Schiller: Less than killer, more than filler

David Braue
14 January, 2009
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Phil Schiller’s keynote debut has come and gone, and Apple is still in business, and everybody is going about their own business, and all the Macworld critics have gone home to blog out their frustrations.

Now, after a week’s reflection, is the earth still moving for you?

For me, it trembled a bit, if only because one of my most significant ongoing dreams – the addition of automatic face-based tagging to iPhoto ’09 – became reality. I have occasionally ranted about the difficulties I have in managing 40,000-plus photos in iPhoto without being able to use third-party tools to tag the files, but it’s clear that this is the best option available for now.

And, heck, I have more than a few photo book ideas waiting to be published – and I’m a bit tired of waiting for the perfect photo manager. So, barring major failures in my tests with face recognition in iPhoto ’09 (and unless the long-awaited Picasa for Mac beta could trump iPhoto’s capabilities), it’s likely that I’ll soon bite the bullet and move everything – and that is a lot – into iPhoto. Import first, ask questions later.

I also like the return of features to iMovie ’09, such as exporting a project directly to iDVD, which seems so obvious that its exclusion is laughable. I have spent much of this month digitising over 100 videotapes covering the past decade, so will have much to do with iMovie and I’m glad it will be a better, easier version to work with.

Many observers have ranted about the keynote being boring, safe, and all that. Well, of course it was going to be; although I hoped (and figured) we would have a preview of Snow Leopard and OpenCL doing mind-bending calculations on OpenCL, I can appreciate that it’s still too early. Expect all that towards mid-year instead.

What I thought was most important in the keynote, however, were the strategic decisions Apple has made.
Consider, for example, its iPhoto integration with Facebook and Flickr. That’s great, but most other photo management programs also support photo-sharing sites like Picasa Web, which is used by millions of Google Picasa and iPhoto users to post and share photos online.

Could the omission of Picasa Web support really be an oversight? Did Apple ignore it because Google already offers a plug-in for iPhoto users and Apple didn’t see the need for explicit support? Or, could the omission be somehow related to the fact that Google finally demonstrated a beta of Picasa for Mac at Macworld, which finally offers another alternative to iPhoto (although, technically, Google has designed it as a complement to iPhoto).

In a similar vein, I was surprised that while Apple was pushing the geotagging credentials of iPhoto – and they are, to give them credit, very cool – it does not offer Google Earth integration and has apparently built its own world-map interface. The location data may come from Google behind the scenes, but Apple has definitely tried to put its own look and feel on this interface – unlike pretty much everybody else offering this feature, which is normally built around and tied to Google Maps and Google Earth.

Indeed, I got the sense that Apple’s keynote was not only about showing the company can innovate even without Steve Jobs’ mug on every Web site from Cupertino to the Carpathians; it was a momentary gesture of defiance, a way of saying the company is still in control of its destiny and isn’t going to be dictated to – even by Google, with which it has had a strong if arm’s-length relationship in the past.

This attitude was most obvious in the announcement of iWork.com, perhaps the most significant thing Schiller spoke of onstage – not because it will change the world, but because it shows that even Apple recognises that online document sharing and collaboration have become essential capabilities for any company that purports to offer real workplace capabilities.

Despite what everybody wants to believe, Google Apps is still not a viable replacement for Word in most businesses (although I admit many may find it useful in specific cases). But that may change steadily, since everybody knows which direction the online apps market is headed: towards Microsoft, which is quickly pushing online in its own way.

Launching iWork.com, even if it’s only good for sharing documents and doesn’t support real work yet, is Apple’s way of putting a stake in the ground – saying that it will be the master of its own destiny online. Just how far it will take this, I do not know – but there are many who would value an online version of iWork ’09, which is inevitable if Apple wants to remain relevant in the ever more-important Web applications space.

That was an important point for Apple to make, not only because it charts an important future direction for the company, but because it was a way of saying ‘we’re back’ after the six-month fiasco, now largely attenuated, that has been MobileMe.

It may not have inspired product lust, but Schiller’s speech was pretty much what Apple needed at this juncture. We’ll all await new and interesting gear later in the year, but for now the product updates we got will be enough to keep me, and many others, more than busy.

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