Week in review: Apple's hardware harvest

Apple unveils new Macs, while Facebook unveils a new face. Also: Kindle goes iPhone.

Apple announced updates to its desktop offering this week in hopes of jump-starting sales in a category that has stagnated.

Three Mac desktop categories were updated , but only one really matters: the Mac Mini and Mac Pro aren't nearly as popular as the all-in-one iMac. Apple did improve the specifications of the iMac at the same price points, lowering the cost of acquiring a 24-inch version to $1,499. But it made few significant changes to a design that hasn't been updated since September 2007 and resisted calls to reduce the price of the iMac below $1,000, a psychological barrier that in troubled economic times could hurt Apple's sales , according to that line of reasoning.

In doing so, Apple is signaling that it cares more about margins than market share , at least when it comes to the iMac. After all, when people think about buying a new computer these days, they are shopping for a notebook, not a desktop.

The reality is that regardless of price, desktop computers have fallen out of favor with the public, and Apple's pitch for the new iMacs--with a heavy emphasis on old-fashioned speeds and feeds--suggests that it no longer views the iMac as a product that is driving its growth.

However, with the launch, Apple stole a bit of thunder from Intel , which is expected to launch Nehalem-EP server processors later this month, despite their manifestation in the new Mac Pro under their official model names: the Xeon 3500 and 5500.

The chips--in their desktop variant known as the Core i7--are being offered in eight-core or four-core configurations and, like all Nehalam-architecture processors, come with an integrated memory controller for (theoretically) better performance. (Intel's Core architecture does not integrate the memory controller.)

Apple is also reaping the success of its now 1-year-old iPhone App Store. While its success with iPhone applications wasn't preordained, the company had a huge leg up on the competition with a hit device, a mature software platform, and the one of the biggest online stores on the planet.

But for all the work Apple has done to make the iPhone a success over the past year, its future lies in the hands of outside developers . When Apple CEO Steve Jobs and iPhone software head Scott Forstall first publicly described the parameters of the iPhone software development process a year ago, they set the stage for the stunning growth in iPhone applications that has allowed the iPhone and iPod Touch to become truly personal computers for both work and play.

Apple has since made iPhone applications the centerpiece of its marketing campaign for the device, with pitches tailored to consumers and business users showing off the breadth and depth of iPhone applications. The rest of the industry has noticed; virtually every other major smartphone company is scrambling to set up their own App Store-like experience.

E-books on iPhones
One of the newer iPhone apps was added by Amazon and allows the same electronic books available on the e-tailer's Kindle to be read on Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch . The program gives users access to the more than 240,000 e-books that Kindle users can buy on Amazon and includes a service that keeps track of a reader's place in their chosen book, allowing users to pick up where they left off on either device the Kindle or iPhone if users own both.

While other e-book readers such as Stanza from Lexcycle and the eReader from Fictionwise are already popular on iPhones, it is the first time that Kindle content has been made available on a non-Kindle device.

The Whispersyc feature will prove valuable to many, including those who have misplaced their Kindle, a category my colleague Ina Fried falls into. She lost her Kindle awhile back and thought she lost her e-books as well, but that changed with the new iPhone app . As Ina tells it:

My Kindle is no closer to home, but by downloading the new Kindle app for the iPhone (which also works on my iPod Touch), I was able to recover access to my virtual library. Not only that, but thanks to Whispersync, I was able to start reading right where I left off.

The experience highlights both the pros and cons of the "digital locker" approach taken by Amazon with Kindle content. Although some have criticized the fact that one can't resell or give away their Kindle books, the site does provide other aspects of true ownership. In this case, I didn't need to re-buy anything and as soon as I entered my account information, I had access to every book I had purchased for the Kindle.

But there's just one problem, as my colleague David Carnoy points out. While Amazon might be able to find a market for $9.99 books on the Kindle, the iPhone-iPod Touch world is a very different place . Very few people are willing to pay that kind of money for any sort of application, let alone an e-book.

A new face on Facebook
Facebook is taking aim at Twitter with major changes to the ways users could filter information , along with an overhaul to its pages feature. In announcing the overhaul, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted that one of the biggest trends in social networking is organizing streams of information. Sites like Twitter and MySpace were making strides in helping to organize these streams, and Facebook needs to do a better job at it, he said.

The new layout will feature filters that give users granular control over the types of information the home page displays. This moves some of the navigation from the top of the page back to the left where it was before the last redesign.

The "streaming" nature of the revamped news feed is an obvious answer to Web users' seemingly endless thirst for instant news and opinions, basically Twitter. That's a pretty understandable step. So are the easier filtering controls, which make a lot of sense as Facebook members chalk up higher friends-list counts. The update that merits a bit more exploration is Facebook's decision to make its fan pages resemble, both visually and functionally, standard Facebook profiles.

Fan pages, until this point, have been a bit isolated from the rest of the site, with a disparate design and fewer ways to tap into Facebook's notorious viral-buzz machine. Now they'll have more prominence in news feeds, appearing alongside friends-list updates. That's important: many brands are still wary of their involvement in social-media properties like Facebook, because results are still based largely on anecdotal evidence.

But the keyword is "streaming," encouraging an even more extensive flow of information with a status update prompt that asks, "What's on your mind?"

Needless to say, "What's on your mind"--which also allows the posting of links, videos, and other content to news feeds-- bears quite a bit of resemblance to Twitter's "What are you doing?" prompt . So, especially in light of more rumors and reports about Facebook's spurned attempt to acquire Twitter, expect comparisons between the two services as means of ultra-customized media consumption to escalate.

Also of note
The sheriff of Illinois' Cook County, which includes Chicago, filed suit in federal court against Craigslist , alleging that the Web's largest classifieds publication is "facilitating prostitution."...Tuesday was Square Root Day , a rare holiday marked by math geeks that occurs when the day and the month are both the square root of the last two digits of the current year...Microsoft plans later this week to begin internal testing of Kumo , a long-anticipated update to its Live Search product, CNET News has learned.

 

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