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Perspective: Macintosh: An acquired taste

What's a nonbeliever to do at Macworld Expo? That was the dilemma facing CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos, who finds it's a bit like a being at a seminar on gluten-free diets.

Macworld Expo in San Francisco is more than a technology convention. It is a personality litmus test, too.

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For Mac fans, the four-day annual convention serves as a lightning rod for the future of the high-tech industry. A number of firsts--or at least noteworthy seconds--debut at the show. For example, Gateway may have come out with a digital home strategy first, but Apple Computer has been far more successful at selling the vision.

For nonbelievers, though, it's sort of like being at a seminar on gluten-free diets. There is all sorts of enthusiasm and useful, interesting information swirling about that will make me a better person, but somehow it's difficult to whip up the requisite excitement to adopt the lifestyle.

Case in point: Keynote, a new graphic-intensive PowerPoint-like application from Apple. "This is the presentation application you need when your presentation really counts," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs as he put the application through its paces during his keynote speech.

Instead of scrolling through pages, Keynote lets users fade out of one page and into the next. A single screen slide can be divided into nine tiles, which flip over independently to form the next slide--somewhat like a card section in a college football stadium.

Microsoft's PowerPoint exists for one reason: Sales representatives use it to lull their audiences into an agreeable mood before asking for money.

The crowd ate it up. "Oh, my!" gasped one man in the audience as Jobs showed how words on Keynote could be centered in the middle of a slide. "I like that. I LIKE THAT," said another as Jobs showed how the application could make pages in a financial report look like they were drawn on a chalkboard or with crayons.

Technically, it was fabulous--and completely impractical. Microsoft's PowerPoint exists for one reason: Sales representatives use it to lull their audiences into an agreeable mood before asking for money. "Your company is fabulous, but I can't stand that little man holding the stopwatch and scratching his head. We're going to go with the vendor with that Egyptian papyrus theme," is a statement that will never come out of a corporate buyer's mouth.

Apple's new notebooks inspired the same sort of divergent reactions. The company unveiled two on Tuesday: a PowerBook G4 with built-in wireless connectivity and a 17-inch screen, and a mini-PowerBook with a 5-hour battery life.

Crowd members yipped and "woo-hooed" as Jobs said the notebook comes with a lithium prismatic battery--whatever that is. When he showed off the mini-notebook and said it came with an 867MHz processor, a member of the audience (a completely new one) drunkenly gasped "Aaaah," as if weary from amazement. Many applauded when Jobs unveiled the $3,299 price of the 17-inch-screen model.

The uninitiated, though, saw something different: two notebooks. The elegant new PowerBook comes with a 17-inch screen, but it's not all that different than 16-inch-screen models from Sony and Toshiba. A nearly identically configured Sony Vaio, in fact, sells for $2,699--$600 less than the PowerBook.

Apple's new mini-notebook, meanwhile, fits squarely within its category. It's not the thinnest or lightest model (that distinction belongs to the 2-pound Sharp Muramasa) or, at $1,799, the cheapest. It's good, it looks cool--but it's a mini-notebook. Outside of Japan, a depressed market, few people buy them.

Apple partisans--and to some degree, the company itself--believe the public should care about things like pixel count, aspect ratio and data transfer rate.

The line that divides Apple fans from agnostics partly lies in the circumstances of history. Apple should have been the dominant PC company in the high-tech industry, according to partisans. It came up with and/or promoted many of the bedrock inventions of the computer world--such as the graphical interface and the mouse--first. The company was also the first to get people in schools and homes excited about computers.

Unfortunately, history didn't follow the script. Championing today's products, therefore, comes as a way to right past wrongs.

More important, Apple partisans--and to some degree, the company itself--believe the public should care about things like pixel count, aspect ratio and data transfer rate.

This compliments the public too much. When it comes to discerning quality, we're simpletons. Instead, corporate buyers and individuals just want to know how much their computer will cost and will they get busted if they make one or two copies of their software. (Of course, think of the scary flip side. If Apple had changed the course of history in the 1980s and emerged as the guiding force in computing, we'd be up to our necks in graphic artists, freelance DJs and career temp employees.)

Microsoft and Intel understand this completely. Standards exist in the industry not because of a secret, evil conspiracy. They exist because, in many circumstances, conformity is more important than perfection. That's why the two companies, and the rest of the PC market, spend more time talking about price and availability than anything else. No one will ever "woo-hoo" a speech by Intel CEO Craig Barrett, but his company provides the chips in most of the world's computers.

By contrast, Apple inspires rave reviews. And accounts for only 2.3 percent of the worldwide computer market, according to research firm IDC.

The company blazes forth, but few answer the call.