Apple: Still pushing industry forward

Apple, actually Steve Jobs, put on another big show this week. The well attended and very well covered show was vintage Apple. Remarkable showmanship with a reasonable amount of actual content.

Apple previews OS X Lion, updates iLife, MacBook Air

Jobs and others said a lot and showed a lot but, maybe, some of the things not emphasized, or even mentioned, foretell the future best.

Most of the show focused on iLife, a collection of applications, each of which I assume is very interesting to some subset of the computer-buying public but only one of them is of any interest to me. I do use iPhoto, but not to print books or make letterpress cards, two functions that have been upgraded or introduced with the new version.

For me, things began to get interesting when Jobs started talking about OS X 10.7 Lion. Lion is the next version of the Macintosh's Unix-based operating system and is due to be released next summer. As an aside, I do wonder what Apple will call OS X 10.8 since they are running out of the classes of big cats. Something else for London bookmakers to offer odds on.

Jobs described Lion as "Mac OS X meets the iPad." By itself, that is not all that exciting. Merging a touchscreen-based interface with a trackpad- or trackmouse-based laptop or desktop is bound to produce some funky compromises.

I did not find any of the sample features all that compelling, although the OS X App Store is likely to make finding, buying and installing good Mac applications a lot easier. I do hope that Apple does not get into in vetting applications for the OS X App Store in the same way it has for the iOS App Store. Since OS X systems are not locked down in the same way that iOS devices are, compulsive Apple control over what applications are available through the OS X App Store would just make it less useful and not stop users from getting any software they wanted to.

The most tantalizing possibility raised by a more touch-enabled OS X is that Apple might release an OS X-based iPod. I have not bought an iPod because I, as a Unix geek, want to have an accessible operating system on my computers. (But, for full disclosure, my wife wants an iPod for Christmas -- and she is likely to get one.)

New MacBook Air

The final segment of the Apple/Jobs show was the introduction of the next generation of the MacBook Air. I wrote about the original MacBook Air when it was announced almost two years ago (Apple's MacBook Air: evolution, not revolution). I bought one at the time and upgraded to the second generation when that was announced. The Air has been an almost perfect travel and presentation machine for me and I have had no second thoughts about not getting a "real," in the opinion of some pundits at the time, computer.

I ordered one of the new Airs as soon as the Apple online store would take the order. The main reason was the increased battery life. With my current Air I have been able to reliably get 4 or so hours of operating time by turning down the screen brightness and turning off the networking, but most of the time I still have to bring along a plug-in power supply. The times I will need to do that with the new machine should be far fewer.

A number of commentators have discussed the instant-restart feature of the Air, enabled by Apple deciding not to support non solid state storage. That will be nice, and will remind me of my early computing days with magnetic core memory, but OS X starts up so fast from sleep anyway I don't think it will make much difference in normal operation.

It may be that the future of Apple's laptop computers has been telegraphed by the decision to drop rotating disks on the Air, I expect that there will be few, if any, Apple laptops in the future with hard disks. Another future trend may have been demonstrated by something that was not discussed during the big show - the new Air does not include a software restore DVD. Instead, it comes with a software restore thumb drive. Apple was one of the first companies to push optical media on personal computers and now it may be the first to deprecate them.

This was not the most important of the big Apple shows. But in little ways, Apple is continuing to cause competitors to play catch-up.

Disclaimer: According to published rankings, Harvard often causes its competitors in the higher ed biz to play catch up, but the university has expressed no opinion on this or any other Apple/Jobs PR festival.

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Scott Bradner

Network World
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