Mac faithful lose their marbles

The gentleman beside me appears to have lost his marbles. He squirms, he sweats, he makes noise: slapping his palms together, stamping his feet, gasping, yelling and squealing.

The gentleman beside me appears to have lost his marbles. He squirms, he sweats, he makes noise: slapping his palms together, stamping his feet, gasping, yelling and squealing.

This is what it’s like deep inside the Reality Distortion Field. I’m at Macworld 2004, the convention for the Macintosh faithful, watching Apple CEO Steve Jobs work the crowd. The Jobs keynote is fun to watch; part geekfest, part rock concert, part religious revival.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Mac, and Jobs is happy to spend some time reflecting on the milestone. In 1984, the graphic user interface was virtually unknown outside research circles and all computer users needed to learn the command line. “It was very weird,” says Jobs. But the Mac changed that.

“It was literally a decade ahead of everything else — the computer for the rest of us, those who didn’t want to learn computerese.”

Apple has been through leaner times since then — the product line through much of the 90s was uninspiring, underpowered, overpriced, incompatible, and very beige — but there’s no question Apple has successfully regained the initiative. People expect some surprises from a Macworld keynote, whereas most developments in most industry sectors can be reliably predicted years in advance. It’s ironic that it’s the Macworld convention that is most likely to change the landscape of the PC industry.

For IT managers, much of the Macworld brouhaha will pass somewhere under the radar. But these days Apple products cover the computing gamut, from portable MP3 players to enterprise storage. The new hardware Jobs introduces first is specifically aimed at IT departments: the Xserve G5 range of 1U rackmount servers based on IBM’s 64-bit G5 chip. These are impressive machines, with a 1GHz frontside bus and single or dual processors. Keeping temperatures down has obviously been a challenge for the engineers: the Xserve now features cooling vents on the front.

A companion storage server, the Xserve RAID, holds up to 3.5TB of data. Starting at $10,799 plus GST, Xserve RAID has been popular with users of other operating systems, and Apple is keen to encourage them. Jobs announces that 11 storage and OS vendors have certified the Xserve RAID for use with their products, among them Microsoft, Red Hat and Veritas. It’s a clever move: once the new users have accepted one Apple product (or “drunk the Kool-Aid”, in Macintosh parlance), they could be more receptive to the rest of the range.

Perhaps the biggest news of the convention wasn’t announced at the keynote. Two days after Jobs’ presentation the company announced that HP will sell its own branded version of the iPod and bundle iTunes on its consumer desktops and laptops. It’s an unexpected move by HP and Apple and a poke in the eye for Microsoft, which had probably expected all the OEM vendors to dutifully line up and offer its music store, due later this year. In the

New York Times, a Microsoft executive managed to describe the deal as limiting consumer choice. HP, however, probably sees itself as giving customers what they want.

Like the Xserve RAID, the "HPod" is a Trojan horse, introducing users to an Apple product who probably wouldn’t have considered buying one themselves. Perhaps their next purchase will be a Mac. In a world where Microsoft certifies Apple hardware and HP snubs its OS vendor for the competition, perhaps the industry isn’t as static as we thought. Kudos to those companies for taking some risks.

Cooney, a Computerworld reporter, visited Macworld as a guest of Apple distributor Renaissance.

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