Some Macworld predictions right, others wrong

Tom Yager gives his rundown of the conference

At this time of year, bloggers come out of the woodwork with claims that they have the inside scoop on Apple's product strategy — specifically, the products that Steve Jobs will unveil in his keynote at Macworld Expo. Prior to this year's show, the pinheads really outdid themselves. A bogus "leaked keynote" was distributed, and the number of losers who bought it, vetted it, passed it along, and gave it play in supposedly legitimate outlets broke records. At least when I take a stab at predicting Macworld Expo, you know that it's based on nothing but my speculation and desires. Sometimes I don't score well — I pretty much pooched my Macworld Expo keynote predictions this year — but at least I turn in my own homework and I fess up to what I got wrong. Not only that, but I give you a microscopic look at the flaws in my reasoning.

I predicted that Apple would introduce a new notebook. I was betting on a MacBook Pro with a Penryn CPU. I voiced my hope that Apple would play Penryn's power efficiency for longer battery life. I got more than I dared wish for: A new 12-inch PowerBook, but with a 13.3-inch screen and a case that's three-quarters of an inch tall.

For those who don't need to travel with heavy desktop replacement-grade notebooks, the 12-inch PowerBook was certainly the most portable and practical Mac of all, standard fare among Apple employees. What 12-inch PowerBook had going for it, besides being small and light, was its 1.33GHz PowerPC CPU. Nobody complained about its performance. If you want a notebook that's small, light, and cool, and you want it to fly coast to coast on a charge, slow is good. You don't cut video or compile the Darwin kernel on an ultra-slim notebook.

MacBook Air's Core 2 Duo CPU has a positively PowerPC-ish standard clock speed of 1.6GHz. I consider that to be a major victory of sense over specs. Apple also did its first modern notebook without a built-in optical drive. Apple's USB-powered external SuperDrive DVD burner is $99. The simpler cooling and the space freed by removing the DVD drive was used to backlight MacBook Air's full-sized keyboard, and to squish the case down to a height of about three-quarters of an inch.

This unit also features a multitouch trackpad that supports iPhone-like gestures like pinch and spread to zoom. But the story here, which I'll need hands-on to confirm, is power. Minus the DVD, the fluorescent backlight (it's now LED), and the desktop-speed CPU, MacBook Air has a claimed battery life of five hours. It has a 45-watt charger, so MacBook Air's name may refer to its airplane-friendly power supply.

I felt sure that Apple would roll out its 3G iPhone. It did not. Instead, Apple took to making dramatic improvements to iPhone's software. Google's location-based adaptation to Maps, which uses cell towers and public wi-fi rather than GPS to triangulate position, has made its iPhone debut. iPhone and iPod Touch users can finally create their own icons on the device's home screen, and users can create web clips, snippets of online content that update automatically when the site changes. The latter two features presage the emergence of JavaScript widgets like those offered on OS X.

I can think of several reasons for Steve to keep 3G iPhone backstage. iPhone is marketed worldwide. I expect that Europe will be the growth market for iPhone, and Europe is GSM, the standard that iPhone uses now. Redesigning iPhone for 3G would be expensive, considering that buyers outside the United States wouldn't use the feature at all. Developers in the US would also be tempted to create sites and applications that take the 3G bandwidth for granted, filling iPhone's pretty screen with detailed graphics that take GSM/EDGE subscribers forever to download.

And lastly, there's AT&T. Its slower EDGE data networks sagged under the initial load of hundreds of thousands of browser-happy iPhone users with their unmetered data plans. Unmetered 3G service may not make financial sense.

I've found the Time Machine automatic backup feature in OS X Leopard to be too cumbersome for users without external hard drives, but I figured that it would be a "fixed in next release" issue. I wasn't alone in pointing out that AirPort Extreme, a base station that supports directly attached USB hard drives, would be perfect for centralised backup of Time Machine-equipped Macs, but AirPort Extreme's software doesn't support it. The only solution to date has been Time Machine Server on Xserve, somewhat costly for small and departmental networks. Apple struck an ideal middle ground with Time Capsule, an 802.11n base station that supports up to 1TB of internal disk storage. Time Capsule publishes itself to the network as a Time Machine server. I don't know whether Time Capsule allows the use of USB-attached hard drives to add to its network backup capacity.

Lastly, Apple has entered the movie rental business, which was expected, but it added a twist: If you have iPhone, iPod Touch, or Apple TV, a PC or Mac running iTunes is optional. You can buy and download iTunes content directly from your mobile or set-top device.

If you're looking for the IT relevance here, take note of Apple's model, which challenges presently popular practices. Apple is using rich, native software to cut out the middleware and to give mobile, desktop and home users, working over networks of unpredictable bandwidth, a similarly satisfying experience. Direct connections between users and applications can be done safely, reliably, and efficiently, and trackable protected data can be persisted on the client. For all the clamor over AJAX applications that go useless the instant you're offline, the connect-authenticate-transfer-disconnect model may seem old fashioned, but it works everywhere.

I got a lot more from the Macworld Expo keynote than I bargained for.

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