Before we talk of flat-panel iMacs and photo storage applications and the wisdom of fanning the flames of pre-trade show hype, let’s jump into the Wayback Machine, and head off to the lazy summer days of 1980. It’s a simpler time, when James Earl Carter is the most powerful man in the Western world, Air Supply rules the pop charts, and a little motion picture called The Empire Strikes Back is about to hit our nation’s cineplexes.
Because you are a filmgoer of discriminating taste, you’ve beat feet down to the local cinema to see The Empire Strikes Back. You can’t wait to see The Empire Strikes Back. Your entire life, up until this point, has been building to the moment when you can finally lay eyes upon The Empire Strikes Back.
Which is when some sunken-eyed rube who caught the 2:15 matinee wanders by the line you’re standing in and proclaims at the top of his lungs how he can’t believe that Darth Vader turned out to be Luke Skywalker’s father.
The fact that the surprise ending of the movie has just been ruined for you by some thoughtless doofus shouldn’t at all affect your assessment of The Empire Strikes Back, without a doubt the best of the Star Wars movies what on account of its gripping narrative, morally ambiguous ending, and Ewok-free milieu. But when Vader hacks off Luke’s hand and proclaims, “There’s something Obi Wan did not tell you,” instead of feeling the goosebumps such a moment would normally induce, you’re mulling a quick trip to the snack bar for a refill on the popcorn.
It’s still a great movie — you just find yourself wanting more.
Which brings us to Apple and this year’s Macworld Expo. Interest in CEO Steve Jobs’s annual keynote seemed to be at an all-time high, thanks largely to Apple’s decision to move the keynote forward by a day and relentlessly hype the forthcoming product announcements on its Web site. Press registration for Macworld Expo spiked. Online forums were abuzz with speculation. The eyes of the tech world were fixed on Apple — not bad for a company usually derided by industry know-it-alls as a niche player.
Then Time Canada — playing the role of the matinee habitue in our little pageant — jumps the gun and posts Time’s exclusive cover story about the new iMac on Sunday night, hours before the story was supposed to see the light of day. Within half-an-hour, pictures of the new iMac are posted across the Internet, and any hardcore Mac fanatic who happens to be online Sunday night — which is to say, all of them — now knows what the big announcement is going to be Monday morning. And so, instead of blowing away the Mac faithful, the new iMac’s unveiling couldn’t have been more anticlimactic than if Steve Jobs pulled back the curtain to reveal Darth Vader flipping through the Skywalker family photo album and saying, “Here’s a picture of me and Luke playing catch when he was a kid.”
Did Apple’s Web site teasers like “Beyond the rumor sites…Way beyond” unreasonably inflate expectations about what the company planned to unveil this week? Probably. But I would contend that watching the unveiling of a flat-panel screen hovering above a pristine white globe would have had a far greater impact if a majority of those in attendance hadn’t already seen the brand new iMac 12 hours earlier. Judging by the message boards, the Mac user unlucky enough to stumble across Time Canada’s spoiler seemed to hold out hope that the iMac was only the tip of the new product iceberg, that Steve Jobs had one more thing up the sleeve of his black mock turtleneck — or at the very least, that Jobs would see the leaked story, head back to his hotel room and MacGyver something up by Monday morning.
And that’s a shame. Because the redesigned iMac — for all of the hype surrounding it — is a hell of a machine. It’s hard to find fault with a computer that boasts a flat-panel monitor, a G4 processor, a bevy of FireWire and USB ports, and an optional SuperDrive. And all those features make the new iMac eminently more useful to both existing Mac users and newcomers to the platform than all the fanciful PDAs, tablets, and doohickeys the rumor sites were cooking up last week.
And even if the iMac’s not your cup of tea — and for some power users, it won’t be — consider this: Apple landed on the cover of Time this week and in most major newspapers on Tuesday morning. The iMac’s unveiling relegated the Consumer Electronics Show — and Bill Gates’s speech at same — to the “In Other News” section of the paper, wedged somewhere between the weather report and the agate scores for the Major Indoor Soccer League. Unquestionably, some of that publicity is going to get people who normally wouldn’t consider the Mac to take a second look at a visually striking and powerful computer. When you have a chance to make a splash like that outside your core market, you take it — and if the faithful are disappointed that they’re not getting their 1GHz Power Macs, well, there’s always the next trade show.
Something to consider, anyway, the next time you watch Luke Skywalker leave the swamps of Dagobah for the Cloud City of Bespin and wonder what might have been.
Other winners and losers from Monday’s keynote:
The iMac: If you’re dubious about the iMac’s new look, I would suggest heading out to the nearest Apple Store and checking out the machine in person. That may be the best way to appreciate what Apple’s design team has pulled off here. The flat-panel monitor glides so smoothly, you can adjust it with just one a finger, but it’s so sturdy that you don’t have to worry that the slightest touch will send the screen crashing to earth. The iMac’s neck is flexible enough to bend and tilt the LCD monitor — but durable enough to grip when you’re taking the iMac out of its box. And Apple has managed to pack the processor, the logic board and all the parts that make the machine run in a base that’s only 10.5 inches in diameter and just a little bit taller than a CD jewel box. That’s some impressive work. As for the price, for $1,299, you’re getting a 700MHz G4 processor, 128MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, a CD-RW optical drive, and a 15-inch LCD screen. The original iMac, introduced back in 1998, offered a 233MHz G3 processor, 32MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and a CD-ROM drive — also for $1,299. That model seemed to sell pretty well, as I recall.
iPhoto: Tim Bajarin, who’s the president of Creative Strategies, said something on TechTV’s “Silicon Spin” that’s far more insightful and intelligent than I could come up with, so I’m going to paraphrase him. Bajarin’s point was the iMac may be the flashiest announcement to come out of Macworld Expo this week, but it’s iPhoto that could convince new users to try out a Mac while benefiting the existing user base since the application fills a gaping need for digital photo enthusiasts. In other words, the iMac offers style; iPhoto provides the substance. To which, I’ll just eloquently add, yeah. Maybe I don’t want to order prints or a custom-made book of my digital photos, but I know plenty of relatives who will — and if I do decide I need that, I don’t even have to quit out of iPhoto to place my order. I’ve spent enough time fumbling with indecipherable file names when I import pictures to appreciate iPhoto’s elegant organizational features. The question with iPhoto isn’t why Apple released this application; it’s why someone didn’t release it sooner.
Mathematica: Scientists and engineers have known for a long time now that Wolfram Research Mathematica is the application of choice when it comes to performing complex calculations on the Mac. But who knew that it could also be the source for high comedy? Nevertheless, Wolfram co-founder Theodore Gray just about brought the house down when he joined Jobs on stage to demonstrate the newly released OS X-native version of Mathematica, offering quips about integers and derivatives in between lauding OS X’s Quartz graphics technology and memory management. Get this guy a spot at every Macworld Expo keynote.
Adobe: Considering Adobe sat out last July’s Macworld Expo in New York — a move that generated considerable grumbling among Mac users about the company’s commitment to OS X — the company had to be pleased with the warm reaction it got when Executive Vice President Shantanu Narayen demonstrated OS X-native versions of Adobe applications. Even better, Adobe received wild cheers for showing Photoshop running in OS X — and it didn’t even have to talk features (beyond a new spell check tool) or give a tentative release date. It wasn’t all bouquets and kisses for Adobe, though. The company found itself on the receiving end of a pointed Steve Jobs barb while demonstrating how the OS X-only iPhoto works with image editing applications like Photoshop. “Of course, Photoshop doesn’t run on OS X yet, so we can’t use that,” he said. Ouch.
Power Mac G4: The gulf between Apple’s professional and consumer desktops narrowed rapidly with the introduction of the new iMac. While a Power Mac may still be the choice for someone who prizes expandability or wants something besides a 15-inch LCD display as their monitor, previous barriers such as processor, clock speed, and the ability to burn your own DVDs is rapidly narrowing. As for price, you can get an 800MHz SuperDrive-equipped iMac for just $100 more than what you’d pay for a 733MHz Power Mac with a CD-RW drive. It’s easy to see why Power Mac users might be disappointed that Jobs’s keynote came and went without any revisions to their favorite desktop. Then again, it’s not like Apple wrapped up work on the iMac, and Jobs declared, “That’s it, gang. We’re never making another computer again.” Faster Power Macs will come — maybe at Macworld Expo Tokyo in March, maybe at the Seybold Seminars in February. Or, if Apple’s success with launching the iPod and iBook redesign at special, non-trade show events is any indication, whenever the company feels like it.
Apple Naysayers: Remember those people who complained that $399 was too much to charge for an MP3 player? Well, Apple sold 125,000 iPods between the November 10 release date and December 31. Do you recall when some folks scoffed at Apple’s plans to open 25 retail outlets in 2001? The company opened 27, with plans to open more in 2002. And while Apple readily concedes the stores won’t break even as hoped for in their first year, 800,000 people visited an Apple Store during the month of December. As for anyone who predicted that Apple would lose ground in the education market, the company just sold 36,000 iBooks to the state of Maine. Anyone dismissing the prospects of the revised iMac out of hand should consider those news items. It’s not that Apple is incapable of making a mistake, but anyone who’s second-guessed any of the company’s recent decisions has significantly increased the amount of crow in their diet.
Time Canada: There are many things that I wish I was — thinner, wealthier, the starting goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings. But when I hit my knees tonight to speak with the deity of my choosing, there will be one thing I will be thankful that I’m not — the Time Canada employee who wound up fielding the irate phone call from Cupertino late Sunday night. I’m guessing whatever happened that poor soul made Luke Skywalker’s hand injury in The Empire Strikes Back look like a flesh wound.