|[Review] MACWORLD Expo - iTools: An In-Depth Look At What Apple Has To Offer
by Kyle D'Addario
During yesterday's Keynote speech, iCEO Steve Jobs spoke extensively on Apple's newly focused Internet strategy. In a truly brilliant move, Apple decided against another dime/dozen "portal" page and instead focused their energies on a revamped Apple.com site. While the full scope may not yet be understood, Apple has created a near perfect set of truly useful Internet tools.
New Design for Apple.com
The first thing visitors to the Apple.com site will notice is a set of tabs across the top of the page. This interface/layout decision, which is now a standard for all applications across all platforms, will make users new to the Mac platform and the Apple.com web site immediately comfortable. While layout is not the focus, in a situation like this the same rule applies for user interface as for an athletic referee: If it does the job correctly, you should never give it a second thought. No instant replay needed here.
Among the new features of the Apple.com site is the iReview section. Rather than leaving site appropriateness up to a software filter manufacturer, iReview subtly encourages parental involvement regarding children's Internet usage. Web sites falling under a number of different categories are rated, with an initial review by Apple.com affiliated staff members. The real beauty of iReview, however, is the ability for readers to add comments to Apple's posted reviews. Thus, when iReview gets a full head of steam, users will be able to get a wide range of feedback regarding site content, structure, and design. Thus, if a young student is interested on doing Web research on, say, breast cancer, parents will be able to find acceptable educational sites for children to visit with a quick trip to the iReview section. Often parents leave the "cyber-sitting" to a program like SurfWatch, and Apple's new system hopes to increase not only interactivity between children and the Web, but between parents and children as well. Users are encouraged to submit a site for review, and enter reviews of sites they have visited. iReview, however, is not focused solely on children. Those looking for information on any number of topics can find how useful other users have found a particular site. For added convenience, sites are listed by category. Headings range from "Parents" to "Sports" to "Music" to "Computers." This is a surefire winner for novice, as well as expert, users.
Another family oriented feature is the iCard section. Like e-greeting card company Blue Mountain, the iCard feature allows users to send virtual cards to others. iCard topics range from "Holidays" to "Announcements" to "Invitations." Users are given a number of options under each iCard category, and are able to customize the card's message, font, and recipients. When sending an invitation, for example, a user could create one card and send that card to as many people as desired. Sending out URLs, party invitations, or a message to gloat about the Yankees winning again will never be the same.
iTools - Free and Mac-only
The Crown Jewel of the new Internet focused Apple, or jewels as the case may be, is the iTools section. Apple has included four iTools, ranging from the wickedly "cool" to the insanely useful. The four iTools are Email, KidSafe, HomePage, and the next "Killer App", iDisk. These tools are free, and are currently available only to Mac users running Mac OS 9.
Like any other "portal" type site, Apple provides users with free e-mail. The iTools installer takes you through the setup process, and then gives you the option of automatically configuring your e-mail client of choice. Several Mac Observer staff members have already registered, and the auto-configuration process has been flawless. Once registered and configured, users have full POP privileges to a firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail address. Even better, users are given the option of having mail forwarded to another mail account. Thus, if you NEED an @mac.com e-mail address (because it is just too cool), but are comfortable using another mail host and server, all messages can be forwarded, and you can still give people your spiffy new Mac e-mail address. Users are also given the option of creating an auto-reply message. If on vacation, out of town, away from the computer, whatever, simply fill in the form and anyone sending you e-mail will automagically receive that message. Very cool. Now that you have this swanky new e-mail address, how will you let everybody know? Apple has taken care of that for you. They have provided an option during the installation process of sending an iCard to any number of users letting them know of the new e-mail address. They have thought of everything. My entire address book has been duly notified of my newly achieved Mac-geek status.
KidSafe is yet another family oriented aspect of Apple's Internet strategy. KidSafe works like many other filter type applications. Certain sites are deemed worthy or acceptable for children to view, others are not. The difference with KidSafe, however, is that sites have been viewed and rated by educators. "Teachers and librarians" have poured over, according to Apple, 55,000+ sites that have passed KidSafe measures. If iReview takes the subtle approach to children safely using the Internet, KidSafe smacks you right in the nose with it. KidSafe requires the download and configuration of another installer program, and works only with Mac OS 9. Once configured, however, KidSafe will allow children access to educational sites, while forbidding access to non-approved sites. KidSafe takes safety a step further by controlling access to chat rooms, file transfers, e-mail, and games. Apple has covered all the bases, while giving parents control over the desired level of security. If you have young children using the Internet, KidSafe will allow parents to rest easier about usage, and children to squeeze more educational content out of the increasing number of "non-educational" sites.
HomePage, as you might expect from the name, allows users to easily design a web site. Apple provides basic template options: resume, baby announcements, invites, iMovie Theater, and photo album. Once a template is chosen, users can set up headings, layout, content, etc. Early web authoring tools like PageMill and Claris HomePage spring to mind. Adding images is as simple as taking advantage of the last of the iTools, iDisk.
Apple's iDisk is the most robust, and perhaps simplest to use of the iTools. Once registered and logged in, users can click the iDisk tab. By selecting "Open My iDisk" an icon of a disk appears ON YOUR DESKTOP. The volume mounts like any other hard drive volume would, and you can interact with the iDisk as you would any mounted disk. The iDisk provides users with 20MB of disk space, and contains a number of default folders. The Documents, Movies, Public, Sites, and Pictures folders help users organize iDisk files. When using iDisk with HomePage, picture files places in the Photos folder will automatically appear on your HomePage designed page. HomePage and iDisk also allow users to, get this, stream QuickTime movies from their HomePage site. Have an iMac DV and been going nuts with iMovies of the kids during the holidays? Host them with iTools HomePage and your entire family can view them, streaming, off of the Internet. If you do not want to use the iTools HomePage, and have created a move heavy-duty site with GoLive or a similar application, simply drag the site and contents to the Sites folder on your iDisk and you now have 20MB of free server space for hosting a web site. The simplicity of the whole process is beguiling; one constantly feels as if they are missing something. Rest easy, you are not. The design of this is what users have come to expect from Apple in functionality and simplicity.
The beauty of iDisk does not end there. The Public folder allows users to share documents with other iTools users. Simply drag a file into the Public iDisk folder, and any user, with your iTools username, has access to that file. If you need to get files from one floppy-less Mac to another, there is no easier way. For simple file sharing, iDisk is king. By entering in the name of the Public folder you desire access to from the iTools site, that folder appears on your desktop, just like any other folder would. Copying files from iDisk is just like using the Finder. This truly is the next level of drag and drop. Mac Observer staff members tested iDisk yesterday evening by sending MACWORLD related files back and forth to each other. The process of storing files in one Public folder, and having those files accessed and saved by somebody else took less than two minutes. Standard Mac OS copy progress bars keep the user aware of the status of the file. iDisk has brought file sharing to the masses. We have heard for years that operating system designers have wanted to seamlessly integrate the Internet with the desktop environment. Sherlock was the first step in that direction, iDisk has finished the job.
iTools - Not Your Standard Internet Portal
Apples iTools are truly revolutionary in design, simplicity, and functionality. Many Internet "portals" allow for customizable news, perhaps an email account, usually a search feature. iTools go beyond this narrow thinking in spades. By providing the first set of truly useful Internet tools, Apple has shown their long anticipated Internet strategy was worth the wait.
The Mac Observer Spin: Apple has again raised the bar with forward thinking, and near perfect execution. iDisk is neat beyond words. One Mac Observer staff member was even successful in adding it to his KeyChain in Mac OS 9, allowing access to iDisk from the desktop. In the coming weeks, Apple users are going to glow with excitement over the possibilities that iDisk offers. iDisk even has the potential to take off in the Wintel world, if given a chance. Many Mac users are stuck working on one platform at home, another at the office. iDisk could simplify the process of file transfer between those two machines to the point of thoughtlessness. Apple has a real chance here to break into the Wintel mindset, and has now created the second Internet based technology (Sherlock) that leaves Windows users mumbling to themselves. If you have not checked out iTools yet, do so, If for no other reason than to get a peak into the future.
Apple Computer - MACWORLD Expo SF Special Report