Aussies at the Expo

Matthew JC. Powell
25 January, 2008
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This isn’t merely a Weekend Edition blog, of course, this is an Australia Day Long Weekend Edition blog, so I thought it would be fitting to tell you about some of the less-reported-on stories from the Macworld Expo in San Francisco — the Australian exhibitors. This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the Australians I found at the Expo (who were surprisingly numerous) but just a few of the highlights.

It’s like the "cocktail party effect," whereby no matter how crowded and noisy a room is, you’ll always hear your own name. At the Macworld Expo, there’s a constant cacophany of music, loudspeakers, attendees and exhibitors — but an Australian accent cuts right through.

So it was that I happened upon Matthew and David Drayton, of Nolobe. Walking past the back of the Apple booth, an unmistakable drawl grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. The Draytons recently acquired what had been their parent company, Stairways Software, and remade it in their own image. Which only makes sense, since it was always built on their own product, file-transfer utility Interarchy. At this show, they were showing off Iris, an image-editing application still in beta that they’ve built using some of Leopard’s new graphics tools.

Don’t be fooled by preconceived ideas of a small independent Aussie developer creating an image-editing app — Iris is no lightweight. In fact, Nolobe bills it as "the ultimate image editor for Mac OS X" and Matthew Drayton described it during the demo as "Photoshop without the price tag". Whether it quite lives up to that billing, we’ll see when the final version ships in April. For now, the public beta (downloadable from Nolobe’s web site) is pretty darned impressive, with a dazzling array of extremely well-designed and powerful editing tools. The public beta was released at the start of the Expo.

Nolobe’s booth was in the developer showcase, a particularly crowded part of the South Hall of the Moscone Centre located right behind the Apple stand, at which Apple helps some small independent developers show off their wares to an international audience. Despite having built up an international reputation over some years for Interarchy, this was actually the first time the Draytons had travelled to San Francisco for the big event. "We can’t really say whether this has been busier or quieter than previous years," said David Drayton, "but we’ve had quite a lot of good feedback … Matthew’s had more e-mails than he can reply to, so it’s been good". They plan to be back again.

Not far from Nolobe, indeed within hearing range even in the crowded hall, I found Acqualia. Indeed, I found all of Acqualia. Both of its employees, Zac Cohan and Nik Youdale, were there at the Expo in a booth provided by Apple as part of the prize for winning an Apple Design Competition in the student division at WWDC last year. They won that competition for Picturesque, and image-effects application built, like Iris, using Leopard-specific graphics tools. Unlike Iris, Picturesque is not a full-featured image editor — it’s specifically for adding special effects, borders and other eye candy to your images.

And it does it amazingly well. With the click of a few buttons, Cohan added a border to a photograph, added effects to the border, designed some nifty edges for it, added a reflection and had created a pretty nifty web graphic. It even retained transparency, so whatever colour background you put it on the reflection would still look realistic. Numerous examples are available on Acqualia’s web site, so go ahead and have a look for yourself.

Both Youdale and Cohan are still university students, and exuded the kind of giddy excitement that only a young person experiencing their first Expo can exude. "The keynote was a lot of fun," said Cohan, "I got into the room for that — I was in like, row ten. I got in as a VIP, which is really cool." And Youdale chips in: "Awesome". But they’re very serious about their work, and have attended two Worldwide Developer Conferences in the past. "The developer community is really tight," says Cohan, "so seeing a lot of our old friends has been a highlight [of the Expo], and just meeting a lot of new people in the developer community.

Their uni-student backgrounds were evident in their response to the MacBook Air, incidentally. "We want one," they chimed in unison when asked for an opinion. Youdale described it as the ultimate uni student computer. It’s worth noting that the other application you can grab from Acqualia’s web site is Soulver, a calculator like no other you’ve seen before — more like a word processor than a calculator. Keep an eye out for Acqualia — I have a feeling they’ll be around for a while.

A hop, a skip and a jump and a duck to evade the crazy guy with balloon animals at the Google stand, and we’re at Plasq, the maker of Comic Life. Plasq probably has the biggest name-recognition of the Australians at this Expo, simply because Comic Life is bundled into every new Mac that’s sold at the moment — quite the achievement for a little Aussie developer. Plasq was showing off a couple of applications, including a new Leopard-only version of Comic Life called Comic Life Magiq (Comic Life and Comic Life Deluxe are still current, but Magiq is an entirely new version, just for Leopard). Essentially, Magiq adds the ability to create very quick Alpha masks and remove objects in images from their backgrounds amazingly fast and very well. Then you can add the images to other backgrounds, and your Comic Life creations take on a whole new dimension. It even includes a basic chroma-key tool, so you can take photos with no backgrounds, ready to go. Keith Lang, interface designer with Plasq, said that a lot of teachers in particular had been coming up to him at the stand, saying this was exactly what they’d been looking for. Magiq costs $US45, but if you’ve got an existing version (like the one that came for free with your Mac) it’s $US30. There’s also a trial download on Plasq’s site.

The main object of attention at Plasq was Doozla, a drawing program for kids. With modules for free drawing, colouring in, scribbling on backgrounds and so on. Use an iSight webcam to take a snapshot of yourself, and then draw on that or add pre-drawn elements like hats, moustaches and the like. It’s all vector-based, so the end product looks very clean and neat and can be printed at whatever size your fridge door will hold. All this accompanied by fun sound effects that encourage parents to leave the room for their own sanity and leave the kids to draw in peace. Mark Pearson from Plasq described it as "allowing children to be creative in an unrestricted way". It provides pre-drawn images to colour in and backgrounds to work with, but kids can draw and paint and write wherever they want, with big colourful icons that make it easy to pick what they want to do. You can grab a trial download of Doozla as well.

Lang said the response to the stand had been very positive, with lots of people coming through to look and buy. To the question of whether Comic Life Magiq might repeat the earlier success and get bundled with new Macs, he said "there’s no plans that we’re aware of — Apple does what Apple likes to do, and tells us at the last minute. Which is OK". Lang still uses the old PowerBook he received as part of the prize for the Apple Design Award he won for Comic Life, and remarked that the MacBook Air looked good to him because "it’s so light!" and indicated that his posture would be greatly improved by carrying one of those around instead.

Walking further East, away from the madding crowds and huge booths near the Apple stand, we get into the business end of the Expo hall: row upon row of stands, one after the other, hawking their wares. Among the uniformity of these stands it’s hard not to be drawn to the one on the end of the row, at the back of the hall, with a gigantic wizard hat and a colourful diagram that simply screams for closer examination. This is the ProjectWizards stand, where Merlin 2.5 is being shown off (as a side note: project-management software for OS X seemed to be cropping up at every other stand this Expo — who says Apple isn’t selling to business).

ProjectWizards is a German company, so you can imagine my surprise upon hearing a distinctly Antipodean voice demonstrating a product on a nearby Mac. The voice belongs to Gideon King, a Kiwi and the CEO of NovaMind, a Brisbane-based company developing mind-mapping software. NovaMind is also the Australian distributor for Merlin, and ProjectWizards is sharing its space on the Expo floor with Gideon.

Gideon says the show has been great — "I’ve been talking to a lot of people about site licenses for NovaMind as well as selling a lot of product right here on the floor". NovaMind has grown dramatically in the past 12 months, from having just a couple of mind-mapping products to a cross-platform product line of eight products and two books on the subject. This was the third Macworld Expo for NovaMind, and Gideon says it’s getting bigger each year.

While there are a few other mind-mapping products on the market these days, Gideon regards NovaMind as unique in that it includes a full presentation module built in, as well as the ability to attach parts of a screenplay to branches of the "map" and other graphical approaches that set it apart from other mind-mapping utilities. It’s also, it should be noted, completely interoperable with the Merlin project-management software. Asked what he thought of as the highlight of the show (aside, of course, from NovaMind) Gideon said "well, I’ve been on the stand most of the time, so I really haven’t seen anything else". It’s a pretty full-on sort of show.

Over on the other side of the hall, there’s an imposing castle, standing out like a sore thumb against the bright, open stands all around it. This belongs to Crumpler, an Australian bag-maker that has become a style leader internationally. The international success of the company becomes clear as, wandering through the various nooks and crannies of the maze-like structure, all I can find is American voices. There are Australians here, I’m told, but every time I check they’re elsewhere. Oh well, I’m sure they’ll be back next year.

A stone’s throw away from Crumpler — should Crumpler decide to throw stones at them — is STM, another Australian bag-maker making a name for itself internationally. Here I find the indefatigable Adina Krausz proudly spruiking her products. STM updated its product line shortly before Christmas, and is also showing off some prototypes of upcoming products — now why doesn’t Apple ever do that?

One of the prototypes is a very cool laptop bag that allows you to strap the laptop in place, then work on the laptop right there in the case. It’s a work in progress, and heat-management is clearly an issue, but it’s a very clever idea.

Adina says the stand has been a great success for them, and the products they’ve brought over are selling quickly — indeed, sometimes too quickly. Ethan, another Aussie on the STM stand, is getting a few raised eyebrows from his colleagues because "he keeps selling our last samples". If you had to choose the problem you’d have, selling out of your products wouldn’t be a bad one to have.

Happy Australia Day. Enjoy the barbie.

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