• From the Expo Floor #4: Not Everything is Wine and Roses

    January 15th, 2005

    When you witness a Steve Jobs keynote in person, you realize he is a master showman. He could probably sell an air conditioner to an Eskimo and get a grateful thank you in return. While immersed in this famous reality distortion field, all is right with Apple, and every single new product you see is absolutely perfect, free of flaws. When I observe the enthusiastic applause in the press box, it’s very clear that a journalist’s objectivity can be compromised in such a setting.

    When you leave the auditorium, however, it’s time for a little dose of reality. Yes, the iPod shuffle and Mac mini will be hot tickets. The latter is cheap enough to be almost a casual purchase, or as casual as buying a personal computer can be. Seeing both in person and doing a little probing, I can assure you the beauty is skin deep, but there are shortcomings you should know about.

    Since the iPod shuffle is likely to be far more successful, let’s start with that. At $99 for the 512MB version, it’s a winner in most respects. The simplicity stands out compared to the busy, cluttered interfaces of the competition. At the same time, I question Apple’s assumption that a Flash-based music player is best for playing songs at random, or in sequence, with little or no control over the individual selections. Sure, you can configure a playlist with iTunes, but that doesn’t help when you’re out jogging. What if you decide you just want to hear one song, and only one song? Say you’ve filled the thing to the gills with songs, which is approximately 120 for the cheaper model, and 240 for the $149 1GB version. Uncertainty may be cool, but sometimes you want a little more control, a little more order, and if that’s your bag, the iPod shuffle won’t fill it.

    So why didn’t Apple include an LCD display to deliver some of the capabilities of the shuffle’s bigger brothers? Well, an Apple hardware executive is quoted as saying that a number of display motifs were tried, but they just didn’t make the cut. So they ditched the idea, and decided that random was in. Perhaps the ideal situation is to have an iPod shuffle for times when you don’t much care which song is played at any particular time, and a regular iPod when your obsessive compulsive urges take over. Besides, Apple won’t mind it a bit if you bought more than one.

    Aside from finding a way to display some information on the iPod shuffle, my other wish echoes the feelings of my favorite Mac critic, David Biedny. It would have been great if Apple made the memory modules removable. That way you can always upgrade as prices for higher capacity chips come down.

    But let’s be fair about this. This is only a first generation iPod shuffle I expect to see Apple fine-tune the formula in future revisions. And I have no doubt Apple will sell millions of them, despite the shortcomings.

    Now about that Mac mini, again you need to look at the fine print before you commit yourself. First and foremost, it only has one memory slot. That means you are stuck with an extra, unused memory chip if you decide to upgrade to a more reasonable capacity, such as 512MB. Worse, dealer installation is required. Now I suppose power users will soon post detailed instructions, but I’d urge caution, since the Mac mini may be no easier to take apart than an iPod. There are no visible screws or other easily accessible methods to open it easily.

    This may, of course, earn dealers a few extra dollars to pop them open. And I suppose many of you will just choose a preconfigured version via Apple’s custom order service, but that makes the mini less of an impulse purchase. You just want to take one home and turn it on. Having to go back to your dealer, or wait for delivery of a custom assembled version, is a real downer. However, I don’t think the lack of the keyboard, mouse and display is a serious shortcoming. Now maybe Apple did that just to keep the cost down, or to keep the shipping box small and cute. But there are plenty of cheap input and display devices around, and if you’ve had Macs and Windows boxes around for a while, I expect you’ll be able to find the right accessories in a closet or some other storage area.

    Besides, this will give third parties the chance to come up with specially designed stuff for the Mac mini, from cases to folding keyboards. This cottage industry may not be quite as robust as the one for the iPod, but there are plenty of opportunities about for tiny companies with the right ideas.

    Once again, of course, you are dealing with a version 1.0 product. If enough of you clamor for an easier way to install memory, or an extra slot, I suppose Apple will find a way to fulfill your needs in a future version.

    But I’m not quite finished yet.

    While I haven’t had the chance to thoroughly digest all the information about iWork, it’s clear it is not quite the successor to AppleWorks that it’s presented to be. First of all, there is no database or spreadsheet module. If you’ve built a repository of files using those components, you have to look elsewhere for an upgrade path, or just stick with AppleWorks for now. The Pages application appears to fit more into the category of entry-level page layout software. That’s all well and good, of course, and I can see where many of you will embrace it with enthusiasm. You don’t necessarily need the power of Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress to create neat looking documents. While these high-end applications are essential for professional work, a simple club newsletter or brochure, for example, would be tailor made for Pages.

    My final comment is about the fact that all the Expo exhibits were crammed into just the South Hall at Moscone Center, rather than both. On the surface, it would appear there were fewer participants this year, but that’s not so, although I originally felt otherwise.

    According to the people at IDG World Expo: “There are 20 more exhibitors this year (280) than last year (260), and these exhibitors rented more square footage than last year. IDG World Expo listened to exhibitor and attendee feedback from 2004 and decided to pack everything in the South Hall this year to enhance the exhibit hall experience. Feedback from attendees about this change has been very positive so far. Many attendees have said to us that this year’s show is more energetic and they bump into things they might not otherwise see. Exhibitors are especially pleased about the change because of the increased traffic.”

    I can’t really disagree with the reasoning. I found the whole event easier to navigate and discovered far more interesting product displays than I would have located had both halls been used, as in the past. Sometimes less is really more.

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