Apple's solid Macworld is kind of a letdown

Steve Jobs puts out a super-thin notebook, a movie rental plan, a better Apple TV, and some improvements for the iPhone.


Farhad Manjoo
January 16, 2008 2:03AM (UTC)

In an incisive post the other day Daring Fireball's John Gruber pointed out that following Apple is something like Kremlinology. In order to suss out the party's direction, you've got to look at the merest details -- the slogans, the posters, the silences. Reading the tea leaves, Gruber guessed that CEO Steve Jobs' keynote address at Macworld this year would be a "medium" one. There probably wouldn't be anything as big as the iPhone (which premiered at Jobs' Macworld speech last year), but there'd be at least one big new thing.

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That guess was on the mark. Jobs put out three new or substantially improved devices, and he announced the movie rental plan that we've been talking about in these parts for several weeks.

Scroll down for a bullet list of the smaller announcements. For now, let's concentrate on the two big ones:

  • A super-thin notebook computer, called the Macbook Air, that earns all the adjectives we're used to applying to Apple products -- small, stunning, beautiful, unbelievably well-designed, should-be-legal-to-marry-in-blue-states, etc. Jobs calls this the world's thinnest notebook computer, and looking at it you conclude that to get any thinner it'd have to violate fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. $1,799 gets you a 1.6 GHz Core 2 Duo model, with 2 GB memory and an 80 GB hard drive. For $3,098, you can get a faster model -- 1.8 GHz -- that also packs a 64 GB solid state drive, which has no moving parts, and is fast.
  • Starting today, you can rent movies through iTunes. Apple has signed deals with every major studio, and it aims to have 1,000 films available by the end of February. The films go for $3.99 for new releases and $2.99 for older titles. You'll get 30 days to begin watching a rented film, but once you start playing it you've got to finish it within 24 hours. The films play on Macs, PCs, iPods, iPhones, and the Apple TV set-top box. A subset of the films are available in high-definition video -- these go for $1 more.

    And about that Apple TV: Jobs announced a complete revamp. He admitted -- as many critics, including me, had pointed out -- that the first version of this device, released early in 2007, was a miss for the company, because it forced you to manage and buy your media from a computer before you could watch it on TV. The new Apple TV works without a computer. You can buy music and rent movies directly through the device, and rented films will begin to stream to your set immediately. Apple reduced the price of the thing from $299 to $229, and all current Apple TV owners will get the improvements through a free software update.

The Macbook Air is going to get the headlines today. It's a classic example of Apple engineering: The company looked at all other such products in the market -- ultra-small, 3-pound notebooks -- and attempted to beat them on every feature.

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It packed in a bigger display -- a 13.3-inch screen that's lit by a power-saving LED bulb -- a bigger keyboard (also backlit, which helps when working in the dark), and a faster processor than on other small notebooks, but in a device that's actually smaller, thin enough to fit in a manila envelope.

Particularly remarkable is the Intel processor Apple squeezed in. Apple and Intel worked together to create a full-speed Core 2 Duo chip in a package that's 60 percent smaller than Intel's standard chips. The computer's entire circuit board is about the size of a 3-by-5 flash card.

To get the machine so small, Apple did have to skimp on one one thing: There's no optical drive -- that is, a CD or DVD drive -- in here.

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You can buy an external one for $99, but Jobs says most users won't need it because they'll get their media and software online. If you do want to install software from a disc, Apple has created a way for the notebook to borrow another computer's drive over a wireless network; it works with drives on Macs or PCs.

Is this a major limitation? I can imagine one scenario where it'd give me a headache -- when I want to watch movies while traveling.

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Jobs is anticipating a day when we'll be connected everywhere, able to rent movies or TV shows over the Internet at any time.

That day may soon arrive, but it's not here yet. I take three Netflix DVDs with me on every trip -- and because Netflix has a far greater selection than iTunes, and because there are still many places where I can't connect to get a movie, I expect to be doing that for some time.

Indeed, let me note again that Apple's rental plan, while a feat of movie-business dealmaking, is still a bit lame. It's that 24-hour limit that gets me. Every DVD rental shop in the world lets me rent older titles for more than one day, and the most successful DVD rental company, Netflix, imposes no limits on any movies at all.

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This is not Apple's fault; it's pushed the studios further on this than has any other firm. But until the studios are more lenient on these terms -- you can't give me five days to watch a movie? -- I don't see how Apple's service can compete with Netflix, which, for $17.99 a month, gives you three movies at a time at home, and unlimited streaming of the 6,000 movies Netflix offers online.

So -- after Randy Newman came onstage to perform a strange and funny anti-Bush, pro-America song -- I walked out of Macworld feeling a little underwhelmed. Sure, it was a great one; from any other company, these announcements would constitute a good year's work.

But compared to last year's event, in which Jobs gave us an entirely new kind of device, this one felt flat. That's the trouble with the sort of corporate secrecy Apple favors. Sometimes it gins up unrealistic expectations; I wanted, like, an Apple Space Station or an Apple Fuel Cell or a white-plastic device that would pave the way to universal healthcare.

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But that didn't happen. Instead, in addition to what's above, here's what else Jobs put out today:

  • Time Capsule, a network storage drive and Wi-Fi base station. The device, which works with the Mac OS's new Time Machine feature, acts as a central backup location for all your computers. It sells for $299 for a 500 GB version, and $499 for a 1 TB version.
  • Software improvements for the iPhone, including a new Maps application that uses Wi-Fi networks and cell towers to locate where you are -- like a GPS device without GPS. You also get a customizable Home screen on which you can shift around buttons to your liking. The improvements go to all iPhone users on a free software update; iPod Touch owners have to shell out $20 for similar features.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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