Spinning Gears :: Wrapping Up Apple’s “Back to the Mac” Event

new spinning gears
(this brand new image for Spinning Gears columns is courtesy of Narilka, who graciously gave permission to use it!)

So Apple’s “Back to the Mac” event just concluded, and if you were a betting person and bet on some substantial new hardware today, you’d have lost some money. Don’t get me wrong, we got a brand new line of Mac netbooks in the form of the 13.3 and 11-inch MacBook Air, and we got some substantial improvements there that hopefully will make their way across the Mac lineup, but all in all the event was what most people predicted and the rumor mill expected: new Mac OS, new iLife, new MacBook Air.

Let’s hit the major points, shall we?

back to the mac event

Facetime for the Mac

This is probably the most interesting announcement. Facetime and video calling have taken off now that the iPhone 4 has it and the new iPod Touch has it, and with Facetime for the Mac, you can place video calls to people who are mobile using your desktop or laptop Mac. Apple is even making a beta of the product available today to those people running Mac OS 10.6 “Snow Leopard” or later, and the feature will likely be integrated with 10.7 “Lion.”

Still, video calling has long been a priority for Apple, starting with iChat (which is now likely a dead product, or at least will be renamed and integrated with Facetime) and eventually making its way to mobile devices, where competitors have been scrambling to keep up by either introducing their own video chat apps or by modifying their apps to be more palatable to a modern audience looking for a service and utility like Facetime.

Watch for video calling to really take off from here though – this is the kind of sleeper technology that Apple is excellent at pioneering; they don’t have anything to lose by doing it – they have the tech, they have the code, they have everything to gain by marketing it and making it a highlight feature in their products, and their competitors will want to do the same since they – on the other hand – have something to lose. The future is now.

iLife 11 and GarageBand

Don’t get me wrong, the new iMovie and iPhoto look sweet, and facial recognition in iMovie is an excellent power feature that’s made its way down to the consumer product. The new iPhoto full-screen view and visual photo management tools are really slick as well – I just don’t think these are earth shattering for Apple. The people who use these products will love them, the people who are really wedded to Apple software as a platform will love them, but prosumers, techies, and cross-platform users will likely look for alternatives that still get the job done, or Web services that do the same.

Still, I think iMovie is rising in popularity as an incredibly easy to use and useful movie creation utility, to the point where some people look to a Mac just to make a quick home movie over other platforms. We’ll have to see.

Mac OS 10.8 “Lion”

When Steve Jobs started talking about “what would happen if an iPad and a MacBook hooked up,” I cringed. The iOS look and feel is great for a mobile device, but it’s horrible when you think about a primary computing platform. It’s wonderful for a device you’ll use even frequently with quick access to apps and features, but it’s not the type of interface I want for managing files, folders, utilities, and multiple applications that I want to switch between quickly.

I said as much on Twitter:

Facetime for the Mac = awesome. Lion somehow bridges iOS and Mac OS? This…could actually be horrible. Please don’t be horrible.

Thankfully, my wishes were granted. The new full-screen app display doesn’t totally mimic the iPad or iOS layout, but it does bring back some interesting things to Mac OS that make iOS so useful and well-designed, things like the ability to return directly to what you were doing in an app when you closed it (session or state saving,) full-screen support so you can single-task on the items at hand, and multi-touch gesture support for those folks (like me) with laptops using trackpads. I’m jazzed about all of those things, and it’s coming in Summer of 2011.

Then there’s the “App Store for the Mac.” It’s coming this winter, and it’s supposed to be a both Web-based and utility-based unified application market for MacOS. Okay…cool, a great way to discover and find new apps and read reviews from other people who have used them. A unified payment system for new apps? Sure – that will encourage development. Even so, you can tell I’m hedging my bets here, because Sascha Segan of PC Mag tweeted this gem that bears repeating:

Apple is in love with closed, unified, largely modal experiences … and Lion seems to be bringing that to the Mac.

The last thing I think Mac OS needs is what this could quickly become: an app store with a stringent approval process where Apple pulls the strings and defines what you can purchase through the store and what you can’t, what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and what can be shown to Mac owners in the store and what won’t be (adult titles, publishers Apple doesn’t get along with, etc.)

The slippery slope here is that eventually Apple will make it so that you have to jailbreak your own Mac to install software that you want to install and doesn’t necessarily come from the Mac App Store. If Apple ever gets to the point where you have to have an approval process to build everything from an IM app to a media player and they have final say over whether the app “duplicates existing functionality,” and decides to reject it, or they decide to reject apps arbitrarily based on content (adult or explicit content, for example,) it would be suicide for Apple, and it would guarantee that the more tech-savvy Apple users would defect from the product platform entirely.

Granted, this is all slippery-slope logic. We’re nowhere near that yet, and the Mac App Store could just be a way of highlighting developers and great apps that would otherwise have gone under the radar, and give developers and users a single place to view apps, review apps, publish their apps, update apps, and buy apps. It could be great for that – as long as app developers and Mac owners don’t have to trade their freedom in the process.

New 13.3 and 11-inch MacBook Air

Hey! Apple’s finally getting into the Netbook market! ….at the wrong price point, but that’s okay.

Seriously though, the rumor mill had all but sealed that Apple would announce a new MacBook Air today and refresh the 13.3 inch model, and they did just that. SSD only and instant-on all around, some of the iPad’s best features (things that I’d love in the MacBook Pro, for example,) bright LED backlighting on the screen and an incredibly tiny footprint that makes the MacBook Air even more portable than it already was.

Here’s the scoop from Gearlog:

The larger of the two measures 0.68 inches at its thickest point and 0.11 at its thinnest, weighing in at 2.9 pounds. It features a 13.3 inch LED backlit display, featuring 1440 x 900 pixels–more than you’ll get on the 15 inch MacBook.

There’s a Core 2 Duo processor and NVidia GeForce graphics inside, but no optical or hard drive–instead all of the storage is relegated to flash chips. The 13 inch version should give you up to seven hours of battery life

The smaller Air features an 11.6 inch display, five hours of battery life, and a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor.

The MacBook Airs start at $999 for the 64GB 11 version. There’s also a 128GB version available for $1,199. The 13-inch version comes in 128- and 256GB versions, which will run you $1,299 and $1,599, respectively.

My only disappointment here is with the processor: Core 2 Duo, Apple? Seriously? You guys couldn’t have crammed a Core i3 in there, at least? I would have expected a Core i5, but at least with an i3 I wouldn’t have been disappointed. Even with Sandy Bridge around the corner, Apple’s still got some really old Intel procs in some of their machines – it’s somewhat telling to how many of them they sell.

The price points aren’t bad for what Apple’s trying to sell: an ultra-portable, super fashionable, lightweight laptop with full Mac OS features. Will this make the MacBook Air suddenly one of Apple’s most popular models? No. Will it make more people interested in buying one? Not if they weren’t already interested, or torn between the Air and an iPad.

Still, it’s tiny, it’s swanky, and it looks really sharp. I’ll wait for the hands-on reviews to pass final judgement, but it looks like a solid upgrade.

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