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Is Apple Losing Its Innovative Spirit?

At the beginning of the year, as thousands of Mac users prepared to endure a Macworld Expo keynote with substitute host Phil Schiller, there was plenty of speculation about what new products might be offered.

Alas, most of that speculation came for naught, because the product introductions were few and seemed far from satisfying. The initial chatter had it that there would be a major refresh for the iMac and the long-neglected Mac mini, and you know that didn’t happen — at least not then.

Some suggested Apple would deliver a Snow Leopard presentation of some sort, and they didn’t. Indeed, Snow Leopard has been handled in a very low-key fashion. When the word about 10.6 came out during last year’s WWDC, it wasn’t part of the keynote at all. There was only a modest mention of the subject in the form of a brief press announcement, and a page on Apple’s site. All we know now is what we knew then, sans the speculative chatter from the Mac rumor sites that claim to have seen the actual development versions, and the suggestion that it must be launched on June 8th, since that’s the expected timeframe for the WWDC keynote.

Well, I suppose the date for the WWDC is probably correct, although that would fall somewhat earlier than the expected return of Steve Jobs to his CEO post. That assumes, of course, that he does come back, and some are suggesting that his swan song has already been sung.

Besides, even if Snow Leopard is demonstrated, that doesn’t guarantee a specific release date.

Regardless, the updates to the Mac mini and the iMac were accompanied by a more-or-less surprise revision to the Mac Pro. All well and good. Sure, the mini refresh was not a big deal. Apple merely incorporated parts from the MacBook, put them in the same difficult-to-open case, and kept the prices the same. Well, at least the model is no longer long-in-the-teeth, neglected, forgotten or whatever label you want to put on their method of handling the Mac mini up till now.

Indeed, there are preliminary reports that the new Mac desktops shot up demand big time and even the mini is proving to be a popular item. Perhaps Apple would have sold more if they pushed out this update earlier.

As for the Mac Pro, the Intel Nehalem processor, the latest iteration of the Xeon, is so new that it appears other PC makers haven’t even gotten ahold of a supply for their PC workstations. That, however, is not surprising. Apple has gotten first digs at new Xeons ahead of the pack for earlier generations of the Mac Pro. While the rest of the upgrade merely simplifies the expansion process, the first benchmarks show that the Nehalem is up to twice as fast as the Harpertown processors it replaced.

Maybe not revolutionary, but certainly good for content creators who cherish the best possible performance from their Mac hardware. The only downside is that the higher-end dual quad-core configurations present a serious financial obstacle, since they come in $1,400 increments above the basic 2.26 GHz version. Ouch! Well, maybe the upgrades will get cheaper after the Nehalem production runs increase to decent levels. They always do.

The most fascinating new product from Apple, however, costs a mere $79. It’s the new iPod shuffle, which weighs about a third of an ounce and is about the size of a regular-sized key. Inside is 4GB of Flash memory, good for an average of 1,000 songs. That’s the same capacity as the first full-sized iPod released in 2002. Well that’s how technology advances.

For those who complained about the lack of a visual indicator of what song you’re playing on a shuffle, Apple’s response is definitely original. Let the shuffle tell you, using Mac OS X’s VoiceOver technology. Now I wasn’t expecting much in terms of voice quality or a fluid conversation flow. Apple’s own demonstration reveals a fairly ordinary computerized sound, not much different than the voices that were once ubiquitous in science fiction movies when a spaceship’s onboard computer was accessed. Well, with one exception, being the late Majel Barrett Roddenberry, perhaps best known as the voice of the Enterprise’s computer in Star Trek.

Now licensing her voice for the new iPod would have been innovative, assuming, of course, that those rights are actually available.

In any case, the new shuffle otherwise seems to be a pretty sweet deal, except for the fact that critical controls are found in the headphones. That might lessen the use of third-party alternatives without the special buttons, unless you stick to the ones adjacent to the headphone jack on the gadget itself.

In any case, price is surely not going to be a factor preventing people from stocking up on a shuffle or two for friends, family and maybe even coworkers. So above all else, maybe it’ll help restart iPod sales.

However, I can well understand why many will continue to say that none of these new products smacks of originality, really. On the other hand, they all represent reasonably natural evolutions for the various product lines, and that may be all Apple needs right now.

More to the point, it doesn’t stop Apple from delivering some pretty fancy products between now and the end of the year. Still to come is a third generation iPhone, the fall revision for the entire iPod line and maybe even a netbook or variant, assuming the rumors are accurate.

Besides, did you think that the decision of Steve Jobs to take a few months of sick days would stop Apple from delivering products that were probably in the pipeline long before his announced hiatus?