Apple: Worst. Intro. Ever?
A bit over a week ago, in the introduction to my three-part coverage of Nintendo's Wii, I pointed out that when briefing me, companies tended to over-emphasize their new products' supposedly innovative aspects. As you can probably imagine, I've attended plenty of such briefings over my 10-year to-date EDN career. What may surprise you, though, is that one of the worst briefings came from the master of the 'insanely great' Reality Distortion Field. Yes, I'm talking about Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO. On the eve of Macworld Expo, with Jobs' pre-keynote hype already at fever pitch, I thought you might find my impressions of one of his rare 'off days' interesting.
The Special Event (their words)? A February 28th briefing at Apple's Cupertino campus, preceded by a "fun new products" email invite I received one week earlier. This was an atypical approach for Apple*; usually the company uses one of three alternative avenues to roll out new products:
- Jobs' keynotes at MacWorld Expo and the Worldwide Developer Conference (which I didn't attend this year, due to being on sabbatical; Apple completed the PowerPC-to-x86 transition by unveiling the Intel-based Mac Pro and Xserve),
- Product-related conferences, such as the unveiling of the 17" MacBook Pro at this past April's NAB, or of Aperture 1.5 at September's Photokina, and
- Standalone, low-key announcements, such as that of the MacBook in mid-May.
Based on the uniqueness of Apple's late February briefing approach, I decided to make the round-trip Sacramento-to-Cupertino journey, presuming some big news would be unveiled there. Rarely do I tackle the 7-hour roundtrip Amtrak traverse for a single-vendor event; in this case, in retrospect perhaps I shouldn't have made an exception to the rule.
I'm not going to give you the event play-by-play; Ars Technica and Macworld have already done so, and I'll instead refer you to those links for all the details. I was frankly shocked when Jobs walked on stage; he was gaunt, his typically intense energy level was muted, and his voice was faint and raspy (see for yourself). Folks who attended this year's WWDC had similar observations; you can judge for yourself by viewing the keynote video stream. Jobs was treated for pancreatic cancer in mid-2004 and the speculation about a health setback at WWDC was so widespread that it prompted an official corporate denial.
Jobs began by rolling out the Intel-based Mac mini (note: the single-core variant has subsequently been discontinued). This wasn't a huge surprise; he'd already unveiled the Intel-based iMac and 15" MacBook Pro at MacWorld Expo, subsequent to the announcement of the pending PowerPC-to-Intel transition at the 2005 WWDC. The biggest question after MacWorld Expo was 'which one's next?' and when I heard a few days before the Special Event that Apple wasn't accepting orders for G4-based Mac minis anymore, well….Don't get me wrong; the added CPU horsepower, in the same form factor as its PowerPC predecessor, is welcome news, as are other touches such as the optical digital audio output, two additional USB2 ports, and migrations to Gigabit Ethernet, DDR2 SDRAM and a SATA HDD.
But one notable data point that most of the press coverage missed is that with the migration to Intel (along with making Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standard features, versus incremental-pricetag options, although the formerly built-in POTS modem is now an external USB-tethered option), Apple no longer offered a Mac mini variant below the all-important $500 price point which initially fueled consumer enthusiasm for the product. I'm also struck by the fact that the Mac mini is the only product in Apple's Mac portfolio that hasn't subsequently made the leap to Intel's Merom CPU. With LCD-inclusive (and keyboard- and mouse-inclusive) iMacs now selling for as low as $999, and with Intel motivated to move its fab capacity to Core microarchitecture-based products as soon as possible, is the lack of a Yonah-to-Merom migration indicative of a pending Mac mini end-of-life?
Continued with 'The Sound of Silliness'….
*Apple had one other Special Event in 2006, in mid-September when the company rolled out iTunes 7 and the Disney movies available for sale on the iTunes Store, along with the next-generation iterations of the iPod, iPod nano and iPod shuffle.