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Macworld Expo #2: The Almost Non-Mac Keynote

How times have changed. Not so many years ago, Apple used a Macworld Expo keynote to unleash the latest and greatest Mac hardware. Certainly last year was a prime example, with the introduction of the first crop of Intel-based computers, and an assurance that they’ll all be called Mac from now on. Thus ended the use of such trade names as iBook and PowerBook.

It was very natural to expect great things all over again for 2007, particularly with the lavish promises visited upon us by Apple. Depending on your expectations, you may regard the keynote as amazingly great or a huge disappointment.

All we heard about Macs, officially at least, was the fact that 50% of all computers purchased were bought by people new to the platform, and how quickly the Intel transition was completed.

On the surface, nothing more about the Mac was said, not even the expected details of new iLife and iWork versions, or a Mac Pro with a pair of quad-core processors. But, believe it or not, a new computer was actually introduced, but it’s not called a Mac, although it does run Mac OS X and even the Safari browser.

It’s a particularly unique computer, because it masquerades as a smartphone, and it uses a name not immediately identified with a potential Mac: Indeed, it’s the iPhone.

Understand that the name iPhone doesn’t even officially belong to Apple as of the time this article is written. The trademark is owned by Cisco Systems, which means Apple has to license it, and it is reported they’re doing just that. Or otherwise the iPhone will be known by another name when it comes out in June.

So why is this a Mac? Well, as I said, it does run a slimmed down version of Mac OS X, and it is capable for more than making phone calls, storing contact lists and listening to your iTunes music library. The touch screen also includes a standard keyboard feature, in addition to the normal telephone keypad, so you don’t have to send your text messages via a mysterious lingo that only young people seem to have mastered with any fluidity.

Courtesy of Yahoo, there’s support for POP and IMAP email, and Google provides maps and other stuff. Indeed, perhaps only Steve Jobs could have gotten these well-known rivals to provide features for the same product.

Some of you might even regard the iPhone as the Newton’s reincarnation, and certainly, had the latter continued in production, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it turn into this very same device.

Now it’s certainly not as powerful as today’s Macs, but look at the Macs of just a few years back, and you may be surprised what this little gadget might be capable of. You’ll also want to take a look into the near future, where more and more powerful processors that’ll survive in such low-power surroundings appear on the scene. You can bet the iPhone, and its successors, will gain more and more computer-like capabilities.

However, this doesn’t mean that the convergence between mobile phones, music players and personal computers will signify the end of the Mac, at least not right now.

The big question, of course, is how much of a market can Apple build for such an appliance. As wireless phones go, smartphones constitute a fairly small percentage of sales, primarily among businesspeople and — surprisingly enough — students.

However, it’s also true that the user interfaces of these devices — Windows CE or otherwise — have been nothing to write home about. I can’t say for certain that the iPhone although the setup seems visually arresting, is going to turn the business on its ear, but there’s potential there.

My main quibble is the choice of wireless provider. You see, according to Consumer Reports and other surveys, Cingular isn’t exactly the best service in the business. In fact, it ranks near the bottom of the barrel. Even fellow GSM provider T-Mobile is superior. Verizon Wireless and Alltel rate best, but they use CDMA technologies, which argues against a world phone, which is just what the iPhone happens to be.

That means that if you want to use your iPhone with another provider supporting the GSM standard, you just change the SIM card.

So where does this put Apple, which has, at the same time, removed the word “Computer” from its name?

Well, it’s clear Macs will persevere for quite some time to come, even if some of them are reduced to pocket size.