THIS WEEK’S MAC NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE
How can you describe three days in a paragraph or two? Well, I’ll try.
Grayson and I roamed the Macworld Expo floor and media room in search of suitable subjects for interviews. We assembled a wide range of reactions about the Steve Jobs keynote, beginning with John Rizzo, author of Mac Annoyances. We ran into John as he exited the auditorium right after the address, and his opinions were, as usual, outspoken and sharply focused.
Our search then took us to the media room, where Washington Post Personal Technology Editor Rob Pegoraro reminded us that you should “never try to separate a journalist from his food.”s So we interviewed him on the long waiting line for the no-frills buffet offered to journalists. Don’t feel jealous. The best they could offer were sandwiches, pasta salads, a carrot cake and soft drinks. Let me amend that: The cake was pretty good. We also had enough time to get Rob’s pithy comments about Apple’s newest products.
The quest also brought us to Hadley Stern, author of iPod & iTunes HACKS and Leander Kahney, author of The Cult of Mac. We also spent a short time with some of the exhibitors on the Expo floor to talk about new products and such. As Grayson and I talked about the event at the airport, preparing for the flight home, we wondered whether we had just attended the Macworld Expo or the iPod Expo. What do you think?
Meantime, if you haven’t heard the show, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to one of our archives. Enjoy.
APPLE’S SECRET: IT’S THE PACKAGING, STUPID!
It’s hard to describe the various emotions one feels when master showman Steve Jobs is busy displaying his new wares during one of his keynote addresses. Everything you see is the absolute best in the entire world, not the shadow of a doubt about it. Sometimes he seems to dwell a little too long on one product or another, but you can bet he will get to his “and just one more thing” before long. In this case it was the Mac mini.
Before I actually got to see what the thing looked like, I have to admit I felt vindicated. After all, a number of us had been urging Apple to produce a so-called headless iMac for several years. This was the cheap computer that would compete head-on with entry-level Wintel hardware. The skeptics said that Apple would never enter into this hotly-contested arena; there was no money in it. In fact, Apple’s own executives said pretty much the same thing.
Since Apple will never producing anything that doesn’t provide an adequate profit margin, they used the same formula in creating the Mac mini that served them well beginning with the original iMac. There’s no need to build all new parts. Just take existing components from the parts bin and insert them into a striking, elegant package.
The Mac mini doesn’t deviate from this formula. From processor to graphics chip, what you get isn’t so different from the stuff packed into an eMac. It didn’t take a lot of work to reduce everything to such a small size. I rather suspect most of the development time was spent on the form of the product rather than its substance. Compared to the eMac, there is at least one significant sacrifice, and that is the reduction of memory slots from two to one. This means that you should order your Mac mini with the proper RAM setup preinstalled, for otherwise you will be stuck with an extra chip you don’t need.
The other major shortcoming is the installation process. Like the iPod, you have to pry open the top of the case, which isn’t terribly easy, and that’s why Apple insists on dealer installation to avoid voiding the warranty. Now I do think Apple could have considered this a bit more carefully. Would it have been so inelegant to provide four simple screws at the bottom of the case to get the things apart? Was there no way to fit an extra RAM slot into that tiny case? These are things that will have to be considered as the product matures; it’s not the focus of this article.
Even the original iMac was a clever packaging job. You could find most of that stuff in the PowerBook of that era, aside from the storage devices. Apple didn’t deliver anything special in terms of performance or features, other than the introduction of USB in its product line. All the rest was stock.
By repurposing existing components, the time to market is greatly reduced. Apple’s design team is free to focus on the pretty case and a smart ad campaign to go with it. It also means lower production costs, since many of those parts will span two or more product lines. So if you think Apple can’t make a decent profit from selling a lot of Mac minis, think again. Even Michael Dell must envy Steve Jobs these days.
At the same time, by the way, Apple has lowered the price of its input devices. The standard Pro keyboard and mouse are each just $29 now, and you can even buy an entry-level Kensington mouse for $14.95 at The Apple Store. If you’re willing to put up with swapping the Command and Windows keys, you can acquire a basic Windows keyboard at your favorite computer store for just $10 and a decent 17-inch CRT display for $99. All told, you can buy a fully outfitted Mac mini for $625, a lot less than the pundits who aren’t paying attention suggest.
This isn’t the only example of clever packaging. Look at the iPod shuffle. Standard Flash memory, and no doubt the battery isn’t a custom job. Here the case and the switches are special, but the use of existing parts, plus dispensing with the LCD display and its source components, surely makes it easier to keep the price down, and the profit margins up.
Now if you really want to look into a smart packaging arrangement, consider Mac OS X. The core or guts of the operating system, which Apple dubs Darwin, is essentially a tried and true open source Unix-based operating system. When you examine Mac OS X’s underbelly, you’ll find Apache and other standard Unix applications. The cool graphical interface and special effects are cleverly tacked on. Here Apple demonstrates its superiority when compared to most Unix-based graphical interfaces; most of the rest come off as poor imitations of Windows.
Of course, pretty much everything Apple does carries the veneer of elegance. From store to shipping container, every element is carefully considered. The other day, I set up an iMac G5 for a client, and I had to admire the way everything fell into place in the shipping container. And don’t forget that many of the parts of the iMac are close relatives to the ones you find in a basic Power Mac. The raw components of the display are little different from those used in the previous iMac generation. Once again, it’s the packaging that makes everything come together in a unique way.
Yes, Dell and the rest of the PC box makers repackage too. They just can’t figure out how to build a neat looking cabinet for all their stuff, and that’s where Apple will continue to have the advantage. Only Sony comes close, but close isn’t enough these days.
THE TECH NIGHT OWL: THE SAD, SAD WORLD OF ACCELERATED OBSOLESCENCE
The other day I heard a discussion about something called “the quickening” on an all-night radio show. The focus was the fact that life seems to move far more speedily these days, and one’s lifetime seems shorter, despite a longer lifespan.
But I’m not going to wax philosophically this time, or any time for that matter. But it’s clear this quickening phenomenon stretches to the consumer electronics world too. Back in the days of the LP, you could buy an expensive sound system and be assured it could hang around for years without becoming passe. Ditto for color TV. When the old hardware breathed its last, you could depend on getting something a little better for a little less money, and so it went.
In the 1980s, the CD took over, but it didn’t take long for DVDs to come aboard. Development of the digital video disc began in 1991, and the first commercially-available DVD player hit them market in 1996. It didn’t take long for the price of those players to descend from three figures to just two. Now, a scant nine years later, we’re awaiting a brand new DVD format, to accommodate high definition video for that new generation of TVs.
So you’ve probably spent the last few years dumping your videotapes in favor of DVDs, and now you may want to prepare yourself to do it all over again. But don’t get me wrong. DVDs can deliver great picture quality. They even look better on an HDTV; those sets actually have circuitry to enhance lower resolution signals by interpolating the missing dots. This means the pictures look sharper, and near as good as real high definition. Would you gain all that much by chucking your video library in favor of genuine high definition?
That’s a hard question to ask. My personal experience is that, when properly done, this interpolation process can deliver pretty good results. For example, I am using a low-end Sony progressive scan DVD player with that Samsung HL-P5085W projection TV I’m reviewing now. In case you’ve just tuned in, this is a 50-inch projection TV that uses Texas Instruments DLP technology, which consists of a tiny microchip that generates the actual picture. In any case, the picture that Sony produces on the Samsung set is incredibly sharp as it is. Just the other day, the Steinberg clan watched the extended version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Let me tell you that image quality was simply marvelous, not so far removed from genuine HDTV to be terribly noticeable unless you were real picky. Or have a larger TV.
But it doesn’t matter. When the consumer electronics and motion picture companies finally agree on a format for HD DVD, you’ll see lots of expensive players hit the market. As production increases and the price of chips goes down, the cost will rapidly reach a level not far removed from today’s DVD. You’ll rush into the store to buy an all-new video collection to watch on your HDTV.
But don’t get ahead of yourself. Today’s HDTV will eventually be supplanted by something a whole lot better in the not-so-distant future. Things change rapidly. That Samsung TV, by the way, originally came to market last summer, and now Samsung is about to release an even better version.
In the end, you can’t keep up with the rapid pace of development in the electronics world. So just sit back and enjoy. Things move fast enough these days, and you’ll want to savor the time you have.
THE FINAL WORD
The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis
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