Thursday, October 21, 2010

Apple's "Back to the Mac" Keynote

I've got to admit, I really do like covering these Apple keynotes. The company's reputation for theatrics makes their every Media Event a breeze for a blogger like myself - one can deliver news, commentary, and pithy jokes all in the same breath. Look at Steve Jobs! What's with that turtleneck?! Oh man!

Apple's event yesterday morning was called "Back to the Mac" for several reasons, foremost among them the fact that Apple forgot all about Mac OS X the very instant it invented the iPhone. Mac OS X 10.5 was delayed because the company pulled developers off of the project to work on what has become iOS, and 10.6 was a disappointing stopgap release that featured under-the-hood "improvements" and not much else. With today's keynote, Apple is trying to convince longtime Mac adherents that it hasn't forgotten about what is not only its oldest platform, but also the thing responsible for a full one-third of the company's revenue stream.

Unfortunately, the whole event came off as more of a booty call than a true rekindling of Apple's relationship with its operating system. Read on to find out more about how your Mac is about to become a whole hell of a lot more like an iPad.

Steve Jobs shared the stage today with a revolving door of upper-level employees, but the event was orchestrated in much the way that these keynotes normally are. Apple COO Tim Cook took the stage to run us through the first leg of any real Apple press conference: shouting from the rooftops about the exact size of the money pile on which Steve Jobs sleeps every night. Turns out that Apple shipped 13.7 million Macs in fiscal year 2010, and the Mac's massive profit margin means that the pretty computers generated $22 billion for the company in the space of a year. 

After a particularly interminable account of how many Apple stores have opened, Cook stepped down and Jobs gave the stage to a series of software developers.

iLife '11

Apple's consumer-oriented iLife suite, which ships by default with every new Mac, has received a solid update in iLife '11. For current Mac owners, the software is available for order today for $49. 

Contrary to rumors that iDVD would be dropped from this year's refresh, the new iLife still contains all of the programs as have past versions: iMovie for video editing, iPhoto for photo manipulation and organization, iDVD for DVD authoring and burning, iWeb for Web development, and GarageBand for the recording, editing, and exporting of multi-track audio recordings.

iPhoto, iMovie and GarageBand were the three programs demoed at the keynote, implying (but not necessarily guaranteeing) that iWeb and iDVD are due for mostly unexciting token updates. iPhoto features lots of pretty full-screen views and the ability to put together nice-looking slideshows and photo albums with just a few clicks. iMovie gains the ability to put together quick "movie trailers" for your home videos, as well as iPhoto's facial recognition abilities. GarageBand '11 brings guitar and piano lessons to the table, as well as a number of features that aim to make it easier to manipulate audio and to synchronize rhythm and time across different tracks without having to re-record anything.

All in all, the new software is not going to replace professional software suites like Final Cut or the products offered by Adobe, but there were a lot of things in iLife '11 that Mom, Dad and Grandma are just going to eat up.

FaceTime for Mac

FaceTime is the name Apple gives to to the videoconferencing software used on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Apple is now bringing that to OS X via a FaceTime program, now available in beta form.

This download enables OS X users to have FaceTime chats with iPhone and iPod Touch users. The coolest thing about the app is probably that the window on the Mac rotates itself depending on whether the iDevice user has his or her phone or pod in portrait or landscape mode. Oh boy!

No mention was made of Mac-to-Mac FaceTime capability, but if that's a feature you want, maybe you've heard of a program called Skype?

Mac OS X 10.7, aka "Lion"

Let me put it in terms that King James would understand: Mac OS X begat the iPhone, and the iPhone begat the iPad, and the iPad begat Mac OS X.

The preceding statement isn't an exaggeration: the iOS that powers your iPhone started life as a very stripped-down version of Mac OS X with a touchscreen-tailored user interface laid on top. Since the phone's 2007 introduction, that operating system has evolved by leaps and bounds, and it now powers most of the hardware that Apple sells. Now, a lot of the stuff you take for granted on your iPod and iPad is coming to your Mac, thus completing the circle.

The majority of the features demoed by Apple serve to bring OS X in line with the iPhone and iPad - there's Launchpad, which is basically a Home screen for your Mac. It brings together all of your apps into a familiar grid pattern that acts the same way as does the Home screen on your iPad or iPod Touch - apps will resume their previous state when launched, apps can be grouped together into folders, apps can be updated automatically, etc etc.

Oh yeah, it's also worth mentioning that "within 90 days" the Mac will be getting the Mac App Store, a rough equivalent of the iPad App Store. Users can select and download programs in much the same way as they would the current App Store, with all downloads being made available across all the user's Macs. This App Store, which features the same 70-percent-to-the-developer-30-percent-straight-to-Apple payment structure as the iOS App Store, will be available for both OS X 10.6 and the new OS X. Unlike with iDevices, the Mac App store won't be the only way to get programs installed on your Mac. Steve says it will be "the best" way, but you can still install dubious third-party stuff just as you always have.

Aside from these enhancements OS X 10.7, codenamed "Lion," looks a lot like OS X 10.6, which was basically OS X 10.5. For the last half-decade or so, changes to OS X have been largely evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. If Apple were more like Microsoft, this stuff would have been provided via free Service Packs rather than paid upgrade. Since this is Apple we're talking about, though, be prepared to pay handsomely when it is finally released.

OS X 10.7 will launch in summer of 2011. No specific release date, system requirements, or pricing information has yet been brought down from the mountain.

The new MacBook Air

This keynote's infamous "one more thing" was a refresh for the MacBook Air, described by Jobs as the result of a MacBook Pro and an iPad "hooking up."

Like OS X 10.7, the new laptops take pages from the iPhone and iPad. Jobs' goals for the devices were to achieve long battery life and standby time in a slim form factor, and also to lower prices without settling for the slow performance and poor build quality of most netbooks.

Let's talk nerdy tech specs for a minute. There are two units - one an 11.6-inch laptop and one 13.3-inch unit (for reference, the traditional white MacBook has a 13-inch screen). The 11.6-inch machine features 5 hours of battery life and a 1366 x 768 resolution, while the 13.3-inch unit sports 7 hours of battery life and a 1440 x 900 resolution display. Both computers feature a full-size keyboard and trackpad, a Core 2 Duo processor and an nVidia GeForce 320m graphics chip - for the less technically inclined among you, these parts fall into the Fast Enough For Most People category. They'll be great for Web browsing and other light activities, and fast enough for some gaming or video editing when necessary, though professionals and those with higher demands will still want to opt for a Macbook Pro or an iMac.

The most interesting component selection is the hard drive, which completely eschews the traditional "hard drive" found in laptops in favor of flash memory like that found in the iOS devices. While capacities are lower than traditional hard drives - the basic 11.6-inch model comes with 64GB of space, while the 13.3-inch model comes with 128GB by default - the faster speed afforded by a hard drive with no moving parts should lead to much better boot times and general performance.

The 11.6-inch unit starts at $999, while the 13.3-inch unit starts at $1299, and most impressively, you can order one today, if you like.

The Verdict

Yesterday's conference was indeed about getting Back to the Mac, but the iPhone's fingerprints were all over every single product discussed. The Mac and its software are more like iOS devices than ever.

That change, while not entirely unexpected, is certainly unique - we'll see how useful all of these features are when we're actually running this software. My one reminder to Jobs and to Apple (because I know they're taking this in with their morning coffee) is that they should be careful about too much cross-pollination. Especially in the iPad's case, the success of the hardware is driven by the fact that it's running software that was tailor-made specifically for it, rather than trying to cram a desktop operating system onto a tablet as Microsoft has been trying to do for nearly a decade. Bringing useful features from one platform to another is certainly a good idea as long as those features work, but it's important to remember that desktops and laptops are unique machines with their own unique functionality and needs.

Everything at the conference looks like a solid addition to the Mac platform, even if none of it is quite enough to inspire pants peeing. I just hope that OS XI doesn't end up being iOS.