Ahead of the Curve: Apple products go wild

In early February, I received an invitation to an unveiling of some "fun new products" at Apple's headquarters. After being dropped into a herd of journalists all crushed into a cube, I asked and was assured that there was no trap door.

After a long wait, Steve Jobs arrived and indeed showed us some fun new products. The first of the fun new products that Steve -- Apple prefers just "Steve" -- showed off was the black US$99 Leather Case for iPod. Steve didn't say as much, but Apple and I are on the same page here: Now that everyone has an iPod, a Bluetooth headset, and a smart phone, techno-bling is over. In '06, it'll be hipper to make people think you're not wired. For US$99, Apple will make iPod's "look-at-me" white plastic disappear. You've already dumped the white earbuds, right?

After showing the LCi, Steve blushed with pride over the second new product, his personal pet project, Apple's first boombox: iPod Hi-Fi. This Bose-inspired amplified speaker cabinet turns any iPod with a docking connector into a shelf stereo system. It's got nice speakers, but at US$379, iPod Hi-Fi is as out of my reach as Bose was. The demo rooms -- movie-set mock-ups of a dorm room, family room, and kitchen -- impressed me more than the product.

Oh, and there were two new Macs. Mac mini is what it was before, a computer barely wider than a CD and as tall as a deli sandwich. Mac mini is, as I've told readers to expect, largely a piece of stereo equipment; there's no keyboard, mouse, or display. With the better of the two models pricing out at US$799, Mac mini would be easy prey for every PC vendor if it weren't for three things: iLife '06, Airport Extreme, and Front Row. iLife is iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, GarageBand, and iWeb. It's an integrated "prosumer" digital media suite, which is to say that it's targeted at demanding, serious amateurs and professionals on a budget. I can personally take or leave much of iLife because I'm steeped in Apple's Pro Tools. But iPhoto is enough of Apple's Aperture to do prosumer duty, and although iMovie and iDVD are not a patch on Final Cut Studio Pro, the combination is more flexible, friendly, and stable than anything I've seen for under US$100 for a PC. And my take on GarageBand will surprise you. Head to my blog for that.

The most important new product that Steve showed us is free. You may have seen Apple's Front Row digital media user interface and its six-button infrared remote. It takes over the display of any Intel-based Mac and puts up a large iPod-like menu. Previously, the menu incorporated only local and iTunes Music Store content. Now Front Row uses Macs' wireless and Ethernet links to sniff out music and photos shared (published) by any nearby Mac or Windows computer, with video unannounced but likely to come.

Front Row with Bonjour is more than fun. It's the best example of enterprise technology reborn as personal technology. Macs participate in a content sharing fabric without locating and mounting, setting up protocols and formats and players, or even building a LAN. If you have shared content on your MacBook Pro and wander within range of a Mac mini, your content appears in the Mac mini user's Front Row menu. You might do nothing with Mac mini's standard Airport Extreme transceiver but share content with other machines in your house or office. Apple's consumer turn, with Leather Case for iPod and iPod Hi-Fi the likely focus of the press's image of Apple, shouldn't make us forget that Apple still has system and software engineers on its payroll.

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Tom Yager

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