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Naked at the Moscone: the MacWorld Expo Round-Up

Gadgets, gossip, and show-floor cruft

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MacWorld Expo is like a naturist's semi-annual holiday trip to the nudist camp. All year you're poked and teased for your weird habit. You suffer: the shelves of CompUSA are filled with nothing but Windows stuff, except for that bit under the stairs marked "Freaks".

But for two weeks a year, you're surrounded by people just like you! Except they're nothing like you! But it doesn't matter!

For me the glory of MacWorld is not the hysterical keynote - which always disappoints, and I hate whooping, self-congratulatory mobs - but the excuse to go on an extended, four-day shopping expedition. It starts with a cable, and a replacement for that MMC-adapter you've lost, and by the end you've bought a beautiful port-replicator which you know would hugely enhance your computing life, if only you had the matching notebook computer to go with it.

Oh, and you can gawp at games: millions of them. This year's MacWorld showfloor has an impressive game collection, and you can almost forget that the Windows world gets most of the games many months before they appear on our Macs, if ever. That's easy to forget when The Return of Castle Wolfenstein is running at full pelt on a huge flat panel, as it was here. (I'm not a shoot-em-up fan, being much more of a Bugdom kinda guy, but this is the first time since Doom that I've wanted to get fragging. I want this for my Symbian phone).

But here follows a summary of the a few eye-catching, wallet-loosening new stuff seen on the floor, and some reaction to the Apple announcements:

I've been using Griffin's iMic to get analog audio into my G4 for ripping vinyl. Griffin's been showing off its PowerWave, adaptor, which is iMic on steroids. For $99 it has built-in DSP and a USB hub, too. Even more unjustifiable is Griffin's was also offering a stunning USB volume control which doubles up as a power on/off button. It looks beautiful in the web photos, but even better in real life, and although it's a decadent $45 for something you know you don't really, we'll challenge you to walk away from the store with that $45 still in your pocket. It's lovely. Other stuff that could nickle and dime you to death includes a split curvy ergonomic keyboard, SmartBoard/YSB, from DataDesk, and if you're an iBook owner, the BookEndz replicator immaculately matches the host.

There were a ton of software updates released to coincide with the Expo, too, although some of the most important - like Connectix's Virtual PC 5.0 for OS X - had been trailed weeks in advance.

It's easy to forget that proprietary cellular headbangers Qualcomm also do the most highly-regarded Mac mail client, Eudora, and they've shed a new version for OS X. The classic version is my preferred mail client in a strong field of contenders, but the X version has looked decidedly sickly. And you can fax from X now, too, thanks to Cocoa eFax which comes courtesy of local artist Ben Mackin, here. And backup too, as Dantz has a fresh preview - not the finished article - of an X version of Retrospect.

We've saved a round-up of Linuxes for the Mac until Friday, so stay tuned.

Stealth Studio

More interesting than any of the new stuff heralded in the keynote was the grassroots interest in Apple's own IDE for AppleScript, AppleScript Studio. This crept out in the 10.1.2 update to OS X over Christmas, but for us, it was the steal of the show. And not surprisingly. Getting a nice IDE (Integrated Development Environment) for AppleScript in the past has involved spending serious money for the third parties. But Studio combines not only a slick IDE only the ability to write genuine Cocoa apps, with of course, UI widgets like buttons sliders and scrollbars. And it's free.

What about the iMac, the centrepiece of the keynote? Well, reaction has been ambivalent. It's a cold and clinical design that has none of the warmth and charm of its predecessor. To this writer, it's damned plug ugly: it reminds me of a trip to the dentists, which being British, we try and do only once or twice in our lifetimes. iMac2 will have none of the cultural resonance of its predecessor, and as Stephan Somogyi says, you can't imagine key fobs being created in homage to iMac2. Apple has tried its hardest to anthropomorphize the new iMac by making it get on down and get funky in the ads, but it doesn't work.

Jonathan Ives and the design team seems to be obsessed with white, and the recent designs seem to have caught the same bug that bit Ken Russell from his final contribution to the Harry Palmer trilogy - Billion Dollar Brain - through to the The Devils. In all those terrible movies, everything was white, because... that's what the future would look like, right? The next step for Apple will be to kit users out in matching one-piece white tunics.

But, no matter. Although everyone knows the new iMac is ugly, no one seems to mind. That's because for Mac users, it's shockingly good value, and it breaks with recent Apple product marketing in giving the consumer models parity with the pro range. No more cut price G3s, or skanky ATI video chips: now you get a G4 and an NVidia GeForce.

Although we're skeptical about progress on the G5 chip (prove us wrong, dear leakers...) the iMac gives you everything the current Pro range gives you. And that suggests a G5 is nearer, rather than further, when Apple next has the opportunity to announce the refresh of its tower models. And given that the iMac2 instantly makes the Pro line look underpowered, that can't be too far away.

iPhoto

Overshadowed by the iMac launch, iPhoto deserves all the acclaim it's received. It looks slick and seamless, although that wasn't enough to stop Jobs ladelling on the syrup as he showed a photo slideshow of the designer's daughter accompanied by Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey. Jobs choked back a tear:

"That's why we do what we do," said the sentimental huckster.

No it isn't Steve.

You do what every other publicly listed company seeks to do, and that's get a decent return for your shareholders. iPhoto makes good business sense for Apple, providing a revenue stream and affinity from its users that Microsoft can only dream about. And hooking iPhoto to X is the best news X could possibly have, too, as it's a killer application. You can't get iPhoto in MacOS 9. Mac users needed some cheer in the face of the decision to make OS X - lacking a native Real Player, key drivers (for scanning, for example) - the default OS on new Macs. And hush now, we couldn't find a single Mac triumphalist, or read a single Mac article, saying this was the right thing to do just now.

Apple hyped this MacWorld Expo beyond all reasonable expectation in an attempt to lure the mainstream consumer press to the show. Despite underdelivering - there were no flying cars, let alone smartphones announced - it worked. They came, they saw, and the filed the copy. Veterans of the MacWorld Expo took it in their stride.

But then the trick with MacWorld has always been to get out before the end. After David Sedaris had spent a week in a nudist camp, he was appalled by the mismatched clothes people wore when he saw them at a train station, waiting to depart: a riot of garish tweeds and clashing colours.

"These people become nudists," he concluded, "because they have no dress sense."

Ah, well. Me neither.®

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