Macworld Expo through Andy Ihnatko's Eyes

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Steve Jobs's newest keynote prop is the Clock. Mac OS X was released at 12 noon, you see, and at midnight Apple and the community of Mac users and developers will have completed the transition to Mac OS X. The announcements Steve made in his July 2001 Macworld Expo keynote moved the Clock to 4 o'clock, with 6 o'clock happening in September, he promised.

It was a fine example of communication through visualization, and I'm certain that the concept and the graphic was well worth whatever Steve paid his communication monkeys for it. Still, all during Steve's opening discussion of X, I kept hearing him in the voice of Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, explaining that his amps were better because the knobs all went up to 11 .

But I'm getting ahead of myself. As usual, Steve's Macworld keynote had me at the edge of my seat to the very, very end. As I checked my watch, I noted that it was nearing that Magic Moment that comes at every Steve Jobs keynote . . . the moment when you know he's winding things down and you begin making mental notes about what sort of a keynote this was, thinking that Steve had a lot of interesting things to say, but that on the whole, it was sort of a tame outing.

And just as you're reminding yourself not to leave the seat before making sure that your PDA or your MP3 player or your digicam or your copy of this week's People magazine didn't slip out of your bag in the past 90 minutes, Steve drops the Big Wonderful Bomb, that One More Thing.

So as my attention was waning, just as I was wondering, "Is that all there is?" he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out an Apple-logoed PDA.

Whoops, no. Well, OK, he motioned to the Toy Story 2 DVD case that was conspicuously on the table the whole time . . . and inside that case was a Mac OS sub-notebook!

Nope. An Apple wristwatch? A line of specialty fragrances? No again.

All that anticipation was for naught. It's really happening, I thought. He's really ending the keynote with a long demonstration of iDVD 2, which isn't shipping until September.

Well, look, every keynote can't be a Maserati.

More Like a Volvo

Steve was in maintenance mode this time. A Steve Jobs Macworld keynote is usually like the after-dinner speech at a gathering of Amway distributors, or the bit at the end of an Oprah episode where there's been an unusually teary back-and-forth about why some people can't lose weight. The point -- apart from putting some good PR in the hopper -- is to get us all spun up, all energized and excited and motivated, with the hopeful effect that we'll rush out and energize and motivate any other people we should happen to spin into.

Things like the TiBook, or AirPort messaging, or the first demo of Mac OS X -- each of which were announced amid keynotes intended to send everyone careening back to their offices and sub-communities to preach The Word again. ("This is what we are, and what we are is a community of people who are convinced that technology isn't meant to suck.")

This keynote was intended to make some simple but important points. It wasn't the president of the United States issuing a stirring and patriotic speech about the sobering price of freedom and the need to defend the American ideal of democracy wherever it attempts to take root worldwide. This was the speech in which he insisted that he did not have relations with that woman.

Except in this case, Steve was talking from a position of strength.

Those Apple Stores

Steve's keynote began with footage of the Apple Store openings. It's probably the most controversial big operation Apple has undertaken since the days of The Troubles: Apple wants to establish beachheads in shopping malls, selling Macs underneath enormous illuminated Apple logos taking their place right next to Baby Gap. In a bold expansion, the number of shops across the country shall shortly leap from its current level of a Couple to a bona-fide Handful, with Apple firmly on track to having a Whole Bunch by the end of the year.

I think about what will result from all of this and come back with a definitive "Lord Only Knows." The craven industry pundit immediately seeks the warmth of an existing precedent to compare things to, and the only such example of a nationwide "company store" approach is Gateway. The success of their stores is pretty damned variable. The successful ones have (through accident or design) established themselves as real destinations, as places for geeks and would-be geeks to go to see what a new Pentium 4 looks like or to try out a game on a true top-of-the-line machine. The Gateway stores that provide nothing but a less-convenient place to have the same buying experience you can get at OfficeMax are foundering. ("Hello, my name is Dave. Feel free to try to figure out where the keyboard to this desktop went, as I continue to try to scrounge up Weezer tickets on my cell phone.")

Apple Stores are intended to be profitable retail outlets, but perhaps their most important role in the Big Picture is to establish and reinforce Apple's presence in the minds of ordinary humans. Apple's perpetual foe is the childish public perception that the computer industry had a huge battle for the Future of Computing, that Microsoft won, and that as a consequence every other operating system was exiled to Elba.

I have no idea whether Apple Stores can succeed purely in their retail mission. But I think about those big illuminated Apple logos inside big shopping malls and people walking in to kill time. I think about them seeing properly maintained Macs with properly maintained System folders, and video cameras all set up and ready to go, and price tags with only three digits in them. Best of all, I imagine them seeing row after row of gleaming boxes of software covering nearly every title and category they could ever want.

And dang, that can't possibly be a bad thing. In the end it doesn't matter whether people buy iMacs at an Apple Store. What Apple really should sell to those folks in the mall is ten minutes of fiddling-around time. That time may be the first experience these guys have had with a non-Windows machine, and with it will inevitably come a change in their perceptions and an elevation of their expectations.

Some people will simply horse around with iMovie, and then when their cellphones ring to signify that their spouses are done shopping, the experience will be forgotten. But others will go back to their jobs and realize that their PCs aren't as elegant or as fun as the cough-drop-like iMac they fooled with over the weekend. And from little acorns do mighty oaks grow.

That Mac OS X Clock

If the keynote lacked flash and blood-pumping excitement, the calm and fundamental rightness of Steve's announcements about Mac OS X made up for it.

I think that most sensible people have maintained a wait-and-see attitude toward X. But now we're at the point where we finally like what we've seen and are ready to leap into the deep end.

It was all a gamble, but it appears to be paying off. The traditional Parade Of Third Parties was completely given over to companies shipping applications for X, some of which have gone beyond simple Carbonization and only work under X.

(As the keynote wore onward and onward, I began to suspect Steve's larger plan: by keeping us all at the keynote for as long as possible, he was giving developers the opportunity to finish and ship more X apps before we hit the show floor, which was a very shrewd move.)

Most of them were just works in progress, but the progress was considerable nonetheless. At this particular moment in the OS X transition, it isn't even terribly important that these applications are shipping, so long as we know that they're definitely coming: apps such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Illustrator and QuarkXPress (which despite the odds remains a critical publishing beachhead). Flashy apps (such as Alias/Wavefront's Maya for production-grade 3-D graphics) really mean nothing in the greater scheme of X. They're nice, but it's flea-bitten pack-mule programs such as Office that will carry the success or failure of OS X. People don't want a brand-new experience. They want continuity. They want their daily routine, only way, way better.

Not in 9 The other Bright Shining Lights in these demos were

the applications that aren't bothering with simple compatibility and are going full bore into developing X-only stuff. If they had all hung back and merely made their existing apps compatible, there'd be little motivation for users to make the transition to the new OS. If Mac OS 9 works and is stable and all the latest apps still work with it, why take a risk? Why put your poor machine through all that trauma if the only payoff at the end is throbbing blue buttons?

But will OS 9 users be willing to upgrade to OS X in pursuit of getting a way, way better version of the app they rely on every stinking day of their miserable lives? Keep talking.

For me, the ultimate test of any new software is Lilith. I have at least three Macs that see regular use in my office, and I install hardware and software upgrades on those things with reckless abandon.

But Lilith is my PowerBook. Lilith is the machine that I do all of my real work on. It has my manuscripts, my columns, my business, my code, and because my genetic background has its fair share of Northern Mediterranean elements and I shed, Lilith also has about a thousand little hairs from my arms and hands inside its keyboard.

I never installed the Mac OS X beta on Lilith. Eventually, I installed OS X 10.0, but I almost never run it, preferring to boot into 9.1.

OS X 10.1 is coming in September. With it come most of the big honking missing components of X, the stuff that prevented it from becoming a workhorse OS. Important, serious-OS things like DVD playback. I like multithreading as much as the next geek, but I also like being able to watch Tampopo on my PowerBook.

Besides the DVD thing, the speed is finally there. The compatibility with printers and other devices is there. Hugely important standards and protocols are now in the box, starting with seamless access to Wintel networks, proceeding through ginchy emerging ideas like new extensions to AppleScript that will bolt the Mac OS to the chassis of XML and SOAP, upon which much of the future of computing rides.

Apple Aims to Please And Apple is warping OS X closer and closer to the Mac OS we all want. This is the way an OS should be developed and released: something so important shouldn't be a like-it-or-lump-it proposition. For a company so closely linked (rightly or wrongly) with arrogance, Apple has been a model of servitude when it comes to Mac OS X. The beta was a grand attempt to be different. We hated much of it. "S'cool," Apple said, and changed a few things around in the shipping version.

We liked, but we still wished things were a bit different. "We live to serve," Apple said, and now 10.1 is the least-jarring edition of all. I would somewhat cynically want to mention that with each step, X is looking more and more like Mac OS 9.1, and I'm not sure how much I like that prospect. With 10.1, the Dock works a lot more like a standard app parking-and-launching utility, and the menu bar takes another step backward toward duplication of what we've seen before.

But it's all a step forward in utility and ease of use, so it's all good.

10.1 will be released in September and I'll install it on Lilith . . . after making sure that one of my expendable desktops decides it'd be easier to run the OS than to burst into flames and throw itself through office's picture window and crash through the roof of a car parked below like a drug kingpin at the end of an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.

Boring Ain't Bad

At the end of the keynote, the throng blinked hard and finally accepted that the long-rumored iMac that could be carried in a back pocket, work like a hat, or used as an emergency spare tire for less than 20 miles at under 30 mph would not be making its appearance as the final surprise of the morning.

As disappointed as I was by the lukewarm tone of the keynote, I later realized that it was just what I wanted to see. I had been excited by the TiBook and the G4 Cube when they were the Big Things of their respective keynotes. One was and is a success; the other has already dropped off of Apple's price lists.

Regardless, they're just products, as megahypersuperginchy as they are. Neither of them were going to have any impact on the company's future beyond that fiscal quarter.

The demo of Mac OS X 10.1 was boring. But with it came the proof that Mac OS X is for real. It's all working. Not just the OS, but this whole scheme to try to get millions of Mac users and developers to accept it. Instead, we could have easily been talking about how wonderful it is that so many existing apps have been Carbonized, and hey, Microsoft has definitely committed to someday looking into possibly producing a native version of Office, and I'd be finishing this column with a fluorish about how interesting this new OS is and how I'm looking forward to using it someday when I can think of a single good reason to do so.

But with this keynote, Mac OS X stops being a niche and starts being reality. The most significant thing Steve Jobs did the whole morning concerned Mac OS 9.2: he didn't mention it at all. OS 9.2, though unreleased, is already somewhat common currency. But 10.1 is so new that there isn't even a version available to developers yet.

Steve didn't mention 9.2 because it doesn't bear mentioning. Praise God, Allah, Tarim, Terim, and that disturbing little stain in the wallpaper next to the writing desk here in my hotel room: Mac OS X is working and as such, it's 9.2 that's the niche little OS that's only practical for a small cross-section of users, as opposed to the upgrade that most users will obtain and install without much thought.

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