Apple at MacWorld: No home runs, but solid hits

Nothing incredibly noteworthy has come from this year’s expo

January is the best time of the year for gadget nuts: During the first week we get the madness of the Consumer Electronics Show, and that's closely followed by MacWorld, at which Steve Jobs and crew get up and try to outshine CES and gather all of the buzz in the world of gadgets.

This year was no different -- One week after everyone was focused on Las Vegas and new TVs, digital cameras, and other buzzworthy gadgets, there was Mr. Jobs up on stage, giving us the new MacBook Air ultraportable, a wicked thin wireless notebook, and new iPhone and iPod Touch software upgrades, an upgrade (finally) to its Apple TV device and movie rental deals with iTunes that may spur some more movie-watching on small screens.

Of course, the pundits have checked in with disappointment over this year's crop of announcements from Apple, saying that there was nothing earth-shattering, especially after last year's huge iPhone announcement that changed the way we think about smart phones. Fellow columnist Scott Bradner writes about the MacBook Air, "This is not a product that will change the definition of a class of products like the iPhone..."

Perhaps we've gotten so used to Apple's successes in the past few years that we get overly critical when it doesn't have something earth-shattering. It's like expecting a home run every time David Ortiz steps up to the plate.

Sure, last week's announcements weren't home runs from Apple, but they weren't strikeouts either. A closer look at some of the products and announcements reveals that Apple continues to shape the conversation in several areas.

Let's take the MacBook Air, for example. The IT group probably won't be jumping over themselves to replace their Dell D620s, what with its unremovable battery, extreme lack of ruggedness (sure, it can fit into a manila envelope, but that envelope better be padded for your mobile workers) and missing Ethernet port (a USB-to-Ethernet dongle will be available as an option). But that missing Ethernet port signifies that Apple believes that the time is right for a wireless world. Remember when it stopped providing floppy disk drives on its machines? It got the conversation moving toward where PCs and notebooks should go.

In terms of networking, the new Time Capsule device shines the spotlight on backup and storage in ways that other vendors have failed to do. A wireless router with a storage drive (US$500 for 1TB should get some heads turning) and automatic backup software for Macs with the Time Machine software on it, the Time Capsule appliance should get other home networking vendors thinking seriously about storage and backup combined with their core routers, not as an add-on device.

Even the Apple TV upgrade is significant. The previous device required the unit to be connected (wired or wirelessly) to a PC or Mac running iTunes. While the new version still relies on a user's PC or Mac for content synchronization, Apple TV users can now rent movies from the iTunes Store and have the content appear on their Apple TV box without having to go through the computer. It's a small achievement, but one that could eventually mean products that don't require a PC connection at all.

So while it's true that Apple didn't cause the world to change instantly last week, the products it did announce could change the industry, or at least our thinking of how things should work, over the next few years.

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Keith Shaw

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