Vision Thing: Deconstructing Macworld Expo

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For once, I'll cut tothe chase: I wouldn't normally write about Macworld Expo in this column, but this year's gathering in San Francisco was such a watershed event that I'm compelled to deconstruct it. At this Expo, something about the Mac changed fundamentally, and I've got to address it. You've probably heard enough about Apple's Lazarus-like return from the dead. Me, too. Apple's recovery in the last year could be compared to that of Lazarus only if after coming back he grabbed a straw hat and cane and belted out "Putting On the Ritz."

If you think about it, Apple's recovery is nothing less than miraculous. Apple is about to close its fifth consecutive profitable quarter, and the fact was tossed out almost in passing by Apple interim CEO Steve Jobs during his Expo keynote. The fact that the company sold more than 800,000 iMacs between the product's August 15 debut and the end of 1998, another keynote announcement from Apple's self-described iCEO, is greeted with similar joy but little surprise. Of course the iMac was a big hit.

What a difference a year can make.

When you have a showman as great as Steve Jobs up on stage, you come to expect magic. But this performance was special–it had drama, humor, and lots of excitement. From the guest appearance of the crazed computer HAL 9000 to the introduction of a dizzying array of new products, this was an event to remember. It might very well be the best keynote address anyone from Apple has ever given.

In the center ring of Steve's Incredible Carnival of Cool New Stuff was the Power Mac G3. No, not the old beige-box Power Mac G3–the new, translucent Power Mac G3 (see "iMac Envy," elsewhere in this issue). If Apple keeps up this trend of never renaming its products when it updates them, things are going to get mighty confusing.

Naming conventions aside, you can't help but have an emotional reaction when you see this machine; the new blue and white translucent case certainly gets your attention. Steve Jobs is clearly determined to ensure that all Macs are placed in plain view, even ones that would normally be hidden under a desk.

But for me, what's great about this new G3 are its price and feature set: $1,599 for a fully equipped minitower that includes a blazingly fast video card with 16MB of VRAM and a powerful new 3-D-acceleration chip set from ATI. Gamers are going to be as delighted by this machine as professionals.

Jobs's address to the masses would have been spectacular even if all we'd gotten were these new G3's. But that was only the beginning. We were also treated to new versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, both offering features not available on any other platform, as well as a new Microsoft-operated Web site for the Mac community.

Steve Jobs's audience also got to see a single Power Mac G3 host 50 iMacs–iMacs that simultaneously booted off the G3's hard drive and then displayed digital video served up by that same G3, all thanks to the powerful new Mac OS X server software. (Think what a boon that will be for school computer labs!)

And finally, the absolute showstopper–not one, but five new flavors of iMac: strawberry, blueberry, tangerine, lime, and grape. I'm betting that grape is going to be most in demand.

Jobs's surprise announcements didn't show off the biggest change in the Macintosh community. That job was done by Macworld Expo's attendees themselves.

Of those 800,000 iMacs Apple sold, some 32 percent were bought by new computer users and some 13 percent were bought by former Wintel users. That's 360,000 new Mac users. The most impressive vibe at Macworld Expo came from this infusion of fresh blood, something the increasingly anemic Mac community desperately needed.

And that means that for the first time in a long time Macworld Expo has also become a place for new users–a place where the inexperienced are embraced by a platform built on the principle that if you don't know how to use a computer, it's the computer that's stupid, not you.

After all these years, the Macintosh has finally, truly become the computer for the rest of us. Imagine that.

March 1999 page: 23

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