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Back to Mac Event Musings

Wednesday Apple held a special event where they unveiled an update to the iLife suite of applications, a redesigned MacBook Air and offered a sneak peak at the next major version of the Mac OS: Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. Additionally, Apple discussed the state of the Mac, and where it fits within their overall business strategy. I’m not going to go into any great depth of analysis here. Greater minds than mine (and quite a few lesser) will dissect every syllable uttered and pixel displayed during the event. I do, however, want to offer a few observations on the event and the announcements that were made.

The State of the Mac

The first part of the event consisted of Tim Cook discussing sales figures and market share for the Mac (by which I mean all devices that run Mac OS X). The bottom line is that, prognostications of doom from the puntitocracy not withstanding, the Mac is doing just fine. I think that the biggest number that jumped out at me from the presentation was the fact that Mac now commands 20.7% of the U.S. consumer market. This is a market-share number that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

iLife 11

Apple announced and demoed three of the applications in the iLife suite, iPhoto, iMovie and Garageband. I stopped using iPhoto in favor of Aperture a few months ago; so, while I appreciate the new features, they don’t do much for me personally. Similarly, I don’t really use Garageband for anything other than podcast production (my plans on using Garageband Lessons have been put on hold due to my hand injury) so I don’t have any particular feelings about it. I do, however, use iMovie and I think that the updates there are fantastic. I’m predicting that the new Trailers feature is going to be a huge hit; which brings me to something to rant about.

I was amused, but not at all surprised, by the derision that some commenters on Twitter laid on the Trailers feature. It is just another example of how the tech punditocracy is utterly out of touch with actual consumers. Trust me, Youtube will be drowning in crappy trailers within a fortnight.

iDVD and iWeb were, unsurprisingly, not featured. If you can’t hear the funeral bells knelling for video-on-optical-disks then you’re insane. And as for iWeb, the less said about that steaming heap the better.

Overall, the iLife update looks solid, and at $49 the price is hardly onerous.

MacBook Air

Also as predicted, Apple announced not one, but two new models of the MacBook Air. The primary distinction between the two new models is their size, with the larger sporting a 13.3 inch screen and the smaller rocking a diminutive 11.6 inch screen.

Some pundits are at a loss to understand how the MacBook Air fits between the iPad and the MacBook/MacBook Pro lines. I personally don’t see the problem. As I wrote in my earlier piece debating the iPad, I don’t see the iPad as a laptop replacement so much as it is a laptop alternative. Seven months of using the iPad hasn’t changed that opinion. The market served by the MacBook Air is people who need the portability of the iPad, but for whatever reason need the full power of Mac OS X. At a thousand clams for the entry model, I suspect that these will sell like hotcakes.

The truly interesting thing about the MacBook Air, though, isn’t the actual products unveiled at the event. No, the truly interesting thing is the technology that made them possible. As I said to a friend at a bar the night after the announcement: imagine the tech inside of the MacBook Air, except inside of the current 13, 15 or 17 inch Unibody MacBook Pros. Particularly, imagine that once the cost of solid state memory reduces by a few factors.

This is where Apple really shows its brilliance. Any company can recognize the advantages of solid state storage over spinning magnetic disks; and most companies stop there and just offer a machine with an SSD (Solid State Disk) as an alternative to the usual 2.5 inch hard drive. Apple has the vision to take things one step farther and ask, why does the solid state storage have to stay in the same physical form factor as spinning disks.

FaceTime For Mac

In another less-than-surprising move Apple announced FaceTime for Mac, available immediately as a public beta. The only interesting thing about this announcement was that FaceTime is not integrated with iChat as many suspected it would be. I have a few theories about that.

One theory is that ultimately Apple will integrate FaceTime with iChat, but didn’t want to confuse users by having an iChat 6 beta available while iChat 5 is still shipping. This seems unlikely to me given that when iChat gained it’s initial video capabilities with iChat AV in 2003 it was offered as a beta alongside the shipping version of iChat.

Another possibility is that FaceTime will never be integrated with iChat. When you think about it, other than the surface similarities, iChat and FaceTime are quite different beasts. iChat runs over the AIM network, including access to Mac and Windows AIM users. iChat also allows video chat between multiple users via the iChat Theater feature. By contrast FaceTime is a (currently) proprietary Apple technology that allows only one-to-one communication. Adding FaceTime to iChat as a secondary video chat option seems un-elegant. On the other hand, having two separate Apple branded video chat solutions seems equally un-elegant. This one will be interesting.

Lion

Finally we come to what Steve Jobs referred to as the entree of the event — a sneak peek at the next major version of the Mac OS: 10.7 a.k.a. “Lion.” Prefacing the demonstration, Steve revealed the meaning of the event’s title. “Back to Mac.” Unlike what many, myself included, supposed; “Back to Mac” did not refer to redirecting focus back to the Mac. Although, to be fair, the overall tone of the event completely supported the idea that the Mac is alive and well and in no danger of being abandoned.

What “Back to Mac” did refer to was taking technology and concepts that were originated or incubated in iOS on the iPhone and iPad and bringing them “back to the Mac.” This meme was reiterated during the MacBook Air unveiling. Many of the technologies that make the Air possible were developed for the iPad. None of this should come as any sort of surprise to anyone with a functional pre-frontal cortex. To think that Apple wouldn’t leverage successful technologies from iOS in Mac OS where appropriate is idiocy of the highest caliber. Steve and his cohorts previewed a few of the key new features, and I’ll go through them one-by-one. Once I’ve enumerated the new features, I’ll take a look at the absolutely batshit insane reactions to them.

The Features

The first new feature discussed was multi-touch gestures. Steve actually spent most of the time here disabusing people of the retarded notion that “Minority Report” style multi-touch interactions on a desktop or laptop computer are in any way a good idea. Instead Apple will take the rational approach of enabling multi-touch via peripheral devices such as the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad (note to self, buy Magic Trackpad).

Steve then announced the Mac App Store. That’s right, all the joy and wonder of the iOS App Store, now in a desktop package. Steve pointed out the advantages to developers (discoverability) and to users (simplified installs and application management. Steve was clear to point out that the Mac App Store was not going to be the sole delivery mechanism for developers as it is on iOS.

Next up was Launchpad, a.k.a. and iOS style home screen for the Mac. This is implemented as an overlay on the desktop containing applications and folders. Personally, I have been looking for something like this for years; so I’m pretty happy about it. For those who don’t dig on it, nothing during the demo indicated that the traditional methods of application management and access have been removed.

Fullscreen applications are coming to the desktop in the form of a system-wide API. I can see the utility of this, if implemented well. Again, there is nothing forcing users to run applications full screen.

The last new feature demonstrated was Mission Control. Simply put, Mission Control is the next phase in the evolution of Expose and Spaces.

The Reaction

From the very second that the words “Mac App Store” left Steve Jobs’ mouth there was a ripple in the fabric of the crazyverse that made Obi Wan’s migraine after the destruction of Alderan seem like a fucking hangnail. Suddenly every paranoiac’s worst nightmare had been confirmed. Apple was killing the Mac OS. Soon we would all be locked into a Draconian nightmare world where the only software that a user can run is that which has been approved by His Dark Majesty himself. Even Steve’s hollow assurances that the App Store would only be one of the ways a user could install software were ignored by the valiant prognosticators who knew, who knew, that if Apple could eventually lock the Mac OS into a faint shell of its former glory they would by necessity do so.

The situation only became more dire with each additional iOS inspired feature. “What if I don’t want to use multi-touch or Launchpad or Mission Control,” the defenders of freedom cried. “Sure, right now those features may be optional. But we all know, as the night follows the day, that Steve Jobs desires nothing less than complete control Mac users. Eventually we will all become his mock-turtleneck wearing minions.”

Ok, my depiction of the reaction on Twitter and other sundry outlets might be a tad overly dramatic, but not by much. I had planned on deconstructing some of the crazy-train, but at over 1600 words this thing is dragging on. I concede that, as it stands, there are some serious issues with the Mac App Store; but as long as the store is not the sole method to obtain Mac OS applications (and there are some very good reasons why I doubt that that will change) I don’t see it as a dire issue.

At any rate, I think that Apple presented a very solid set up updates to iLife and the MacBook Air. I’m also very much looking forward to seeing the laziest of cats come next summer. In short, tone down the crazy, and let’s see how this all plays out.