Macworld: Spotlight, trinkets, mark-ups, and middle-class angst
Our show roundup
It's always worth returning to MacWorld later in the week, to get a better idea of how it's doing. The first day fanatics - the kind of people who during the Maximum Leader's keynote, actually cheer the announcement of price increases ("... And iTools will be $99 a year" ... "Woah! Yeah!!") aren't so apparent. The late-week crowd is more representative of rational Mac users. What were they interested in?
Before revealing which booths were attracting the most interest, several readers commented on Apple's two big announcements - the Mac Mini and the iPod Shuffle. We were curious too to see how these were received by the calmer, late week crowd. Isn't the Mini, asked readers, much more expensive than it seems? Isn't it just a mini-ITX clone? And isn't the Shuffle just the kind of crappy little trinket that Steve Jobs derided when he launched the 4GB iPod Mini a year ago? Well, yes, yes and yes. But remember the original iPod and the Mini came out to pretty lukewarm reviews, and look where they are now. The Cube and the iMac G4 received oceans of positive press coverage, and had Walt Mossberg spitting forth a real Old Faithful of praise. (Always have an umbrella with you when Walt gets near an Apple). And just look what happened to them.
Well, the Shuffle was the more popular of the two. Over at the old Sephora store, now Apple's San Francisco Retail outlet, staff had boxes stacked high behind the counter. Families, and women, were in abundance. Everyone wanted one. Quite a few people wanted several, especially Japanese tourists. At this rate, the $99 and $149 Shuffles may succeed in soaking up much of the rest of the compact flash MP3 market.
Of course the Shuffle may meet the same fate as every other compact flash player, for exactly the reason Steve Jobs said a year ago. These are impulse purchases that don't get used after the novelty wears off, and end up being forgotten in a drawer. With 240 songs a fully loaded Shuffle is already awkward to navigate when not in random mode (which is why Apple is promoting the 'Random' so heavily in its marketing). But there are two reasons that suggest the Shuffle might not meet this fate, and both are related to synchronisation, which is really what Apple is selling here.
Although rivals are undoubtedly better value, with many boasting an FM radio, or removable storage, all depend on inferior synchronisation. Plug and go isn't really a factor here, it's more a case of plug and pray. Apple pins everything on its superior synchronisation, as the Shuffle is most effective as the equivalent of a wartime cryptographer's one time pad. Every day you'll fill it with a different jumble of songs. That's fine for short trips. The Shuffle is perfect for this kind of random experience. The problems are to come; the UI really isn't very good for navigating playlists - even say four playlists - so future growth may be hampered by the minimal design of these first models. Shuffle assumes you don't know what you want to hear and are happy letting iTunes choose it for you. There will be many people on many days who will look forward to hearing what they've already chosen, and some UI evolution will be needed.
As Flash memory prices drop, Apple will be able to drop the price of Shuffles correspondingly, or add features, or increase their capacity, and we suspect it'll choose the first and second options. (This day isn't far away. 2GB of Compact Flash is down to double digit dollars now). Increasing the capacity only makes the UI shortcomings only more apparent. We'll know how many are forgotten in drawers in about nine months, but the Shuffle is off to a flying start.
What of the mini? It wasn't quite the same draw. Shuttle PCs that are four times the weight draw oohs, and ahs, but the Mini, a well engineered machine, just didn't. But then this is an audience of the converted, precisely not the customers Apple wants to attract. As far as it goes, the Mini has achieved an important goal even before it's started shipping. From Wednesday's analyst conference we learned that the Mini has similar margins to the eMac, and it has the headline-grabbing $499 sticker price. But reader Richard from England makes the following point:
"If you go to the UK store and spec up a PROPER Mac mini (i.e. with a decent amount of memory, proper sized HD, wireless connectivity, etc.) you can end up paying anything from £600 to almost £1,000 for the bugger! For the same money you can get a Windows box from, say, Dell that will piss on the Mac from a great height. Sure it won't look as nice but who cares?" Answering himself, he continues, "Oh, Mac owners do. They've been sold the Emperors New Clothes."
In fact, a maxed out Mini Mac from Apple UK (and why shouldn't you want a SuperDrive?) clocks in at £913, with £129 AppleCare taking it over the four figure mark. This is a problem for Apple. When the price of PCs fell from around $1500 to $500 everyone suddenly noticed how the cost of Windows remained the same, and $80 suddenly became a very significant part of the cost. So too, Apple's oversees mark-ups suddenly stick out like a sore thumb.
Steve Jobs has a cultural deaf ear to Europe, which is surprising as it's where he steals a lot of his best ideas and poaches a lot of his best staff. In many parts of Europe, including Apple's second biggest market, the UK, it's quite acceptable to boast about getting a great bargain, in a way that it isn't in the United States. In the US, to a much greater degree, you are what you buy. If you buy cheap stuff, then it's a sign that you've failed to take advantage of the great economic opportunities the country has to offer. You're not only cheap, but either lazy or stupid, or both. This has played a great part in Apple's appeal here, where it markets itself as an upper middle-class status symbol.
Even without the markup, the new Mac still isn't cheap. IDC reckon a minimal decent configuration would cost you $1,300. Apple really isn't doing this for charity, and Michael Dell won't be losing any sleep.
For your reporter's money, it's a reasonable machine, but Apple needs to deal with the memory issue, as even this budget model is another excuse to gouge customers for expensive memory. With just 256MB, and a slow laptop hard drive, a lot of new Mac users first introduction to this superior system isn't going to be a happy one. Again, we'll know in a year or so.
Hits and Misses
The two largest crowds were at the booths of Elgato and Solio. Elgato was a winner here last year, with its range of Mac-specific TV equipment. It does a TiVo for the Mac, and is hugely impressive either with free to air analog or HDTV inputs. Stay, er... tuned for a follow-up tomorrow, and a review in the near future. Even more popular, in its cramped location out of the way, was British company Solio, or Better Energy Systems. It sells a quite charming, fan-style solar charger for low power electrical devices. It won't charge a laptop, but it does boast that it can charge an iPod to full capacity in three hours. The iPod model is $119 the mobile phone version $99. Very nice indeed.
Also very impressive, but not drawing such a crowd, was an Italian company called Ovolab. Like Elgato it was a big award winner last year, but word will surely spread, because its Phlink phone answering service is a programmer's delight. As well as replicating a standard answering machine, along with multiple mailboxes, it can be programmed remotely to run scripts via DMTFs you've set up in advance. And using the Mac's text to speech facility, your home Mac becomes an information service while you're away. You can have your email read back to you, or certain calls forwarded. The phone companies charge good money for this, so at $179 it looks like good value.
Regular readers will know that the Wireless iPod (the Bluepod, or Airpod), is a big favorite here. In addition to Belkin's Bluetooth transmitter for beaming iPod audio to a home hi-fi, TEN also had a Bluetooth offering. It's similar in concept, but less ambitious. Without the hi-fi receiver portion, the NaviPlay Ex is designed to let you put keep the iPod stationary while you move about. It was designed with treadmills in mind. NaviPlay is priced slightly higher than Belkin's $179 home combo, and does less.
We asked a Belkin rep when the company would be producing a wireless iPod that allowed people to share their music.
"Everyone wants that," said a rep. "Although I don't think Apple would like it."
The great day approaches, so our money is moving towards an Asian manufacturer being first out of the doors.
Spotlight on Spotlight
There's no doubt that Spotlight is the show stealer in the next OS release. That's just as well, because unless you're a developer or professional shop, there's little else that makes the upgrade compelling. Apple is gradually moving the value add into pay-for suites. iTools, iLife and now iWork are soaking up those extra dollars.
This isn't to say there's a lot of good work going on, but to most users, the rest of the new features are at best incremental, and at worst, fluff. Dashboard isn't a new idea, and its predecessors on every platform have proved to be no more than silly gimmicks. It's simply Sherlock, only this time in lots of windows. Safari is truly stuck in a rut. No, you still can't move tabs around. There are major improvements to QuickTime and iSync under the hood, but these may as well be slipped out with Software Update.
However Spotlight, with its smart folders, makes a dramatic difference to how seasoned users will use their PCs. While Panther was justifiable on grounds of speed alone, Spotlight is the only real reason for upgrading to Tiger feature. Smart Folders are persistent queries, and the revamped Mail makes good use of them. Opera users may yawn, as its sophisticated M2 mail program has worked this way for a couple of years, but Mac users will be seeing it for the first time. It's made great strides since its debut at the Mac Developers' Expo last May, and the beauty of it is that because it's a documented system level library, the search features are available to all developers. By next summer, Apple will have the kind of features Microsoft has talked about - first with Cairo, and more lately Longhorn - for a decade.
Overall, attendance is down from previous years, veterans note. For the first time your reporter can remember, all the exhibits are in just the South Hall of the Moscone, even with so many new hopefuls chasing the iPod market. Perhaps the Halo effect - with iPod users turning to the Mac - can reverse this. We still hope there'll be a Mac around to call it MacWorld. ®
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