Although there were hopes and dreams for one or more new Mac-related announcements at this week’s WWDC, for the first time in memory, Apple talked about something else. You heard about the iPhone 4 and iOS 4, and certainly there was more than enough meat and potatoes to whet one’s appetite. But what about the Mac?
And, no, I don’t believe Apple plans to dump the Mac anytime soon. But a Mac is not forever either. In any case I’ll have more to say about that in the next article.
Now even though photos and component breakdowns of two prototypes of the new iPhone were already posted far and wide, seeing the real thing in action was no doubt a pleasant surprise for many of you. Yes, there is that controversy over whether Apple’s “retina display” feature truly eliminates visible pixels when you’re looking at the gadget’s display from a normal viewing distance, but the fact that Apple tried to add features that aren’t on the radar for makers of competitive products demonstrates once again they are a decidedly different company. They also seem to have at least some degree of respect for their customers.
On last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, The Night Owl and our team of guest experts dissected the announcements that emerged from Apple’s WWDC keynote.
Along for the ride were Adam Engst, Editor/Publisher of TidBITS and Take Control Books, industry analyst Ross Rubin, of the NPD Group, and Peter Cohen, a tech columnist who is also one of the “Angry Mac Bastards.”
This week on our other show, The Paracast, co-host Christopher O’Brien introduces UFO/humanoid researcher Albert S. Rosales, who not only brings you up to date on these unusual encounters throughout history, but reports on his own amazing personal experiences.
Coming June 20: Co-host Paul Kimball presents the dean of UFO investigators, Stanton T. Friedman, and Kathleen Marden, co-authors of “Science Was Wrong: Startling Truths About Cures, Theories, and Inventions ‘They’ Declared Impossible.” It’s not just about UFOs folks, since there’s a lot of ground to cover that takes you out of that topic.
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Although Apple, until recently, had the word “Computer” in the corporate name, the product lines frequently extended far beyond that title. Don’t forget that the original LaserWriter, which, along with Adobe PostScript and PageMaker, heralded the desktop publishing revolution in the 1980s, came from Apple.
One of the first digital cameras was the Apple QuickTake, a Kodak-built gadget that was launched in 1994. Don’t forget the Newton, and the eMate 300, a true precursor to the iPad. Over the years, Apple has continued to build products that did not strictly conform to the PC mold, even though you might regard some of them as mere accessories.
When Steve Jobs took over as CEO and worked hard to keep the company from sinking — and he has admitted that Apple was at one time 90 days from going out of business — he cut back on non-performing products, focusing on Macs and not much else.
In 2001, Apple probably made its biggest move beyond its core computer competency with the first iPod. I expect most of you regarded it as little more than a curiosity at the time, especially considering the fact that digital music players had gone virtually nowhere up till then.
I remember writing a review for some of those early digital gadgets for CNET, and every last one of them was a loser. Downloading music was a slow process, the software was buggy and poorly designed, and you couldn’t always depend on getting decent audio quality.
Apple’s key innovation was using FireWire and iTunes to sync your iPod, a system that worked pretty well, particularly compared to the competition. When they began to sell legal music downloads with the grudging cooperation of the music companies that never expected that crazy scheme to succeed, the industry changed almost overnight. The iPod truly gained traction when Apple brought out a Windows version of iTunes. Today, Windows users actually dominate on all of Apple’s mobile products.
Certainly when you add the iPhone and iPad to the mix, the Mac seems to hold less significance to Apple’s product line. It’s understandable that some tech pundits are using the fact that Macs weren’t a part of this year’s WWDC keynote as evidence that its days are numbered.
Now I won’t dismiss the suggestion that, some day in the future, there will be no Mac. Whether Macs will be replaced by iPads, a successor product, or someone else’s computing machine, is anyone’s guess. Feel free to chime in. But right now, Apple still makes a substantial amount of money from Macs, and sales continue to increase ahead of the PC market.
So maybe the PC is dead as far as some tech columnists and analysts are concerned, but when Apple can sell three million of them each quarter, with average retail prices north of one thousand dollars, I think it’s highly premature to declare the death of the Mac.
Why you didn’t hear any Mac-related announcements, beyond the quiet introduction of Safari 5 (which also comes in a Windows version), is easily explained. Snow Leopard came out last August, and developers are still working to make their products compatible. Windows 7 doesn’t really raise the bar as far as operating systems go, so where’s the rush?
Besides, Apple has already indicated they won’t be delivering Mac OS X reference releases as frequently as they used to, so you may not hear anything about 10.7 until 2011. There’s even a suggestion that Apple might split the WWDC into two parts, one for the mobile platform, the other for Macs. That will create a far more sharply focused event, and there will be no qualms about the alleged indifference to one product line or the other.
As far as hardware is concerned, unless there’s a major change in form factor or features, Apple has done quite nicely heralding the arrival of new Macs with simple press releases. Even the hot-selling iMac, introduced last fall, didn’t earn a special media event, but don’t forget that the 27-inch version was back-ordered for several months and the entire product line is selling exceedingly well.
This spring’s introduction of new MacBooks and MacBook Pros also came quietly — the former didn’t even merit a press announcement — yet sales again appear to be quite good, according to early estimates at least. No doubt there will be a new Mac Pro shortly, and perhaps even a Mac mini, which is said to have supply constraints. Once again, you won’t see anything more than a brief shutdown of Apple’s online store to refresh the lineup and the usual press releases and perhaps a few carefully chosen interviews with the media.
Why should it be otherwise?
Now it’s also true that the personal computer is an aging product that owes much to the original 1984 compact Mac, and that even includes Windows and the various Linux desktop iterations. The iPad is probably the most significant departure from the basic PC form factor, and its runaway success clearly demonstrates the world is changing, and Apple wants to lead the way.
This doesn’t mean that the PC will disappear overnight. Heavy-duty content creators, such as graphic artists and video creators and editors, are still going to require state-of-the-art hardware to get work done. I don’t see myself editing my radio shows or designing media kits on an iPad — at least not yet.
Steve Jobs has already told you about this new world, comparing the PC to the truck and the mobile computer to the car. You will need both for a time, but more and more people will concentrate on the latter.
That is until something even better comes along. But even the command crew of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek still requires an onboard computer, a communicator and, of course, buttons and levers to operate their vessel. However, my concept of the future includes telepathic control of computers. You wouldn’t even need a touchscreen.
When you watch all those ads for mobile phones, particularly smartphones, you discover that “Droid does,” and that these gadgets over all sorts of wonderful features. Or maybe a particular wireless carrier promises superior network quality, or a special two-for-one deal that you must order today. That is, assuming you are eligible and are willing to accept the requisite two-year contract.
But how often do you hear an ad telling you that a mobile handset sounds better? I can’t say they don’t exist, but I near hear such claims, not now, not ever.
To be fair to a wireless carrier or handset maker, the nature of the mobile telephone system makes it impossible to guarantee any specific level of audio quality, simply because it will vary greatly depending on network traffic, system capacity, the design of a particular handset and lots of imponderables over which they have little or no control.
As a general rule, today’s digital handsets deliver audio quality that varies from acceptable to awful. They seldom come close to a solid landline connection, or two tin cans connected via a wire. In order to add more capacity to a congested network, a mobile carrier is apt to compress the signal as much as possible, and that only makes the sound deteriorate even further.
So it was refreshing to see Apple add one feature to iPhone 4 designed to at least take a stab at delivering better sound quality to the person at the other end of the connection. In promoting the new feature, Apple poses this argument: “Making a call at the ballpark, in the airport, or on a crowded bus can be frustrating, if not downright impossible. But not with iPhone 4. It includes a microphone built into its top edge and uses sophisticated audio technology to suppress unwanted background noise. The technology works on everything from crowd noise and engine sounds to music and loud conversation — even just a few feet away. So the person you’re talking to can hear what you’re saying, not what you’re hearing.”
This sounds similar to what companies like Bose do with their “Quiet Comfort” headphones.
This noise canceling feature won’t necessarily make your voice sound more robust, but at least the background din will be reduced, so that’s at least part of an attempt to find a solution to a well-known problem. I wonder how the Android OS phone makers will respond. Will they also add noise-canceling mics to deliver quieter audio? But even if they do, are they capable of developing software that can process the audio signals to take proper advantage of the enhanced hardware?
In the end, it’s not just a case of having great features, but making them work properly, using an interface that’s relatively simple for most users to master. That’s a lesson that far too many tech companies have yet to learn.
THE FINAL WORD
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