Apple Focuses on the Future at MacWorld Expo

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If I'm going to talk about the 2006 Macworld Conference and Expo, (and I am), we have to start with the keynote.

The hardware announcements are, obviously, the big news. But first I'd like to say that only Steve Jobs could get the CEO of Intel to come out in a bunny suit. He's the closest thing to a rock star the computer community has, and that was a great demonstration of that visibility, and just how important Apple is to Intel.

I know there were some rumors that the first portable with an Intel CPU would be an iBook, but I never saw the logic in that. To make the iBook more powerful than the MacBook (nee PowerBook) would border on extreme stupidity. Apple can have its moments, but extreme stupidity is not a hallmark of Steve Jobs.

The advantage of picking the iMac and the middle laptop is that it gives Apple a set of machines that appeal to the widest cross-section of users. That will get customers using them, and get real-world data back on them. While Apple, like any other computer company, has a testing program, the fact is, you can't test everything, so this will give them valuable, real data.

The machines also are a good choice given the current software that's not running natively, namely Apple's Pro applications, Adobe's applications, and Microsoft Office. I did talk to the Microsoft Mac BU folks, and they agreed with Steve's statement of Rosetta, (the translation technology that lets PowerPC binaries run on Intel) being a good environment for Office. While I'll not call Office a light-weight set of applications, the fact is they don't need extreme CPU performance. Given the CPU and bus speed improvements, particularly on the MacBook Pro, Office 2004 SP 2 should run just fine on the Intel Macs.

For Apple to push the highest-end machines, such as the G5 Towers and the 17" laptops to Intel would really hurt much of their core customer base, so they quite intelligently didn't do so. This allows people to make the Intel transition, and gives a number of smaller vendors who have been able to get their applications onto Universal Binaries a chance to shine ahead of the big players.

This is important to Apple and Apple's customers, as it shows ISVs -- who aren't yet in the Mac market, but may be considering it -- that even with Microsoft, Adobe, and Apple as your possible competition, you can do quite well if you have a quality product and react quickly.

As far as the Xserve G5, I've seen a few articles that indicate that many of the higher end Xserve users, such as COLSA and Virginia Tech, told Apple that for right now, there's a clear need for the G5's featureset, and that that, more than anything, is why they are Apple customers. So I'd imagine the Xserve is going to take the longest to move to Intel. While there has been much talk about integer and floating point performance, vector unit comparisons (Altivec v. SIMD) have been missing from the PR. Until that information is addressed in a positive manner, the High Performance Computing folks are more than likely going to stay on the G5.

Please note that Apple is in no way prevented from creating a new server in addition to the Xserve that would run on Intel hardware, but I am not going to say they are or are not -- just that it's a possibility that would handle this particular dilemma.

Watching Microsoft

Going back to Microsoft for a minute, the Virtual PC team probably has the most interesting set of possibilities, as their world has changed far more than, say, the Word team's. They now have a lot of emulation they no longer need to do, so I'll be interested in what comes out of that group in the near future. Microsoft is, like Adobe, in a convenient place. They have both just finished major releases, or updates (Office SP2 and CS2) and, due to the new direction of Codewarrior, have been looking toward a transition to Xcode anyway.

While the Intel switch obviously made this a requirement, it wasn't like they were caught completely flatfooted by this. So they leave the current versions in their Codewarrior environment, and do all the new work on Xcode. While that's not to say there's going to be no legacy code to move over, it means they can do it with new versions of product, and not have to deal with porting the existing versions. So it's not easy, but it's certainly easier.

Another announcement was the use of the Flip4Mac WM codecs by the Windows Media team as their implementation of Windows Media Player on the Mac. First, this is a good thing. Windows Media Player on the Mac was always... well, I'll be charitable, and call it a debacle. Nice idea, but really, really horrid application. The Flip4Mac codecs allow you to use QuickTime and QuickTime Player for Windows Media files. This adds no new features, like better DRM, or Windows Media 10/11 support, but just takes the current Windows Media featureset and puts it in a much better UI.

I've also heard that the Windows Media team is no longer developing Windows Media Player for the Mac. Based on their previous efforts, I really can't say this is a bad thing. Now, does this mean there will never be any improvements in Mac support for Windows Media? I don't know. But since I've not heard anything to counter the no more MS Windows Media Player on the Mac, I'll go along with it.

As far as the future? Who knows? I'm not in the tea leaf business. But the loss of the Windows Media application is no big loss.

One other thing... the Mac BU team never wrote that application. They had really nothing to do with it, so if you want to complain, it's not their fault. You have to fuss at the Windows Media team.

The Microsoft Commitment

Of course, I can't talk about Microsoft without talking about the Microsoft commitment. I have a bit of a cynical opinion, because I think it's silly they felt they had to. The Mac BU is a good business for Microsoft. It's a low-cost, high-margin, and consistent money maker. (Face it, at this point, Office 2004 has got to be hitting the 80 percent to 90 percent profit margin point. It's essentially a license to print money.), Considering that not much else in that division of Microsoft makes money like the Mac BU, it's illogical to think they would just stop the Mac BU's work without some kind of ''agreement'' forcing them to do that work. It's a good business to be in, that's a better argument than any agreement.

But, OK, now the more hardcore fans are happy. Great.

Microsoft also announced that by March, there'd be an update supporting Sync Services and Spotlight in Entourage, along with Smart Card support. All three are much desired and anticipated by Office users, and an update to Mac Messenger 5 that would increase compliance control for corporate users.

They also announced that when the next version of Office on Windows is released, there will be translators so you can access Microsoft Open XML documents in Office 2004. You'll not be able to save out to Open XML, but you can still save them as Office 2004 formats, so you'll not be totally excluded from the Office 12 party while you wait for Office 12 on the Mac (or whatever it's going to be called).

The next version of Office on the Mac is being planned now, and as one of the Mac Word Devs, Rick Schaut said on his blog, the XML formats that will be in Office 12 on Windows also will be in Office 12 on the Mac. So agreement or not, I'm not too worried about the future of the Mac BU.

I'll close this article for now. In my next installment, I'll go into some of the other companies and sessions here at Macworld, but that will have to wait until the show is over.

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