those lover's spats we talked about earlier.

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