Macworld Expo: Past, Present, and Future

I have been attending Macworld Expos for about twenty years now...and I have seen numerous highs and (more than enough) lows over that stretch. More than once in recent years, I have lamented the "good old days" of Expos past. Not this time. Macworld Expo 2008 has to go down as one of the best Expos in at least the last ten years. Macworld returned to its roots this year, with significant new Mac(!) products announced by most major vendors (including Apple, who last year barely mentioned the Mac). Attendance was reportedly up, the number of booths was definitely up, the number of conference sessions was up and there was a sense of liveliness and excitement wherever you went. Apple had a great 2007 and it had clearly spilled over to the Expo.

The Keynote

OK, so there were no surprises at the keynote. After years of being more wrong than right, the rumor mills nailed the keynote announcements so well you had to wonder whether a pirated copy of Steveis speech had been making the rounds. Still, even knowing what was coming did not spoil the fun.

The MacBook Air. The MacBook Air subnotebook was the biggest of this yearis big deals. While not on a par with last yearis iPhone revelation, I was still duly impressed when I saw Steve slip the device out of a manila envelope.

Indeed, I was so impressed that I left the keynote with my checkbook already out. But I wisely forced myself to observe a self-imposed post-keynote 24-hour waiting period. By the next day, I realized that the Air was not for me after all. There is definitely a market for the Air, and I believe the portable will ultimately be a success. Itis just that the Air market represents only a small portion of current and potential Mac users, and I am not part of that group.

For one thing, itis not designed to be your only Mac. Unless you already have another Mac (or plan to get one), you are not a member of the Airis target audience.

If, however, you are a frequent traveler who expects to use a laptop mainly to get email, surf the Web, and give a presentation while on your trips -- and you place a high premium on having as light and as thin a machine as possible -- the Air may well fit the bill.

But thatis not who I am. For me, the reduction in size and weight is not worth what I would have to jettison. The Air has no optical drive of course. Beyond that, compared to my 15-inch MacBook Pro, there is no FireWire port (and thus no target disk mode), no built-in Ethernet, no removable battery, no upgradeable memory, no numeric keypad, no 15-inch screen, no microphone port, no PC card slot, a slower CPU, a slower smaller hard drive, and still unanswered questions about exactly how well it will work to wirelessly install software, backup data and troubleshoot. That?s just too much to do without. Iid have been willing to part with some of those specs, but not all of them.

You might think that such a minimalist machine would at least save you money. Nope. At $1799, it goes for only $200 less than a MacBook Pro and $700 more than a MacBook. Unless of course you want the SSD Air. That will set you back a staggering $3098. At such a price, the SSD model can only appeal to those for whom cost is largely irrelevant.

Over the next few years, the price of the Air will drop while its features will go up. As this happens, the Air should emerge as a powerful competitor in the subnotebook market. Until then, I am sticking with my MacBook Pro.

The iPhone. Actually, the ideal lightweight Mac may turn out to be an iPhone. It is already sufficient for me in many situations. And with new features (some certain, some hopeful) coming this year, the iPhone will soon be even more versatile.

With the arrival of the iPhone SDK in late February, legitimate Apple-approved third-party software finally arrives. This opens the door to possibilities that are only hinted at by the current crop of software available now only to those who have risked "jail-breaking" their iPhones.

On the hardware front, a faster 3G network iPhone is a certainty. Hopefully, the arrival of this iPhone 2.0 will be accompanied by further enhancements, such as a larger hard drive, true GPS and expanded Bluetooth capabilities.

The Bluetooth limitations of the current iPhone are hard to comprehend. Essentially, all Apple allows you to do is to pair an iPhone with a mono Bluetooth headset. Imagine instead being able to use Bluetooth for stereo headphones, to transfer files to and from your Mac, to have the iPhone act as a modem, or to connect to a keyboard.

Additionally, imagine this same iPhone with enhanced software that includes cut-and-paste, a Find function, and an ability to run Keynote slideshows on a large screen.

This could all happen this year! (Okay, maybe not the Keynote presentation business, but the rest of it.)

Regardless, I expect Macworld Expo 2009 to be "the year of the iPhone," overflowing with booths showing off iPhone software and hardware peripherals. I can hardly wait.

Returning to this yearis keynote, Steve showed off the 1.1.3 upgrade to the iPhone and iPod touch software. The numerical increment may be small, but the new features are significant. Most notable, the Maps application can now almost instantly find your current location. If you want to use your current location as a starting point for directions, itis now much easier to do, even if you are lost and donit know where you are. As for the iPod touch, you can add five applications, including Maps, previously available only for the iPhone. Doing this truly converts a touch into a phone-less iPhone rather than merely a Wi-Fi-enhanced iPod.

Movie rentals. Steve also used the keynote to reveal the details of the new movie rental option at the iTunes Store. For me, the best news here was that I can rent high-definition movies to play on my Apple TV. I can even download the movies directly to the device, bypassing my Mac altogether.

So far, I have resisted the purchase of a high-definition DVD player. With Appleis new rental feature, I may be able to defer the purchase indefinitely. Of course, the selection of movies at the iTunes Store is limited for the moment. But that will improve over time.

The floor

Was there life at the Expo beyond the keynote? You bet. The Exhibit Hall floors were brimming with new products (and they werenit all iPod cases!). At the top of the heap, there was Office 2008 from Microsoft, Bento from FileMaker and Photoshop Elements 6 from Adobe. Adobeis Elements is so new that it wonit even be shipping for a couple of months. Numerous other companies were similarly showcasing yet-to-be-shipped products. This is actually a welcome change from past years, when booths were mainly showing products that had shipped months before, leaving you to wonder if anything new was on the horizon.

To get an idea of the range and quality of these new offerings, and to see why this was such a resurgent Expo, check out the Best of Show awards given by The Mac Observer and by Macworld. But why stop there? There were many fine products that did not make either list. Here are five of my personal favorites (in no particular order) from "Beyond the Best of Show."

ScanSnap 510M and ScanSnap S300M (Fujitsu). The ScanSnap 510M is simply amazing. Itis a document scanner that has to be seen to be believed. It scans both sides of a page at once, at the rate of a page every couple of seconds. For those who want to do their scanning on the road, Fujitsu was showing off their equally impressive ScanSnap S300M, due to ship in March.

Videocue Pro (Vara). With this nifty program, you can use your iSight (or other) camera to create a video of yourself reading text. A teleprompter scrolls text up the screen so that you can stare directly at the camera while speaking. Even cooler, you can set it up to automatically switch to a movie showing whatever you are talking about, apply overlay titles and add transitions. With little effort, you can make your video podcast look as professional as a network news show.

hf2 headset and headphones (Etymotic). Etymotic has a great reputation for top quality headphones. Theyive been my preferred choice for years. Sadly, I parted with them when I switched to an iPhone, because I wanted access to the microphone included as part of the iPhoneis headphones. Now I can return to Etymotic. Their new hf2 headphones are completely iPhone compatible, including a microphone and remote control.

Quicken Financial Life (Intuit). Intuit insists this is not an upgrade to Quicken Mac 2007, but an entirely new written-from-the-ground-up product. Even though it is currently vaporware (itis not due out until the fall), I include it here because the demo made it clear that Intuit is (finally!) serious about taking full advantage of the Mac interface, down to an iTunes-like interface complete with coverflows. I only hope the final product can live up to the Expo demo. At the very least, it is another indication of the renewed respect for the Mac platform. A few years ago, companies such as Intuit would have never considered investing money and resources in a major Mac-only product. The best you could hope for was a port of their Windows software. Not anymore.

Showtime (Polar Bear Farm). As far as I could tell, Polar Bear Farm was the only vendor at the Expo showing standalone iPhone software. Showtime turns the iPhoneis camera into a video recorder. Itis still in the early stages of development but I include it here as a harbinger of whatis to come when the iPhone SDK is released in February. At present, Showtime requires a jailbroken iPhone. Polar Bear also makes an excellent search utility that allows you to search your contacts and calendar databases.