Wrapping Up the Expos: You Asked, My Thoughts

In a word, the last couple of weeks have been brutal—too much to see, do, and write about. I haven’t had the opportunity to share most of my personal thoughts on what’s taken place at CES or Macworld Expo, but wanted to do so, particularly because there have been requests from readers like you. So, here they are while I’m in-between other projects, in unfiltered and unedited form, in the general arrangement of the Apple keynote speech at Macworld Expo. Feel free to add your comments below.

The Shows, Overall: A friend summed it up properly: “meh.” The entire consumer electronics industry was bracing for gut punches at the Macworld keynote speech, but that never happened; between Steve Jobs’ four “huh?” announcements and the lack of a “One More Thing…” biggie, this year started out with a dull thud rather than a bang. I watched a massive crowd of media assemble to see Jobs’ keynote, rush inside to take seats, and wait with bated breath through a Randy Newman performance for some surprise, then trickle out with amazingly limited enthusiasm. In the media room after the keynote, the people around me were too busy moving up their flights home to even care about anything on the show floor; after snapping their photos and writing 20-minute long first “reviews” of the MacBook Air, there was nothing to keep them there.

1. Time Capsule: I will fully and completely admit that I have been lobbying for an Apple-made network storage device for the past couple of years. And that I was elated to see it finally unveiled. At reasonable prices. And with the ability to link into Time Machine.

This is all great stuff. But what’s with the recycled, oversized AirPort Extreme design? The oddly Time Machine-centric focus, without much discussion of serving as a family’s central iTunes or Apple TV media server? And an Apple hard disk without a FireWire port? I’m still mulling this one.

2. iPhone/iPod touch Software Updates: Other than the leak of the iPhone’s software prior to the event, this was the most impressive iPhone update yet; I can’t tell you how much I love the pseudo-GPS location finder and the ability to reposition icons on the iPhone’s menus. While I’d like to see the iPhone get dedicated Music and Videos buttons like the iPod touch—perhaps other individual music/audiobook/podcast buttons, too—this could hardly have been a more welcome addition.

Regarding the iPod touch, my unit is still completely screwed up from trying to run the update, and I haven’t had the chance to go to an Apple Store yet to get it fixed. Combined with the $20 asking price for those applications, and the iPod touch screen problems, et cetera, you can probably guess why I’m so underwhelmed with the way Apple’s been handling the iPod touch and iPod touch customers. It’s hard to recall an Apple product that so consistently reminds me of all the strings that are attached, and makes me wish for something better, soon.

3. iTunes Movie Rentals On-Demand, and Apple TV: This is what happens when Apple has to (a) make nice with Hollywood and (b) deal with too many devices at once—a messy, confusing jumble of offerings that defy almost any attempt at understanding. So now some iTunes movies are available at full DVD quality, while others are at sub-DVD quality, and others are at HD quality, and you can only buy, rent/transfer, and watch the different types of movies on certain devices, at different prices? What ever happened to the “get a file, watch it on everything, it just works!” model?

Most of the time, I use iLounge editorials to propose “works best for everyone” solutions to situations like this one, but something tells me that this particular set of issues isn’t going to be resolved any time soon. When Steve Jobs gets on stage and tells people that iTunes will be getting videos 30 days after their DVD releases, that there are three tiers of variable pricing, and one format that can’t even be downloaded by iTunes—only Apple TV—it’s obvious that something’s wrong; Jobs knows that average people hate confusing rules, files that don’t play on all of their devices, and variable prices.

Surely, this is another one of those baby steps towards a smarter, simpler iTunes Movie Store; the company had to do whatever it could to win over all the major film studios to an Apple-sponsored service.

Apart from the content boost it received from movie rentals, Apple TV continues to come across as a messy product that the company can’t quite get a handle on. After the botched launch, it’s my feeling that the $229 price drop isn’t going to be enough at this point to move these off of shelves and into living rooms—Apple must be planning for future hard drive capacity bumps at the same price—and the new Apple TV interface strikes me as a real work in progress, too. The new features are impressive, but the way they’ve been integrated into the device lacks for the intuitiveness and class Apple built into the first version of the UI. Certain parts, like the way you’re supposed to browse the iTunes Store via unlabeled images, strike me as downright scary omissions if they’re going to be in the 2.0 software that actually ships a week from now. Regardless, I’m going to need to spend more time with the software before I decide whether the units here are going to continue to gather dust, or are going to come into their own sometime later this year.

4. MacBook Air: In short, this wasn’t the Macintosh computer that any of iLounge’s editors wanted, and none of us intends to buy one. I could go through the list of reasons in an amusing and/or exhaustive way, but three concepts basically sum it up: 13.3”, low-speed I/O, and $1799. Everyone expected something smaller, cheaper, and/or breakthrough in features. Apple went with last year’s performance in a thinner, more expensive shell. The “impossibly thin” pitch has become almost predictable at this stage, and apparently isn’t impressing people as much as it did when the iPod nano arrived in 2005.