Notes from 'The Fringe': New Apple iCandy dazzles

Tom Yager gives the lowdown on new Mac features

During a Q&A session following Apple’s Town Hall meeting about the iPhone on August 7, no less than Steve Jobs gave me a new nickname: “The Fringe”. He was referring to journalists who solidly panned the iPhone in the first round of high-profile reviews. To my knowledge, membership in that fringe is limited to one.

I wear that moniker proudly, remembering the not-too-distant days when Apple, too, was dismissed as a fringe player and when Jobs himself was written off by the financial media for investing in some crazy idea, considered by pundits inside the sparsely populated fringe as the enemy of profit and market share — namely, innovation.

The big news from Apple’s Town Hall is the three models of completely redone iMacs. Think Cinema Display but with a flush, glossy glass display area where the inset matte viewport whisks users away from mind-numbing PC mediocrity.

The iMac’s reworking in aluminium and gloss-finished glass is as much about pulling commercial buyers into iMac as it is about imbuing desktop Macs with iPhone-inspired style. Jobs repeated the standard iMac line about getting rid of PC cords and cables with iMac’s all-in-one design, but he’s also after the market that uses notebooks as desktops.

Now, why do that when Apple’s MacBook Pro leads in “portable workstation” notebooks? Because Apple wants to get ahead of any potential saturation in the Mac market by moving to a “two Macs for every user” policy. Jobs also alluded to the fact that the least-expensive 20-inch iMac is now more cost-effective than a MacBook Pro, and like MacBook Pro, iMac is now expandable to 4GB of RAM. Jobs had an unusual repeating theme in his presentation that got its first mention in the drumming out of the 17-inch iMac for the product line: “We’re obsoleting our own products”.

If you can’t fight a market perception, own it, use it. Apple also addressed a too-long-neglected peripheral: the Mac desktop keyboard, which has, in recent years, inflicted everything from digital discomfort to nausea. Hooray, it’s dead, replaced by a thin, aluminum number that’s reminiscent of MacBook Pro. That keyboard has wavered in quality as well, but I find that in the latest Santa Rosa MacBook Pro, Apple has come back to its senses.

A user’s rating of his experience is only as good as the poorest human interface device. Yes, the new keyboard will help drive Mac sales, and it’s available in Bluetooth and wired. Other notable new goodies included iLife ‘08, iWork ‘08, and .Mac, Apple’s personal media creation suite, business productivity suite, and online service, respectively. In iLife ‘08, the standout component for business and professional users will be iMovie.

Apple has moved the video editing process from the storyboard straight to the content bin. In other words, the window of thumbnails representing the clips, titles and graphics that you used in your video is where you actually put your video together. Now, you can finally “scrub” through video clips at higher than regular playback speed.

Previously, you had to go to Final Cut Express or Studio to get that. As I predicted, Apple has overhauled .Mac to make it the burgeoning centre of Apple’s online universe.

It raised the puny 1GB storage limit to 10GB. Click on “send to Web Gallery” in iPhoto or iMovie and .Mac will build you a very Web 2.0-y gallery, complete with multiple downloadable resolutions of images and videos.

The integration, as well as the .Mac Web Gallery’s overall design, is fabulous. Bye-bye Office 2004 for Mac, hello iWork ‘08. Maybe. It’s too early for me to judge — Jobs’ demo was a little hasty, and I don’t have the software yet — but Apple blended at least three things into iWork that make a big difference for Office users. Pages has taken on a new word processor mode to complement its powerful page layout mode. It also handles Word-compatible change tracking, and Apple has finally done a spreadsheet called Numbers. Keynote, iWork’s presentation program, has a bunch of new effects and templates, as you’d expect, but it does something that, if it works, is pretty incredible: Instant Alpha. This makes the background of a scanned or imported graphic (I don’t think it works on video) transparent, making non-rectangular graphical elements much easier to create.

Freeing oneself from the bonds of conformity inspires all kinds of visions for what might be done with the technology around us. As long as you come by a dissenting position honestly and defensibly, I recommend speaking your mind. If you get a nickname, own it. Use it.

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