Breaking down Macworld 2008 from all sides

Sure, he didn't have a flashy new iPhone, but Apple CEO Steve Jobs' keynote at Macworld 2008 still had several new products to digest.

Macworld is a little like the Super Bowl: one big day where everything gets laid out on the table.

So, let's break down Macworld 2008, Super Bowl style. Instead of offense, defense, and special teams, however, I'll take each of the big four themes that Apple CEO Steve Jobs presented, and share my thoughts.

MacBook Air -- I'm not crazy about the name, but this is a nice-looking laptop . Ultraportable laptops are prestige products for both the vendor and the customer; Apple gets to show off what it's capable of designing, while the customer gets to show off his or her taste and style.

These $1,799 laptops are not for the masses. Most people will have to make too many compromises with the MacBook Air, from the lack of an optical drive, Firewire, and an Ethernet jack to the battery, which like those in the iPhone and iPod can't be replaced by the user.

What's in the envelope? The super-slim MacBook Air. Corinne Schulze/CNET Networks

But this is a nice addition to Apple's lineup of notebooks. It definitely will appeal to a group of people who aren't worried about making those trade-offs, and it gives Apple another design accomplishment to crow about.

Especially since the rest of the PC industry probably won't be able to duplicate Apple's thin approach without taking advantage of Intel's new packaging technology for its Core 2 Duo chip. Intel will probably offer that packaging technique to the rest of the PC industry, but as Nathan Brookwood of Insight 64 pointed out, Dell and Hewlett-Packard probably didn't know about that breakthrough until this morning. That would put them about six months behind Apple.

iPhone/iPod touch software upgrades: Apple introduced several new helpful features for the iPhone and the iPod Touch, such as the ability to put an icon for a specific Web page on the home screen, and the ability to send a text message to more than one person. I think the enhanced Maps application, however, will prove the most compelling.

Greg Joswiak, vice president of iPod and iPhone marketing at Apple, demonstrated the Maps application for me after the keynote. There's a little button on the lower left corner of the Maps application that brings up an icon resembling the cross-hairs from a gun's sight. Apple teamed up with Skyhook Wireless to allow the iPhone or the iPod Touch to triangulate its position to a certain degree of accuracy simply by hitting that button. The smaller the cross-hairs, the more precise the fix on your location. Then you can just use Maps to get directions to your destination from your current location, even if you don't know exactly where you are.

The first grumble of the day from the Macworld crowd came when Jobs announced that similar software upgrades would cost iPod Touch users $19.99. Granted, iPod Touch users did get five new features already found on the iPhone--Mail, Maps, Stocks, Weather, and Notes--in addition to the location-finding technology and customized Web bookmarks on the home screen, which Apple calls Web Clips.

I think our good friend The Macalope is onto something, however, when iAntlers points out that Apple didn't include the iPod Touch along with the other products using subscription-based accounting, namely the iPhone and Apple TV. After the whole $2 Wi-Fi debacle, Apple made sure to announce up front that the company would record revenue from iPhone and Apple TV over a period of 24 months, which would allow it to deliver free upgrades to the product over that period of time. I e-mailed an Apple representative asking whether the iPod Touch is getting the subscription treatment, but I haven't heard back.

Time capsule: This was the first thing Jobs announced, and I have to say, I was underwhelmed. Time Capsule is a combination wireless access point/external hard drive that gets around a common complaint regarding Time Machine, the otherwise noteworthy automatic backup feature that Apple included with Leopard. Time Machine requires that your Mac be physically connected to an external hard drive in order to back up your files each night, and that's not the most convenient way to use a laptop.

If you don't have an access point, and you don't have an external hard drive, then Time Capsule might make a lot of sense at either $299 for 500GBs of storage or 1TB for $499. But the answer to the wireless Time Machine question--for those of us who already have wireless routers and external hard drives--is to have us shell out at least 300 more bucks for a piece of hardware that replaces the perfectly good hardware we already have? Sorry, I don't quite understand that one.

iTunes movie rentals/Apple TV: The biggest announcement of the day, in my opinion, even if some of the luster was lost as news leaked out over the past two weeks. My colleague Greg Sandoval, who covers the entertainment industry much more closely than I, weighed in with his thoughts on industry impact of the decision, but I'll take a moment to consider the impact on Apple TV.

With more features and a cheaper price, Apple TV is suddenly much more compelling. Corinne Schulze/CNET Networks

This instantly makes Apple TV more credible . Apple can finally stand behind its message that Apple TV can replace your DVD player. As it stood before, you could only get movies on Apple TV if you were willing to buy them. So, you'd still need your DVD player for those movies you thought you might like but weren't totally sure justified a purchase, which is just about all of them these days.

I'd still like to see an Apple TV with a browser (yeah, yeah, I know you can hack it--for now) so I can access all the other kinds of video available on the Internet, not to mention things like weather, maps, and stock reports that would be nice to have on a television. Of course, Apple wants you to buy movies from iTunes rather than getting your entertainment for free. But the company also didn't want to just dump a bunch of features into Apple TV just for the sake of doing so, Joswiak said.

"We hate to make these things into computers; we want to make them into things that people use in their lives," Joswiak said after the keynote. Apple TV is infinitely more useful with movie rentals, although I agree with Daring Fireball's John Gruber, The New York Times' David Pogue, and countless others: 24 hours is way too short a window to finish a movie that I already started. If you start a movie at night after work, and don't finish it because something came up, you better not have plans for tomorrow night if you want to finish that movie. That's not exactly on-demand content.

While Macworld 2008 wasn't exactly a sensation (the "one more thing" was Randy Newman, for crying out loud), Apple certainly didn't made any major missteps Tuesday that would put a dent in its momentum heading into the new year. The Mac and iPod businesses appear to have had solid holiday seasons, and Jobs announced that Apple sold 2.6 million iPhones from the end of September until the end of December, for a total of 4 million since iPhone Day in June.

There's still plenty of things to keep watching for, including a MacBook and/or MacBook Pro redesign and third-party applications for the iPhone, to name two at the top of my list. I think the iTunes Rental Store bears the most watching of Tuesday's announcements because of its potential impact both on Apple's iTunes Store business and the industry at large, and we'll be sure to keep track.

About the author

    Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.

     

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