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Apple homeward bound with new iMacs, iLife

It's back to basics at Apple with updated hardware and software for those aiming to organize their digital lives. Photos: Apple unveils new iMacs, apps Video: Thinner iMacs take stage

CUPERTINO, Calif.--Apple's fourth major event of the year was a bit more understated than the previous ones, but provided another glimpse of the company's view of the personal computer.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled new iMacs with aluminum and glass exteriors, keeping the rumor mill honest this time. Apple's iMac is an all-in-one computer where the motherboard sits behind a flat-panel display, in a more streamlined approach to the traditional desktop PC.

The company also updated its software for home Mac users, known as the iLife suite. The five applications that make up iLife '08 aim to help Mac users organize "user-generated content"--that ubiquitous Web 2.0 phrase--for both internal consumption at home and showcases that can one-up the Jones' trip to Nepal.

It's been a busy year for Apple. From January to June, it seemed everything was about the iPhone, while in the interim the company has been scrambling to get Leopard, the next version of the Mac OS, ready to ship in October. However, Tuesday's event featured far less glitz and hype as Apple introduced new products for its audience of home-media enthusiasts.

Apple separates its Mac customers into two main categories: the developers and creative professionals who use its heavyweight Mac Pro desktop and MacBook Pro notebook, and the rest of us, who get iMacs and MacBooks. It's been a good year for Mac shipments, which increased by 33 percent during Apple's last quarter, but the iMac product had been stale for quite some time.

So Apple borrowed the aluminum finish that it has previously reserved for its professional products, remaking the iMac in black and silver and taking a few inches off its waist. A glass display completes the look, along with a new slimmer keyboard and Intel's latest processors.

But Jobs sped through the introduction of the new iMacs to spend most of the morning walking attendees through the improvements to iLife and iWork, Apple's suite of office productivity applications. Apple's pitch for so-called "switchers" centers largely on the iLife suite as a friendly way of organizing the pictures and videos that pile up in the Digital Age.

Shiny hardware might get customers in the door, but software is where people spend their time, and where they form an attachment with their computers. The iron curtain of the past between Windows and Apple software is more of a backyard fence these days after the success of iTunes on Windows, software like Boot Camp, and the increasing percentage of time most of us spend on the Internet, rather than using desktop applications.

So to draw curious neighbors over the fence, Jobs likes to show family-friendly applications when showing off new Macs or software, appealing to the desire of those in attendance to easily create a digital record of their children's hijinks both for posterity and for distant friends and family. For example, Jobs showed how the new iPhoto and iMovie applications can organize photos and home movies and upload them to new Web Galleries hosted by the company's .Mac service, which also now allows customers to store up to 10 gigabytes of data for $99 a year, up from just 1GB of data.

The new iPhoto application automatically sorts pictures by "events," really just compiling all the photos taken on a given day. You can "merge" or "split" events that took place over several days, or multiple events that took place on a single day.

The iMovie application was singled out as having received the greatest overhaul between iLife '06 and iLife '08. Jobs told a story about an Apple engineer who wanted to make a short home movie of his trip to the Cayman Islands, but got frustrated by how long it took to create that movie in either iMovie or Final Cut Pro, Apple's professional video-editing software. The result was iMovie '08.

Similar to iPhoto, iMovie now organizes video clips in thumbnail-like clips, where they can be dragged and dropped into a movie-making template. Once the movie is complete, it can be uploaded to a .Mac page or directly to YouTube from the iMovie application's menu, in yet another collaboration between Apple and Google. Eric Schmidt, CEO of the search giant, sits on Apple's board of directors.

Both iPhoto and iMovie also figure into improvements to iWeb, Apple's Web page-creation software. The iWeb application improves how Mac users organize their photo albums and videos online, pulling them from the new .Mac Web Galleries and allowing visitors to preview an album before opening it all the way. And if people are really interested in your Web page, iWeb lets you sign up for Google's AdSense program and make some money if people click on targeted ads on your site.

New iMacs and Apple software released.

GarageBand, the final piece of Apple's iLife software, enables budding rock stars to bypass the hassle of putting together a backing band by allowing them to customize templates in different musical styles, from rock and blues to jazz and reggae. Vocalists or shredders can then overlay their tracks on top of the backing music and go after that record deal without leaving home.

Jobs touched briefly on the business world with news of an update to iWork, Apple's office-productivity suite. Pages, its word-processing software, and Keynote, its presentation software, have some new templates to use as backgrounds, but the company finally introduced a spreadsheet application called Numbers that had been .

Numbers is designed mainly to let spreadsheet creators put multiple types of data inside a single spreadsheet without messing up the table. Photos, graphs and charts can live beside data, and they can be moved around the page without screwing up the formatting of the spreadsheet.

Still, Apple made sure to note that Numbers can import and export data to or from Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet software, by far the dominant spreadsheet application used in offices around the world. The recent delay of Office 2008 for Mac users will give iLife users some time to get used to Numbers, but like Office 2008, Numbers won't support macros, Jobs confirmed.

Few of the new features in either iLife '08 or iWork '08 would be considered groundbreaking on their own, with the possible exception of Numbers, Apple's first spreadsheet application since AppleWorks development ceased with the first version of iWork. Most of the new features are evolutionary pieces of the strategy Apple has already laid out for the iLife suite.

The pitch for these Macs and the iLife software is geared directly at the participants in the blogging/YouTube-ing/Twittering age: we want to make it easier for you to share your creative works with the world. Of course, you can do all of these things with a PC based around Microsoft's Windows operating system, but Apple is going directly after the taste-makers in a new generation raised on computers, the Internet and the expression of oneself using both.

And by extension, it is also cozying up to the huge numbers of baby boomers who would like to think of themselves as young and hip. Jobs says Apple's only goal is to "ship the best personal computers in the world." He appears to take that construction, "personal computer," very literally: implying that Macs are computers for your personal life, helping you share with the world whatever it is that makes you you.

Hewlett-Packard has hit upon a similar theme for its notebook PCs, with an ad campaign based around the tagline "The computer is personal again" that has helped HP regain the No. 1 market share position among the world's computer companies over the last year. This pitch appears to be resonating with customers, and Apple will continue to push that strategy as we enter the busiest part of the year for the PC industry.