Every year since 1997, Apple CEO Steve Jobs has given the opening keynote address at the Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco. These speeches have come to be known as "Stevenotes," and generally feature Jobs in blue jeans and a black turtleneck reporting on the previous year and announcing new products, promotions, and strategies. Expectations for recent Macworld Stevenotes have ranged from "high" to "frenzied." After all, 2006 featured the debut of Intel-based Macintosh computers, while 2007 saw the introduction of the iPhone!
Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about product announcements, and speculation runs wild in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the event. This year the speculative focus has been on a subnotebook and electronic movie rentals through iTunes, both of which were delivered. Apple remained silent, only hoisting banners prior to the event with the tagline, "There's something in the air." The secrecy helps build intense interest in the event, but Steve Jobs' rock star persona persists only as long as Apple continues to deliver on what it promises. So what does Macworld 2008 bring?
Time Machine is Apple's backup software solution, providing transparent backups to an external drive. It leaves MacBook and MacBook Pro users out completely, since the entire basis for Time Machine is complete transparency, but Time Machine requires a physically connected external drive, which laptops don't generally have. Time Capsule combines an Airport Extreme 802.11n wireless base station with a 500GB ($299) or 1TB ($499) hard disk, and Time Machine will use the drive, no physical connection required.
iPhone and iPod touch Software Upgrade
Several weeks before Macworld, iPhone operating system v1.1.3 leaked onto the Internet, so this was no surprise, except to those who doubted its authenticity. With today's upgrade, the iPhone gains a pseudo-GPS using cell tower and Wi-Fi hotspot triangulation, multiple-recipient SMS, a customizable home screen, and more. iPod touch users will gain many of the iPhone features previously missing, such as Mail, Maps, Stocks, Notes, and Weather, but they will pay $20 for the upgrade. I suspect that this is the result of Apple's interpretation of tax laws, the same concern that previously caused them to charge $1.99 for a MacBook 802.11n software upgrade, but we will likely have to wait for the next Apple quarterly conference call to be sure.
iTunes Movie Rentals
iTunes Movie Rentals were also highly-rumored prior to the show, even prompting Netflix to make their rental policy more generous in an effort to steal Apple's thunder. All major studios (20th Century Fox, Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, MGM, Lionsgate, and New Line Cinema) will be making movies available via iTunes 30 days after DVD release, for $2.99 or $3.99 depending on whether a movie is considered a "new release." HD versions with 5.1 surround sound will cost $1 more. Once you start watching a movie, you only have 24 hours to finish it, but you can transfer it to an iPod or iPhone mid-movie.
The new Apple TV allows users to order movie rentals (including HD movie rentals with 5.1 surround sound) or buy TV shows or music directly on the Apple TV. It can also view photos from Flickr or .Mac, play podcasts, and more. It will sync with a computer if one is available, but doesn't need to; it can operate as a completely standalone device. The software upgrade is free, and a new Apple TV is $229.
MacBook Air, "the world's thinnest notebook" is thinner at its widest end (.76") than the runner-up is at its most narrow end (.80"), and is only .16" at its narrow end, and yet it includes a full-size keyboard and 13.3" display. It is Apple's third notebook computer, and seems in some ways to be both the low-end (80GB hard disk, no optical drive or ethernet) and high-end (multi-touch trackpad, backlit keyboard, 5-hour battery) model, so they've placed it in the middle, at $1799.
Apple has been hurt by major music labels choosing to make unrestricted MP3s available through Amazon but not iTunes, despite — or perhaps due to — Apple's leadership in pushing for unrestricted MP3s. At least publicly, Apple is ignoring the issue and forging ahead with something even more impressive: getting all major movie studios on board. It remains to be seen how less restrictive time limits from Netflix might steal some of Apple's thunder, but Netflix doesn't seem to have more than a small fraction of Apple's mainstream credibility, so I suspect the majority of of people aren't going to know or care about the Netflix offering. The prices are very reasonable, and Apple's willingness to compromise by allowing more than one price for apparently arbitrary reasons (the age of a movie) may signal an interesting future when Apple resumes negotiations with music labels. In the meantime, I think Apple is going to rent a lot of movies.
The Apple TV improvements are what many people expected when it was first released, but delivering too late is better than delivering too little, and Apple appears to have delivered at least what people have been expecting. Movies, HD movies, songs, podcasts, photostreams, and YouTube all with or without a dedicated computer makes for a winning device, and $229 is important more as a symbol — a price cut — than as a target price point. At $229, again, Apple will be selling a lot of these.
The Time Capsule came first because it's the hardest sell. Those of us who have upgraded to Leopard and dismissed Time Machine because we use MacBooks and MacBook Pros know the value of Time Capsule, but that's a relatively small group of us, at least compared to the target audience of Apple TV, which is now everybody with a television in the United States. The only question for us is whether we would rather pay for a Time Capsule or instead rely on free software that tricks Time Machine into using any standard USB drive on a network. I already own an Airport Extreme and several terabytes of external disk, so I have to decide whether I'm willing to pay $300 for the approved Apple solution or download the free utility. I'm not sure how I'll decide.
The big news, unquestionably, is the MacBook Air. Everything about the MBA will be debated in the weeks to come: the name, the price, and the lack of optical drive are just starting points. For some, this will be the notebook computer of their dreams, and the two weeks before it is scheduled to ship will be agony. For others, the idea that someone would pay more to get less will always be a mystery. I think that Apple has raised the bar when it comes to notebook computers, and I'm impressed that the company that first shipped desktop computers without a floppy disk drive will soon be shipping laptop computers without even a CD-ROM drive. It has been done before, but never like this.
During the Stevenote, Jobs outlined four points, though I've split iTunes Movie Rentals and Apple TV into two separate points here. I think he's delivered five solid wins, though some with less pizazz than others. There will be squabbles over the $20 upgrade charge for the iPod touch, and Greenpeace is unlikely to let Apple off the hook even after a lengthy description of how the MacBook Air is the greenest computer yet, and the future relationship of iTunes and the major music labels is cloudy, but overall it looks like 2008 is going to be another good year for Apple.