Macworld: Apple announcements draw compliments, criticism

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Steve Jobs' keynote presentations at Macworld Conference & Expos are always an enigmatic experiment in public persuasion. Past events have been full of new product announcements that left spectators gasping in surprise, while others have failed to entertain. Where did Tuesday's announcement land in the spectrum of Macworld Expo experiences? MacCentral found out.

Tuesday's presentation centered on the XServe and XServe RAID improvements, iTunes Music Store success, iPod Mini, and the new iLife suite, and it seems to have drawn mixed reaction, with a more muted enthusiasm in the audience than in previous presentations.

GarageBand and the advances to the iLife components iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD drew the most applause and excitement, while the iPod Mini seems to have people enthused about the design and disappointed about the price.

"I think they are so cute, and I want a pink one," said Valerie Cruz of San Carlos, Ca. "But I already have an iPod and don't want to spent $250 to get one with less memory."

Cruz's sentiment was echoed by many around San Francisco's Moscone Center, where Macworld Expo is being held. The general consensus suggested that Jobs' pitch of a product targeting the $200 MP3 players that costs 25 percent more than the competition is a stretch, even if it holds more tunes. While it's valid that the $50 difference between the Rio and the iPod Mini gives you 950 more songs, for just another $50 one could purchase a full-sized iPod with 15Gb instead of a mere 4Gb.

Still, the price didn't dampen the enthusiasm of Oliver Attias, a Mac tech working with the Memphis City Schools, who described both the keynote and the new iPod Mini's price as "excellent." "It can [work] with both Macs and IBM, and I can put songs on it too. I can listen to tunes while I'm upgrading the NIC [Network Interface Card] on a piece of junk PC."

Attias is also excited about Apple's latest foray into rack mounted server hardware the G5 based Xserve. The upgraded system should fit nicely into the Memphis City Schools' mixed Mac and PC environment. "I'll make a case and be able to order at least one unit," which Attias says will compliment the existing G4 based Xserve gear already in place.

"To be honest, I was hoping for more hardware announcements," said Dana Robinson, Online Community Manager for Starbright World and Web designer. "The new iPod mini is cute, but it isn't something I use since I currently have the 20Gb model, which suits my needs perfectly."

Robinson, an avid fan of independent music, was happy to hear the good news about the success of the iTunes Music Store. "It was very gratifying, since I use iTunes every day, and would hate to see the iTunes Music Store fail."

Robinson too was excited about the updates to other members of the iLife family. "The iPhoto upgrades seem beneficial, and I'm looking forward to having my current frustrations with lagging come to an end. I'm also happy to hear about the smart albums, and especially photo sharing. I have an iBook and an iMac and it's a pain never knowing where my particular photos are at any given moment."

GarageBand, the new music composition software that looks to do the same thing for music composition that iTunes did for playback, drew heaps of praise. "All of my music friends are really freaking out about GarageBand," added Robinson who watched the keynote via Apple's streaming servers, "I almost had to set my away message on IM to stop the barrage of 'this is incredible, are you seeing this?' that I was getting."

One of those excited about GarageBand is Matthew Henry, a freelance Flash developer based in Washington, DC, who describes music as his "first love." Henry's college major was music, and he's been a lifelong musician.

Henry describes the problems with the "professional" Digital Audio Workstations that GarageBand is designed to compete with, albeit at a more consumer level. "Logic is night, Cubase is Nice, PT is nice, but they are all a complete pain ... their target audience is recording studios and audio production studios. Doing even the most mundane things in these apps can be awkward at first. It's like learning to fly a jet airplane or something big and complicated, because there is a whole career of knowledge inside of it."

It's this complication, says Henry, that confounds many would-be musicians. He breaks down the advantages of GarageBand into three categories; price, elegance and ease of use.

"The trimmed down versions of Logic still cost like $250 or $300, so $50 is, well it may as well be free." Henry also pointed out that most of the professional DAW apps require expensive hardware, and audio plug-ins forcing users to "spend $200 to $300 easy on a single effects plugin, a quality reverb or something."

In terms of elegance, Henry says GarageBand is far ahead of the competition. "The closest to an 'all in one' solution before this for OSX was either Reason and Live, but Apple's new application is "the four track for the 21st century."

Ease of use, Apple's hallmark design quality is obvious in GarageBand. "They're dead on with assuming that a majority of GarageBand users are guitarists who are looking for a band. [It's great] that there's finally an application geared toward home recording with special attention to the lonely guitarist rather than the proper recording studio.

Perhaps Jobs' most enthusiastic news is the success of the iTunes Music Store. With 500,000 artists and 35 million songs already downloaded, the iTMS is the current musical belle of the ball.

One of those familiar first hand with the success of the iTunes Music Store is Alex Steininger, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for CD Baby, and The number one online retailer of independent music, CD Baby is an online record store that focuses on helping small bands gain exposure. Part distributor, part marketer, CD Baby participated in Apple's independent music summit after the launch of the store, and immediately announced its intention to work closely with Apple's efforts.

"[The iTunes Music Store] has become the brand name for digital retailing," said Steininger. "Apple has done something they set out to do, and done it quite well, positioning themselves at the forefront of this new media, the e-commerce, digital music retailing. Therefore they play a large role in music's dissemination in the digital format.

"For an independent label, this will level the playing field," he explained. "It will always be about marketing and exposure, and doing it effectively. But, now, instead of worrying about rack space and square footage, and traditional retail not being able to stock your music -- especially on a national level -- ITMS (and others) have brought up a virtual store that can now hold all these titles, without abandoning any due to 'lack of space'" all of which he adds ends up to an enhanced experience for the consumer."

Steininger though isn't just involved in the marketing and distribution of music, he also owns his own independent label. "Owning a ... label myself, and being a huge fan of the CD (and not to mention vinyl format), I am overwhelmed at the success of iTunes and their ability to successfully sell so many tracks in so little time ... I am surprised at what they've done and marvel at it as well and do think they're bringing on a new revolution that will shake things up (like it already has, but further shaking will happen) and lead us into a new age, where instant gratification will dominate."

While those who stuck by the rumors sites may have been disappointed some aspects of Jobs' keynote speech, it had the benefit of providing something for every Mac user. As the company improves the "digital hub" experience, Apple also makes everyday life easier, and more enjoyable for those who use the Mac. And that's certainly worth celebrating.

This story, "Macworld: Apple announcements draw compliments, criticism" was originally published by PCWorld.

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