Macworld Tokyo: The Day After

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One thing that over a decade and a half of covering Apple product announcements has taught me is that the story isn't finished until you get the briefing.

In these days of instant access to information, Macworld last night was able to post stories with complete product specifications - within minutes of the close of a keynote that was taking place on the other side of the planet. The sheer enormity of that statement and all it entails is eclipsed only by how quickly we've become blasé about near-instantaneous news. When live updates of a Macworld Expo Tokyo keynote to the Web was simply science fiction just a few years ago, it seems now that anything less than real-time is simply unthinkable.

But still, even with this near-instant news, what some describe as the quaint concept of an in-person product briefing still has its place. It's a chance to put your hands on the product, to talk face to face with the people who created the product, to hear how this product fits in with other products in an overall strategy, and to get direct answers to direct questions.

In other words, it's a chance to get the spin.

Now, don't get me wrong. Out of context, an iMac is just a funny-looking computer. In context, it's an on-ramp to the Internet, it's the world's coolest-looking, easiest-to-use computer; it's style and it's fashion. Spec sheets won't tell you this, only a human being can.

For example, some might question the particular choices Apple made with the new iMac colors, until they hear that the company chose these colors to evoke an emotional reaction. Apple wanted buyers to think music when they saw these new colors -- to think media in motion -- because that is what the Mac is all about. And, the way they did the color bursts, especially on the Flower Power scheme, is clever: the color is layered so some objects overlap others in the plastic.

Now, if you don't like the new colors, you can at least understand why Apple made the choices they did. Agree or disagree, it makes sense.

That's what context brings you.

iMac color palettes aside, the core of the post-Tokyo keynote briefing focused on Apple's recently inaugurated new product strategy - the digital hub.

The story goes something like this: Many "smart" people are saying the PC is dead and will soon be replaced by a virtual tool belt full of small digital devices that are custom-designed to fulfill one purpose. Whether that's a palmtop organizer, an Internet-savvy cell phone, a digital camera (still or DV), an MP3 player, or even a CD player, people will just go out and get what they need in a specialty device instead of trying to make their computer do it.

Apple's take on this, which strikes me as fairly level-headed, is, sure, MP3 players and the like are cool. But what are you going to use to make them work?

Yeah, that's right, where's the music for your MP3 player going to come from? Where are those custom CDs and DVDs going to get burned? Where are you going to get all the data your palmtop is going to put at your fingertips? Where are you going to store and edit all those digital photos you took? Where are you going to edit those hours of boring DV you have into something that won't sap your audience's will to live? The answer? On a Macintosh, of course. Your new digital hub.

Guess it must make sense because since Steve Jobs first rolled this concept out at his Macworld Expo keynote in January, Microsoft, probably still the best at recognizing (and stealing) a good idea when they see one, is already singing Windows praises as a digital hub.

Of course, from my point of view, until I can get a palmtop device with a fold-out 22-inch color plasma screen, a wireless T1 connection, and a fold-out full-size keyboard that I can write, edit Web pages, layout my magazine, and play Quake on, my dual-processor Power Mac G4 probably doesn't have much to fear from my Visor Prism. I think the analysts who are proclaiming the death of the PC are at least a decade ahead of themselves. Or maybe they're just bored.

But, this is what has led Apple to move it's entry-level Macs as quickly as possible to CD-RW drives. And, while I welcome this change, I'm sorry to see DVD-ROM drives disappear from the iMac line-up altogether. In my house, there's an iMac or iBook in every kid's room. And it's that ability to play DVD movies in the privacy of their own rooms that's kept the peace more evenings than I care to think about.

But, it's Apple's belief that CD burning is more important to desktop Mac users than DVD playback. Because consumer DVD players have gotten so cheap, Mac users are still more likely to buy a deck and hook to a television with a nice big screen than worry about using their iMac to play back movies. And as to the recently announced DVD-ROM/CD-RW drives, when those become available in sufficient quantity, Apple will look to adopt the mechanisms.

So this debate may be short-lived.

And you have to give credit to Apple, there are no half measures. They not only incorporated CD-RW in the hardware but also updated iTunes to support a variety of external drives as well (see "iTunes Updated to Support Third-Party CD-RW Drives" ). And, if you have Mac OS 9.1 installed, you can now download the Disc Burner OS extension that will let you burn Mac data CD-ROMs right from the desktop. It really couldn't be easier.

And when it comes to displaying graphics on your digital hub, the two new high-end iMacs offer a new version of the ATI graphics controller, the ATI Rage 128 Ultra. The main difference is the amount of video memory the chip set comes with -- up to 16MB from 8MB.

This brings us to the most important announcement Apple made in Tokyo, at least in the long term -- that nVidia will ship next month a new graphics card for the Mac using a breakthrough Graphics Processing Unit called the GeForce3. And, perhaps most surprising of all, the GeForce3 will be available first on the Mac.

According to Apple and nVidia, the GeForce3 is orders of magnitude faster than anything else currently available on the market. Right out of the box, Mac user will see the frame rates double in 3-D games such as Quake III that support OpenGL.

Of course, like all such technological advancements, what you get immediately pales in comparison with what you will, at least according to the two companies, get in the long term -- because the GeForce3 will allow for the real-time manipulation of photo-realistic objects and backgrounds. In other words, once developers learn to exploit the 3-D graphics processing power of the GeForce3, you'll get games rendered in real time that look as good and move as fluidly as the animation in Toy Story 2 or A Bug's Life .

Of course, "once developers learn to exploit" is the big unknown. Normally, advances in gaming are seldom driven by the Mac platform, because the Mac simply doesn't offer game developers the economies of scale necessary to make back the substantial investment required to support such dramatically more realistic, and more difficult to create, games. But, Apple and nVidia did get a big vote of confidence from 3-D gaming's most influential player: Quake III is currently being reengineered to take advantage of the GeForce3. And many 3-D Mac games use the Quake III engine. For those that don't, knowing Quake III will be fielding vastly improved graphics as a result of GeForce3 support may be just the shove they'll need to quickly adopt the technology.

Knowing gamers, they'll want the best technology they can get, whether or not they can actually use it. So what if you need a Power Mac G4 with AGP 4x to use the card? (You will have to own one of the new G4 towers Apple introduced in January to use the GeForce3.) So what if the card costs an additional $350 if you buy it with your new Mac from the Apple store, or $600 purchased separately? This card is beyond state-of-the-art and, for once, Mac gamers don't have to wait to get it.

Well, at least not very long.

At the end of the briefing came mention of the Power Mac G4 Cube, now a bit humbled by less-than-enthusiastic acceptance in the marketplace.

The sad thing is, the Cube is now a pretty good deal. At $1,299, the entry-level Cube offers a 450MHz G4, 64MB of RAM, DVD-ROM, drive and 20GB hard drive -- not bad for a compact computer with a G4 kick. You can even load it with a 500MHz G4, 256MB of RAM, 60GB hard drive, CD-RW drive, and an nVidia GeForce2 graphics card (sorry, no GeForce3 for the Cube; it only has AGP 2x on the logic board) for $2,144. Although at that point you might be better advised to go for the $2,199 configuration of the Power Mac G4, which offers 20MB less hard drive and 128MB less RAM but does have AGP 4x and more expansion options.

And your Cube now comes with the same software you'll find in a new iMac, including AppleWorks, Bugdom, Cro-Mag Rally, and Nanosaur. In fact, while I was initially disappointed that Apple didn't upgrade the iMac's processor to G4, maybe they really don't need to with such a cheap Cube in the line-up.

Hey, that's it! The Cube: the iMac for those who'd rather have a G4 and DVD-ROM drive in an easy-to-set-up-and-use computer than a colorful case that reminds us what a great digital hub we've bought.

Now, that's spin!

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