Mac minis, Airport Stories, & a Top 10 List
by - January 14th, 2004
Well, sensation-seekers, it was a good plan. I imagined that I'd write two or three columns during Macworld Expo: first, something in reaction to the keynote, and then a couple of more in which I'd honk on about cool stuff on the show floor.
My heart was in the right place but the Plan was kneecapped by two problems: One, I've barely spent a half an hour on the show floor and now I've got just one day left; and Two, I'm not remarkably good at making stuff up.
(In my own defense, I can bring the heat when it most counts. A few years ago I was in a departure lounge at Logan Airport, waiting for my flight to San Francisco to board. One of my fellow passengers recognized me and struck up a conversation, which happens often enough when I'm flying out for Macworld Expo. Anyway, he asked me some sort of question that required me to unholster my PDA and desperately mine its memory card for a lucid response. I had been tapping buttons for a few moments when I was distracted by the sound of his pupils dilating.
I glanced up. Quick motor reflexes allowed me to yank my PDA to my chest, out of the way of a tendril of viscous drool that was stretching down from a corner of his dangling jaw.
"Is that..." he began, and then he stifled himself as though preventing a blasphemy.
He found his courage. With great solemnity and deliberation, he then asked me if that was really an Apple...an Apple freakin' PDA?!?
Well, of course it wasn't. It was a PocketPC, whose user interface can easily be re-skinned using any number of free utilities. The PDA hardware already looked like it might be an Apple product -- it's no accident that it was named the iPaq -- and after I'd spent a few hours in the Finder taking screen grabs and making tweaks in Photoshop, I'd constructed a perfect Mac OS X interface for the PDA, including an Apple menu and standard window controls.
So naturally, I assured him in the strictest possible confidence that it was indeed a brand-new Apple PDA, running a subset of Mac OS X on hardware manufactured by Sony.
"But Steve's not going to announce it until Tuesday," I said. "So you can't tell anyone that you saw me with this prototype, all right?"
He nodded his head so violently that his glasses flipped down under his chin. Swinging them back onto his face, he regained enough of his faculties to ask me why the prototype said "Compaq" instead of, say, "Apple" or "Sony."
"This is just a demo bed," I explained. "In theory, the OS can run on any PDA with a 320x240 screen and a StrongARM processor. All Sony does, really, is flash the ROM on one of their production PDAs and replace it with Apple's firmware. The OS does a gestalt on boot to make sure it's running on approved hardware, naturally."
He asked me what sort of software would come with it.
"Scaled-down versions of all of the Office apps," I explained, launching the pocket editions of Word and Excel that ship with every PocketPC. "Plus, there's a new pocket edition of HyperCard, so you can create your own applications and your own media-rich content."
"The HyperCard?!?" he gogged.
"And it's compatible with all 1.0 and 2.0 stacks, too. Can you keep a really big secret?"
He assured me that his strength was as the strength of ten men, such was the purity of his soul.
"You know how they ported HyperCard to the new PDA?"
He assured me that he did not.
"They wrote a Mac ROM emulator for it."
"Yup. This handheld will run any Classic app. They won't run any faster than a Mac II, and it only has 16-bit color, but still!"
Okay. This really had gone on for far too long. It was all my fault, too: I'd forgotten about my Fayme. "Fayme" is to "Fame" as "Cheez" is to "Cheese." It has many of the surface attributes of the real thing, and in many ways the two are interchangeable. But if you claim it's the genuine article, you'll get hammered by the Food and Drug Administration. I'm not genuinely famous, but in certain specific places and situations -- Macworld Expo heading the list -- I do indeed find myself autographing things and accepting extremely kind compliments from people I've never met before.
So I joked about having a Super-Secret Prototype, expecting this gent to succumb to initial surprise and delight but then to accuse me of being quite full of **** shortly thereafter. And I just kept raising the stakes, working harder and harder to provoke the desired reaction. But alas, my Fayme interfered with the process. In this poor bastard's eyes, I was Someone Who Would Certainly Be In A Position To Know, when in fact I was Someone Who Was Very Bored And In Desperate Need To Keep Himself Amused.
I quickly changed gears. I told him I was just kidding, and backed up my assurances by turning off the Mac OS X skin to reveal the Windows logo and color scheme underneath. "Just a skin," he confirmed, but he slowly and deliberately winked when he said it, which left me concerned that he'd taken entirely the wrong meaning.
Still, it'd be difficult for me to fabricate enough new products to fill a whole column. Lies deserve as much creativity, industry, and seriousness of purpose as any other endeavor, and when you've spent so much time honing a lie to perfection, you're kind of sorry that it's going to be wasted on something as trivial as a paragraph in a column. Some day, somebody's going to find a gun with your fingerprints on it and then you're going to wish you had a top-notch lie in your wallet, ready to go.
So Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday have been a whirlwind of meetings, and briefings, and rushing somewhere to speak or sign books. Occasionally I had to stand in front of a camera and blurble about the Mac mini for thirty seconds. It's important work; after I finish my thirty seconds, the news person and her crew are confident that all of the equipment is working OK, and that it's time to get David Pogue to step out from behind the curtains and record the comments that will actually see air. Well, I'm just here to help.
Sitting in a one-on-one briefing isn't as much fun as wandering the show floor and seeing the sights, but they're a big reason why I was willing to fly out here no matter how sick I felt on Monday. A good briefing can save you hours of legwork and days of phone- and email-tag, particularly when you want information that can't be crystallized into a quick, clear question.
Take my briefing with Apple, for instance. When I saw the Mac Mini for the first time, one of the first things I thought was "transportable computer." I'm sure that there are plenty of folks who'll buy a $499 mini instead of a $1499 PowerBook. Unplug it from the monitor and the USB chain in your office, toss it in your bag, head on home, and plug it into the screen and the USB in your living room. Viola: your whole world in a compact double-handful, with no need to synchronize files or anything.
So did the mini's engineers take this into consideration? Like, did they improve the seals in the case to give the Mini an extra dose of dustproofing? And the Iron Chef of Mac mini tells me no, they didn't do anything like that, and a VP adds that they don't figure on a lot of people using minis that way.
How about upgradability? Well, the mini is built like an iPod, which means that if you want to add memory or get a bigger drive, you're going to have to take it to an Apple Store or an authorized servicer. Apple says that this is partly because of the nature of the design and the desire to super-miniaturize, and partly because their studies suggest that most Mac buyers never upgrade their hardware anyway. I might agree or disagree with that line of thinking; either way, it's valuable to know what the company had in mind when they were putting this thing together.
Apple briefings are great because they understand that there are these things known as, you know, Press Releases, and I'm going to have a complete set of those when I leave. So they begin the meeting by asking "So what do you want to know?" and we go from there. I have a list of areas that I want to cover, but I can't really give the most immediate answer to the question. It's "Do you have a big stack of Shuffles and Minis under the table, and will I be taking one of each back to the hotel with me today?" Which seems a bit mercenary. I am here in this room to help my readers, not help myself. Still, this didn't stop me (after already having explained that I have a cold and won't be shaking anybody's hand) from threatening to lick my hand and place it atop the hardware of my choice.
Yeah, I knew it wouldn't happen. Still, a boy can dream, and when I walked down the hall towards Apple's conference room and saw a man exiting with a mini carton dangling from his fingertips my heart skipped a beat. This reminded me that my bout with the flu had leached potassium from my system, and I made a note to eat a banana or something later on.
I did wind up with an iPod Shuffle, though. A day later, I was in another conference room, winding up my briefing with Microsoft. They didn't have a whole lot to share. They'd issued a very nifty upgrade to the Mac edition of MSN Messenger, were about to release a new set of Entourage sync conduits, and were rolling out a new ongoing feature for Mactopia.com which would provide free occupation-specific content and Office templates -- stuff geared towards teachers, contractors, lawyers, candlepin bowling alley owner/operators, etc. I also heartily pumped them for information about Microsoft Office's upcoming Tiger-savvy edition. It'll have Spotlight support, absolutely, and aggressive support for Sync Services. And, well, let's see what else. Apple isn't committing to a ship date yet and naturally Microsoft isn't either.
My cellphone trilled and I glanced at the screen, noting that it came from Apple PR.
I made a quick excuse and punched the button. "Hi, Andy. I just wanted to let you know that you can pick up your iPod Shuffle here in the briefing room anytime you want it."
I was there before she completed her fourth "...Hello?...Hello?" No, I'm not proud. Look, I have $99. And -- without being smug or anything -- I'm going to make another $99 before too long. But still, there's something about the words "free iPod" that stir some sort of long-forgotten genetic programming in our primate DNA, as anyone who's been pressured by a so-called friend to volunteer their names and personal information to a vast marketing database can understand.
(When I broke mine open and plugged it into my PowerBook, I was amused to find that its default name as shown in iTunes' Source list is "decafbad." Anybody else?)
Well, tomorrow I'll have all day to wander those lonely streets of destiny, paved as they are with rented carpets. Hopefully I'll be able to mouth off about cool stuff I've seen a little later on. For now, accept a humble offering from my Newton MessagePad 2005 Edition (aka, the spiral notebook I keep in my jacket pocket). David Pogue asked me to participate in his Wednesday morning special presentation. It was pretty last-minute; he was doing a mock talk show, and wanted me to read a top-ten list. I readily agreed. He'd actually invited me to do something three or four weeks ago, but a huge amount of work, followed by the slings and arrows of outrageous influenza, forced me to drop out and I was happy to have a chance to make good.
He emailed me the list that night, inviting me to make any changes I wished. The topic: "Top Ten Ways that Macworld Expo Can Increase Their Attendance Figures." David was going to start the list by explaining that one of the reasons why the old attendance numbers are so vastly higher is that they used to count the number of people who stepped onto the show floor, ignoring the idea that maybe some of these people just stepped out to use the can or something and then walked back in again.
I made a simple change, which boiled down to "I'll keep the #1 and change all the rest." Here we go:
10) Try to convince the Battlestar Galactica convention to move to a different week next year.
9) Attendance qualifies you for a one point reduction on your car insurance in any Pacific state.
8) Fill the Expo hall with the enticing aroma of hot, crisp bacon.
7) Somehow create the impression that the American Idol auditions are taking place at the Moscone Center this week.
6) Have Steve Jobs pep up his keynote with some spectacular and catastrophic OS crashes...the same trick that Bill Gates gooses attendance at his Consumer Electronics Show keynotes.
5) Force all Apple employees at VP level or higher to purchase separate admissions for their egos.
4) Clamp down on that guy from Palo Alto who buys one pass and then drives into the convention hall with like five dudes crammed into his trunk.
3) Spread the word that the Moscone staff finally recaptured the last of the pack of howler monkeys that caused so much trouble the last time.
2) Convert most of the high-stakes blackjack tables to nickel slots.
And the number one way that Macworld Expo can increase their attendance figures:
1) Simple...just go back to the old way of estimating attendance.
We'll be right back with Amy Sedaris, Peter Scolari, and Green Day.
digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.
Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).
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