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It's not just a platform, it's a culture

A Macworld is a happy world, at least inside San Francisco's Moscone Center this week.

A Macworld is a happy world, at least inside San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center this week.

After giving standing ovations to Apple's past in the form of the two Steves at Gil Amelio's keynote, Macworld Expo attendees were by and large enthusiastic about their favorite company's future.

But that's to be expected. In its twenty years of existence, Apple has built up tremendous loyalty among a core of users who would perform self-immolation before switching to any other platform.

Even with technical glitches and gratuitous celebrity schmoozing, Amelio's 2 hour, 40 minute speech was a rallying cry for customers who want promises of a bright Apple future.

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Amelio explains recent red ink.
"I've been to a couple of other Macworlds, and this was definitely the most informational keynote I've seen," said Paul Fitzgerald, a computer consultant for the University of Wisconsin medical school.

Sure there was information about Apple's new OS and 360-degree cameras, but it was obscured in the leisurely pace of the event. It felt like sitting on the porch swing, listening to Grandpa hold forth while every so often a good friend drops by--"Why if it ain't ol' Jimmy Barksdale! And Paul Maritz, too? Get on up here, you sly dog!"--until everyone retires to the living room to watch Independence Day, one of the worst films in both human and extraterrestrial history.

Somewhere in the third hour, the audience suddenly stood and whooped and hollered as if they had Powerbook batteries in their pants when Steve Jobs took the stage. He didn't exactly breathe fire in his relatively few minutes on stage, but he still showed the eloquence and charm of old in an appeal to the developers in the audience.

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Jobs fires up the crowd.
Among all the other things he's famous for, Jobs is known for extraordinary demo luck with products that really shouldn't be working yet by any normal law of engineering. But apparently his just being on stage isn't enough. His presence couldn't save the unveiling of the 20th anniversary Mac, an upright flat-panel machine that looked really spiffy but refused to cooperate. Jobs stood by with Steve Wozniak and fidgeted while Apple's marketing chief joked that he hadn't made a sacrifice to the demo gods. (Or at least it was taken as a joke--industry insiders know that marketing managers really do make sacrifices to the demo gods.)

The main message was two-fold: Apple is committed to both System 7 and the new Rhapsody OS. And Apple is still going to save the world, just like the alien fighters in the Independence Day clips Apple showed--in case you didn't get it.

Some developers felt that the System 7 commitment was especially crucial to calm the nerves of the development community.

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Luke Adamson of Omni Engineering gives Apple a thumbs-up.
It is developers that can make or break Apple's OS efforts. As Steve Jobs should have said back in 1984: "It's the software, stupid." But some users in the crowd don't want to underestimate the power of the PowerPC processor at the heart of all new Macintosh computers. If there emerges an OS to take advantage of its capabilities, many think the chip is powerful enough to strike a blow at Intel.

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Rajesh Viswanathan praises the power of the PowerPC.
It is traditional to pout after being jilted. But Be is no traditional company. It put its best face on at Macworld Expo and gathered quite a crowd when it demonstrated Mac apps running on its Be operating system. "That failed deal was the best thing that could have happened to us," said a Be employee (who asked not to be named).

Deciding to bundle the Power Computing Mac clones with the Be OS may indeed turn out to be a smart move in the long run. Taking up a huge corner of the exhibition hall, the company's "It's a war out there" booth was part of a marketing blitz to push the company's status from 'sleeper hit' to 'mainstream player'. Or, as a Power Computing poster put it: kick Intel's ass.

The war theme was appropriate for a second reason this week: a few steps into the Expo exhibit hall and one can feel the bunker mentality starting to take over. A representative of the Los Angeles Macintosh Group, organizers of the annual MacFair L.A. show, told us the real reason Apple has been having such a tough time.

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Who's Apple's number-one enemy? Find out here.
But he's right that writing about Apple is irresistible. The press is fascinated with more than Apple's hardware, software, financial reports and product demos. It's the Apple culture that makes good copy. After all, do Microsoft users refer to Redmond in the first person plural? (As in, "Our keynote today was great!")

Peter Gabriel jammed with Kai Krause.

The new Apple executives constantly belittle Apple's old disdain for anything "not invented here." But it is Apple's anti-establishment image that rallies the ground troops. That's why the Next acquisition was so beautiful: it does allow Apple to have it both ways. 'NextStep wasn't invented here, but it was invented over there by one of our own, Steve Jobs, so it's almost invented here. In fact, it should have been invented here.'

Rhapsody has already restored some confidence among developers, and that was important for the long term. But it turns out that many attendees on the show floor, from high school kids to aerospace engineers, didn't really care about the OS plan at all. To them, all that mattered was that the Mac remain a Mac, no matter what's in its guts.

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Lockheed's Bill Wagner is a true Mac addict.
Jeff Glodblum joked in introducing Amelio that his qualifications were having played a scientist specialized in chaos theory in Jurassic Park. That was funny. But it was also true.

One Apple employee who watched the keynote from Cupertino told me that the company still holds the same fascination for him as when he joined straight out of college. "I sat and watched and thought, 'I work for a weird company,'" he said. "And that's why I chose it."

Attendees compete for prizes at the Mac clone maker's multimedia trivia game.

Photos by Donald R. Winslow