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Macworld 2008: iPhone Updates and More

For Apple fans, Christmas comes in January, at the Macworld Conference.  Yesterday Steve Jobs took the stage at this annual event to give his keynote on the state of Apple and the new products and services that the company is releasing.  Apple nerd that I am, I maintained radio silence from the time the keynote started (noon eastern) for 3 agonizing hours until the video was posted online, to avoid hearing or reading any of the news before I could watch it firsthand.  (You can watch the video here, here, or here.)

The main impression I got from this particular keynote is that Apple right now is a company firing on all cylinders.  There was no single earth-shaking announcement like the iPhone from last year; instead there were four slightly smaller and relatively disparate announcements that show Apple is quite busy in several different areas.

Macbook Air

The big new product is the Macbook Air: a laptop so impossibly thin -- sixteen-hundreths of an inch at its thinnest -- that it fits in an envelope.  It’s got a full-sized (and LED-backlit) screen and a full-sized (also LED-backlit) keyboard, but no CD/DVD drive and almost no ports.  Probably most impressive is that the Macbook Air has 5 hours of battery life, compared to 2 hours or less for many other tiny notebooks.

Time Capsule

The second new product is the Time Capsule: a wireless router with a built-in 500 GB or 1 TB hard drive, primarily meant to provide simple automated backups of all the Macs in your house via Leopard’s Time Machine backup feature.

Incidentally, the heart of the Time Machine backup system is its dated backups, which allow you to "go back in time" through all your data and access/recover files from one day ago, two days ago, a week ago, a month ago, etc.  This is based on and made possible by the fact that on Unix filesystems, a single file can be accessed through multiple different filenames known as hard links.  So you effectively have a full data backup from each previous day, week, month, etc, but the amount of space used is only that required by one full backup plus the incremental changes between the backup dates.  That’s the magic of hard links: a single file on disk can appear to exist multiple times, once in each backup folder.  All of that to say this: when I was working as a system administrator and programmer in a bio lab at Penn State in 2004, I created a backup system based on exactly this same concept (which neither I nor Apple invented) using just BASH, cp, and rsync.  It was used to back up not only OS X, Windows, and Linux systems but also even Mac OS9 systems.  This was 3 years before Apple introduced the same technology in Mac OS X Leopard.  So, I win.

Apple TV + iTunes

The third keynote item was the rebirth of Apple TV.  Originally released about a year ago and since described by Steve Jobs as just a hobby for Apple, the Apple TV hasn’t been a smash hit: they haven’t released any sales figures for it, and yesterday Jobs admitted that -- along with Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, and others -- Apple had missed the mark in getting internet-based content into the living room.  But Apple TV "Take Two" fixes most of the shortcomings of the original: it doesn’t need a computer, it has a much-improved interface, it supports HD content, you can buy iTunes content on it directly, and you can now rent movies on it.  To top it all off, these new features are all available as a free software update to existing Apple TV owners, and the price of the Apple TV has been cut from $299 to $229.

The fact that iTunes now offers movie rentals is at least as big a deal as the Apple TV update.  Apple is currently receiving a small beating from the record labels, all of which are now offering their music as DRM-free MP3 files through Amazon’s music store, but withholding the DRM-free versions from Apple for their iTunes store.  And while Apple has been offering movies for sale through iTunes for a while now, the selection is slim because Apple has only secured deals with a few movie studios.  But with the new rental feature, Apple has signed up every major movie studio -- no small feat.  Apple is far and away the leader in digital distribution of music and movies, even with the aforementioned handicaps, so having every studio on board with rentals would seem to cement Apple’s position.

As an Apple fan and general geek, I’m fascinated by all of these things.  But most likely I won’t actually buy any of them.  I don’t really have a need for a super-thin notebook because I don’t travel much, and when I do, I’d rather have a more full-featured notebook than one that’s exceptionally thin.  Time Capsule is cool, but I run Linux on most of my systems, and I’m a data freak so I already keep multiple backups of all my files.  The new Apple TV and iTunes stuff is awesome, but I’ve recently discovered TiVo and don’t know how I ever lived without it for TV shows, and I’m extremely happy with Netflix for movies.

I guess that whole issue would come down to price: we currently pay ~$90/mo for cable+TiVo+Netflix, so would we be able to get the same content for the same price or less with Apple TV and iTunes?  We mainly watch 4 shows: 24, Prison Break, The Office, and Heroes.  Each episode is $1.99 on iTunes, so 16 shows per month would be $32 per month.  Then throw in say 6 movies per month -- with Netflix, it’s unlimited, and our usage varies pretty wildly -- which at $4 each comes to $24.  So the total with Apple TV + iTunes would be $56: a fair amount cheaper than our current bill.  However, with the TiVo, I’ve now discovered a few more shows that I would really hate to give up: How It’s Made, Most Shocking, Shockwave, Mega Disasters, and World’s Most Amazing Videos.  Adding all of those in would certainly push us past what we’re currently paying.  And I just checked the iTunes store for The O’Reilly Factor and it doesn’t appear to be available there; that’s certainly a deal-breaker.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I’m excited about all the new stuff Apple is doing, but at the end of the day, none of the aforementioned stuff affects me.  The fourth thing Jobs presented, though, certainly does: iPhone updates.

iPhone

Apple released iPhone firmware v1.1.3, which contains a few new features.  The most exciting thing to me is the update to the Google Maps application.  This includes a new "Locate Me" feature that uses cell tower triangulation/multilateration to determine your current location and show it on the map; not bad for a phone that lacks GPS.  The Maps update also includes a new "drop pin" feature, which lets you stick a pin anywhere on the map (and drag it around) and then make it a bookmark, get directions to/from it, etc.  Both of these new features make it far easier to map routes, since you don’t have to type anything in for one or both of the route’s endpoints.  The Maps app also now includes the hybrid view, showing satellite imagery with roads and locations overlaid on it.  Frustratingly and ridiculously, though, it STILL lacks a freakin’ scale bar!  I can’t believe there’s actually some meathead at Google or Apple who thinks the scale bar should be left out, and that this glaring omission somehow gets past all the other engineers and execs.

The iPhone update also includes the ability to rearrange the icons on the home screen, and to add bookmarks to the home screen from the browser.  These bookmarks also remember the zoom and pan state of the browser, which is really useful; for example, I visit weather.com for the detailed weather forecast since the iPhone’s built-in Yahoo weather sucks, but since weather.com has about 9 miles of ads and other crap at the top of the page, having the iPhone automatically pan to the forecast within the page is really helpful.

Another small item in the update allows the iPhone to send SMS messages to multiple recipients simultaneously; Jobs made no mention of the much- seldom-requested iPhone MMS support.

And of course, the iPhone can now play video content rented through iTunes.

All of these new features were delivered for free to existing iPhone owners like myself, which may be the best part.  I’m just so happy that this device I purchased is continually getting more useful, as opposed to getting more and more obsolete with each passing day.

Finally, Jobs touted the iPhone’s impressive sales figures: 4 million sold in its first 200 days on the market, or about 20,000 per day.  In its first 90 days the iPhone captured 20% of the entire smartphone market, making it #2, behind only RIM BlackBerry.  The fact that the iPhone surpassed all Windows Mobile smartphones in just 90 days on the market is particularly funny in light of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s comment -- after the iPhone was announced but before it was launched -- that the iPhone would get "no significant market share."

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