In its final Macworld Expo, Apple introduced meaty upgrades to its software, services, and notebook line. But some Apple watchers wondered whether the Mac and iPhone maker has lost its mojo.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

January 7, 2009

14 Min Read

At Macworld this week, Apple introduced a slew of software upgrades, as well as swearing off DRM for iTunes music and rolling out a new notebook. It was a subdued event -- Apple's last Macworld ever, with Apple vice-president Philip Schiller rather than an ailing Steve Jobs delivering the keynote. But Apple still managed to roll out nice goodies and toys for the faithful.




Clearly, this wasn't one of Apple's bigger announcements of the decade; Apple didn't introduce any breathtaking new products, like it did with the iPhone in 2007, or the iPod in 2001, that won instant converts to the Apple brand. No, this one was for the folks who are already fans.

To kick things off, Apple introduced upgrades to its iLife and iWork software suites. iLife gets better integration with social networking services including Facebook and Flickr, and iWork lets you share documents over the Internet. Apple introduced a new, 17" MacBook Pro incorporating thin and light design and technology from the MacBook Air, along with a built-in battery with an 8-hour capacity. And Apple also made all music on the iTunes store available DRM-free, and changed the pricing scheme -- in a historic change, the every-track-for-$0.99 price has ended; now, songs will be priced at three tiers, $0.69, $0.99, and $1.29.

The products won't draw legions of new Apple customers immediately. However, they're solid evolutionary improvements to the Mac hardware and software lines, and will help Apple continue to draw new users incrementally, over time.

Upgrades to iLife and iWork reflect Apple's grudging embrace of social networking and Internet collaboration. With iPhoto '09, you can finally update your photos to social networking services -- specifically Flickr and Facebook -- without third-party add-ons. And iWork '09 introduces a public beta for online document sharing. The service won't go into competition with Google Docs or Zoho anytime soon -- you can share documents, and mark them up with Post-Its and margin notes, but you can't actually collaboratively edit online.

The changes to iWork, in particular, parallel Microsoft's strategy of offering hybrid desktop-Internet apps, writes Om Malik at GigaOm. But Apple has a long way to go there:

In bringing Internet into its desktop apps, Apple is also trying to overcome its lack of web savviness. A case in point is iWork.com, which carries the beta tag but is more like an alpha. For now, you can't edit other people's docs; you can only leave sticky notes on them or chat about them. On the issue of collaboration, as hipsters would say, iWork.com is an epic fail, considering that even tiny startups are able to offer those features. It seems that, in order to actually edit the document, you have to download it and make changes offline. If they want to be taken seriously, they'll have to get it up to par with Google Docs; I hope they do.

"You know it's Web 2.0," quips John Gruber, writing at the blog Daring Fireball, "because it's clearly labeled 'Beta' right in the logo." iPhoto

iPhoto '09 builds on the automatic organization abilities in the current version. iPhoto '08 automatically organizes photos into "Events," based on the time they were taken. The new version uses facial-recognition algorithms to sort photos of people. Click on a face and type in the name of the person, and iPhoto will automatically find photos showing the face of the same person.




iPhoto 09 uses facial-recognition algorithms to sort photos of people.

Or, at least, that's how it worked in the Macworld demo; I'm skeptical that kind of thing will work all that well in real life. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on it and finding out.

From within iPhoto '09, you can upload your photos to Flickr or Facebook. If you tag your photos with people's names, those tags are preserved on Facebook.

Organizing by Places is more straightforward; you use the geotagging functionality built into cameras like the iPhone cameraphone, and iPhoto automatically displays your photo on a map, grouping photos taken the same place over time. The software uses technology from Google Maps.

The Apple-Google partnership is one of the great odd-couple pairings of the IT industry. They're bosom buddies when it comes to mapping -- Google Maps is a marquis application on the iPhone, and now we see Google Maps integrated into iPhoto. Google loves its iPhone voice-activated search app. And Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on the Apple board of directors.

On the other hand, the two companies are also competitors. The Google Android phone competes with the iPhone. And Google came out with its own photo manager software for the Mac, Picasa, on Monday, a day before Apple announced the new iPhoto.

That'll be something to watch in 2009: Whether Apple and Google can continue to cooperate closely with one hand, while competing with the other. Tech companies have those kinds of relationships all the time -- there are even a couple of buzzwords to describe them, "frenemies" and "coopetition" -- but it's unusual for both the cooperation and competition to be carried out as visibly as Apple and Google.

iMovie & GarageBand

iMovie '09 gets a big feature boost, with a new editor, video stabilization, new drag-and-drop tools, and animated travel maps.

iMovie's last upgrade proved controversial. When iMovie '08 came out in the summer of 2007, Apple completely transformed the program's focus. iMovie initially came out in 1999, and evolved into a powerful video-editing tool. But during the first eight years of iMovie's life, a new video medium emerged, in the form of short videos shared on YouTube and services like it. iMovie '08 was an attempt to rewrite iMovie from the bottom up to build on the new medium, creating short, low-resolution videos with music and titles that could be easily uploaded and shared on the Internet. Professional videobloggers, used to the more powerful tools available in earlier versions of iMovie, were furious. It'll be interesting to see how they'll react to iMovie '09.

GarageBand '09 introduces built-in piano and guitar lessons -- 18 basic lessons and optional lessons from artists including Sara Bareilles, John Fogerty, Nora Jones, and Sting. The lessons are in HD video, with animated instruments and notations.

iLife '09 will be available this month, bundled with every new Mac purchase and available as a $79 upgrade for existing users.

iWork

iWork, Apple's office suite, also got a makeover. Keynote '09, the newest version of the company's presentation manager, adds new animations and transition. Pages, the company's word processor, gives you a Full Screen view to block out everything else on your desktop -- a feature available in boutique word processors for the Mac like Scrivener and WriteRoom. And Numbers '09 provides tools for grouping and summarizing data and to simplify the creation of complex formulas.

The software is available now, priced at $79, or $49 with the purchase of a new Mac.




Apple's 17" MacBook Pro can go 8 hours between battery charges.

17-inch MacBook Pro

The new MacBook Pro follows up on the notebook changes Apple started with the introduction of the MacBook Air at last year's Macworld a year ago. Like the Air and follow-up MacBooks, it has a unibody enclosure. The battery delivers up to 8 hours of use and 1,000 recharges for more than three times the lifespan of conventional notebooks. It also has the same glass Multi-Touch trackpad introduced with other new MacBooks in October.

It supports NVIDIA graphics and the latest Intel Core 2 Duo mobile processors. Apple says the notebook is made of highly recyclable materials, and meets stringent energy efficiency standards and is made without harmful toxins found in other computers.

The notebook is 0.98 inches thick and weighs 6.6 pounds. Priced at $2,799, it will be available at the end of January.

The notebook proved controversial even before it was announced, because, like the iPhone, the battery isn't removable or user-replaceable. That'll be a problem for road warriors who are used to carrying a spare battery with them to juice up on the road. But Apple blogger Chuq Von Rospach defended Apple:

How many Mac Laptop owners ever swap a battery? How many own two batteries? I used to religiously carry a second laptop battery; I finally realized that I was using it maybe once a quarter (even though I also religiously swapped batteries every couple of weeks so they both stayed charged and fresh....

I'd be amazed if 10% of Apple Laptop owners own a second battery. I'd be amazed if half the users who own second batteries use both batteries more than occasionally.

He notes that Mac users who do require that extra juice will likely be served by third-party battery extenders that attach to the outside of the MacBook. Similarly, the iPhone doesn't have a user-replaceable battery, which gets it criticism from power-users, and the iPhone has add-on battery extenders from companies including Kensington, Mophie, and Richard Solo. "[T]he usual suspects will complain, and the usual companies will go to work and quickly announce options making this a non-issue," Von Rospach said.

People commenting on Von Rospach's blog raised two counter-arguments: One group said the lack of a user-replaceable battery will be a problem when the batteries need servicing, as they inevitably do. Instead of simply swapping out the battery, and moving on, users will have to bring or ship their MacBooks in for repair.

And another group of people said they really, really need that second battery when they travel.

However, I think the repair issue will only be a problem if the units do, in fact, need repair. If Apple has created a super-reliable battery, there'll be no need to repair it before the notebook itself becomes obsolete.

As for the people who really, really need that second battery -- I have no doubt they exist, but I agree with Von Rospach that they're likely to be a small enough minority of users that they won't block the product from becoming popular. And the users for whom the non-swappable battery is a showstopper will just have to buy something else. That doesn't mean the MacBook Pro will be a failure; not every product is for everyone. iTunes Upgrades

Beginning this week, all four major music labels -- Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, Warner Music Group and EMI, along with thousands of independent labels, are now offering their music in iTunes Plus, Apple's DRM-free format. iTunes customers can also download music directly onto their iPhone 3G over their 3G network, just as they do with Wi-Fi today, for the same prices as downloading to their computer.




Apple is defusing a ticking bomb here. DRM would have eventually hurt Apple badly.

DRM works in Apple's favor now. Customers who buy a lot of DRMed music and video are locked into Apple products to play them back. These customers don't realize they're locked in -- for them, DRM doesn't matter, as blogger Louis Gray writes -- because for the overwhelming majority of consumers, Apple products are the only music players worth having.

However, it's inevitable that Apple's going to get some serious competition one day, if not this year then next year or in five years or 10. And customers who want to switch from Apple products would have found that DRM prevented them from doing so. They'd have been furious. That would have been a marketing disaster for Apple, perhaps even a fatal one. But now that's just not going to happen. Apple is now the ship that sailed past the iceberg, with the passengers and crew laughing and dancing and not realizing the catastrophe they avoided.

Eliminating DRM is great -- but what about users who've already bought iTunes music infected protected with DRM? They can upgrade -- but it'll cost 30 cents per song, or 30% of the album price. That just stinks, it punishes early customers for no good reason. Apple needs to change that policy, and make the upgrades available for free -- or, if they need to charge to throttle demand, make it a one-time, small charge, of $10 or so to convert all your music.

The change to DRM-free formats will be phased in. Some 8 million songs are available DRM-free by today, with the remaining 2 million available by the end of March.

The new music prices -- $0.69, $0.99, and $1.29 per song -- will kick in in April. The change is a victory for record labels, who've been pushing for variable pricing for some time, facing resistance from Apple. The lower pricing will likely be for back-catalog music, while the higher pricing will be for newly released hits, writes Ars Technica. So if you like the Golden Oldies, you're in luck, but if you like new music, prepared to pay more for it. Disappointment?

Was this Macworld keynote a disappointment?

Adam Engst, writing at TidBITS, thought so. He described it as "lackluster," and philosophized:

What struck us was how the keynote almost felt like the kind of talk we would have been happy to hear from Apple 10 years ago, in an era of lesser expectations before the iTunes Store, the iPod, and the iPhone. Back then, the announcement of significant updates to iLife and iWork would have been more than enough.

Would it have been different if Steve Jobs had been on stage with his Reality Distortion Field operating at full strength? Perhaps somewhat: Schiller's delivery was overloaded with weak superlatives and, at least to me, he never quite connected with the audience. But I think the real reason Jobs gave the keynote reins to Schiller was because there wasn't that much to demo.

PR maven Steve Rubel, of Edelman Communications, was more direct. "What a lame keynote. Apple is losing its mojo," he posted on Twitter. The conversation continued briskly on FriendFeed, where Apple defenders said the keynote was only disappointing if you set your expectations too high.

"It's gotten to the point where if Steve Jobs doesn't fly in with a cape and announce the iTime Machine, Apple has FAIL-ed. I am glad they are done with MacWorld," said Rolf Schewe.

"[T]he timing of Macworld was never good for back-to-school and the Christmas season, which is Apple's bread-and-butter," said Chris White. "You need about 6 months lead time for these, so expect more announcements in March-July."

Other people took Apple to task for missing the boat on social networking and on Web-based apps like Google Docs and Zoho. But Kevin Pendraja, a VP at Sterling Communications, defended Apple. "Apple's model of innovation isn't to be the first, it's to evaluate emerging markets and figure out how to best to dominate them. Outside of e-mail, name one area where apps in the cloud outsell desktop apps. Eventually, that may start to change and you can bet Apple will be there with something that changes the game."

I expected little from Apple this Macworld, and they exceeded expectations modestly. The new applications and service upgrades look promising, and the only thing I don't like about that 17" MacBook Pro is that I don't have one on my desk right now.

Apple's participation in Macworld this year was subdued. The company announced in December that this would be their last Macworld, and Steve Jobs bowed out of the keynote at the last minute, apparently for health reasons. The announcements that came out of the conference were incremental rather than revolutionary -- but they were solid, and they get Apple off to a good start for 2009.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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