Confessions of a keynote virgin

Alex Kidman
17 January, 2008
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"Don’t forget to get there very, very early", was the advice given to me by practically everyone prior to this morning’s Macworld Conference Keynote. "Things get pretty hairy", they claimed — and they weren’t referencing Australian Macworld’s fine editor. So at 5am, having been woken by the loud gentleman speaking German VERY LOUDLY, I prepared to wander down the chilly streets of San Francisco and wait. And wait, and wait, and wait. Annoyance doesn’t quite cover my mood when another Australian journalist makes an appearance two hours later, right behind me.

After much standing around, we’re ushered into the keynote itself. Except you could replace "ushered" with the word "stampede", as journalists fly left, right and centre in an effort to be as close to the stage as possible. You know how Clark Kent is classically said to be a mild mannered reporter for a major city newspaper? Well, Clark wouldn’t have lasted three minutes in this crowd, Kryptonite or not. Thanks to a quick alliance with an ex-NRL player, myself and Matthew end up a scant three rows from the front of the media section, which is to say about fifteen rows from the front — we’re all seated behind the "VIP" section, with bouncers rather strictly bouncing those who try to get a little closer.

And then the keynote starts, and the crowd goes suitably wild at most of the undoubtedly pre-prepared times… for the most part. You could have heard a pin drop when Steve Jobs announced that the iPod touch upgrades would cost real money. Which is something that I doubt Apple really wanted, although they probably expected a little critical feedback.

What then, of the new products? Well, this shouldn’t be taken as a firm Macworld review — those will come in time — but I’ve got to say that I’m exactly as enthused by the Apple TV right now as I was twelve months ago. Which is the kind way — and I’m noted worldwide for being a kind, considerate soul — of saying "not at all". The new features are indeed quite nice, and it’s good of Apple to offer the software upgrade to existing owners — although why the same free software courtesy can’t be extended to owners of the iPod touch befuddles me — but the Apple TV, at least from the Australian perspective, is just too damn limited to be worth bothering with. Yes, the interface looks cleaner, and it’d be great to be able to quickly search through a library of thousands of movies and TV shows. If only we HAD a library of thousands of TVs and movies to begin with. It’s clearly a lucrative market — Jobs mentioned that iTunes sold 125 million TV shows and 7 million movies, which has to be good for Apple’s bottom line. It’s proably also lucrative for Apple to sell the Apple TV locally. But without both parts of the puzzle, it’s not worth it to invest early in the Apple TV.

The new iPhone and iPod Touch features are quite cool, and the audible laugh when the iPhone icons trembled before Steve’s might as he rearranged was as loud as much of the applause was. It’s undoubtedly annoying that iPod touch users have to pay to get new features when iPhone users don’t, but I don’t think too many of those users will baulk at the asking price. For the record, while I thought the iPod touch was nice technology, the lack of mail over WiFi was the last real block to me buying one, so I might join their number sooner rather than later.

Time Capsule is a great concept, and once again it’s got the solid industrial design that Apple does so well. At the same time, it annoys me. Not because of what it is, but because of what it seemingly can’t do, and also because of what it means for users with existing wireless networks and especially NAS setups. Clearly, it’s technically feasible to backup over wireless using Time Machine. But only if you buy a Time Capsule; there’s no word as yet as to how (or if) owners of other NAS systems will be able to wirelessly back up to their drives. Once you factor in that Time Capsule doesn’t feature any level of RAID, my enthusiasm drops. Backup is great stuff, but without some form of data redundancy at the backup level — and preferably redundancy where you can replace drives as and when they die — it’s just not as good as it could (or arguably should) be.

And then there’s the big gun — and the thing that, with hindsight, I would have thought would be Steve Jobs’s "one last thing" — the MacBook Air. A quick hands-on reveals it to be a very tech-lust-worthy bit of kit, although the asking price does leave me a little puzzled. Yes, it’s very light, portable and it does look great, but the pricing puts it well above the MacBook market, but close enough to the MacBook Pro market to make that a viable option, and one with a lot more power on offer. As such, the question that bugs my mind is who exactly is going to buy the MacBook Air? Rather like the Cube well before it, it’s a great bit of industrial design, somewhat marred by what it doesn’t or won’t do.

There are the minor factors, like the inclusion of only a single USB port. The lack of an optical drive isn’t a killer thanks to the remote disc technology built into the Air — and transferable to PCs and other Macs — but I’ve got to wonder when (and if) they’ll make the same software available to the rest of us. Sure, my Macbook has an optical drive, but being able to so simply share additional drives opens up a world of possibilities for all Mac users, not just those who buy the Air. Time will tell, I suppose, if they do open it up — and based on the iPod touch pricing, perhaps on how much they charge for it. The same thought applies, of course, to the use of Multi-Touch gestures in the Air. I strongly doubt that the touchpad on the Air is technically much different to those on the Macbook and Macbook Pro, but my gut feel is that Apple won’t offer multi-touch gestures on those systems, simply in order to make the Air more exclusive.

Then there’s the solid state storage 64GB drive. At the time of writing, Apple’s offering two Macbook Air options. The 80GB, normal hard drive version with a 1.6GHz chip will cost you $2499, while the 64GB SSD Drive version with a 1.8GHz chip will cost you $4,338. That’s one heck of a price difference, and it’s one that blows away the comparison with the MacBook Pro. Again, the question that bubbles up for me is — exactly who is going to buy it at that price?

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