Microsoft, Apple Tout Consumer Advances

With the 2003 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Macworld San Francisco 2003 now behind us, it's time to pause, briefly, and discuss each shows' consumer-oriented advances. CES is the larger event, with about 120,000 attendees and industrywide support from companies as diverse as Blaupunkt, Microsoft, Samsung, and Sony, not to mention a far wider-reaching audience base. But Macworld is a surprisingly big show—this year it drew 90,000 attendees—and as I've noted in the past, Apple Computer has always managed to attract far more attention than its relatively tiny market share would appear to warrant. In the battle of the trade-show keynote addresses, Apple CEO Steve Jobs won big this year against Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates.

First, let's look at Microsoft and Gates's 2003 CES keynote address. Most of Gates's talk was a summary of past successes and recent product releases, including Windows Powered Smart Displays, the Windows XP Media Center Edition and Tablet PCs, Plus! Digital Media Edition (Plus! DME), Windows Media 9 Series, and Windows Movie Maker 2. I've already covered most of these products in Connected Home EXPRESS, and you can find more information about all of them on the SuperSite for Windows.

Gates mentioned only two totally new products, but both are compelling. First, various hardware partners will release new portable media players based on the Microsoft Media2Go platform. Media2Go devices are hard disk based handheld devices with vibrant color screens, excellent battery life, and built-in support for Windows Media 9 Series and other formats. The company says you can store as many as 8000 songs (Windows Media Audio 9—WMA 9—format encoded at 64Kbps), 175 hours of video (Windows Media Video 9—WMV 9—format recorded at 320 x 240 resolution and encoded at 500Mbps), or 30,000 digital photos (2 megapixel resolution).

My hands-on experience with a prototype Media2Go device at CES was exciting. Media2Go features a simple, Media Center PC-style UI, with options for My Music, My Videos, My TV Shows, My Pictures, and Settings on the main screen. Media2Go devices will use an updated version of the excellent Sync & Go application from Plus! DME to synchronize digital-media data from your PC, including TV shows recorded with a Media Center PC. The idea of a portable movie player isn't unique to Microsoft and its partners, however; many companies say they will release such devices this year.

At first glance, Microsoft's other product announcement seems a little less exciting, but the technology behind it will likely prove far more revolutionary in time. Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) is a Microsoft initiative that adds intelligence and communications capabilities to everyday devices such as watches, alarm clocks, and refrigerator magnets. Although the technology might sound silly, SPOT is pretty cool.

SPOT products include a small sliver of Windows CE .NET silicon, as well as support for Microsoft's new DirectBand wireless-networking protocol, which uses extra FM bandwidth to deliver a constant stream of information to SPOT devices. Several companies will make the first-generation SPOT devices—watches that add many features not available on standard watches. SPOT watches can synchronize with personal information such as traffic and weather alerts, sports scores, news bulletins, and stock price changes, and because the devices are online, they're always up-to-date. Microsoft says that the initial products will probably prove quite popular with sports enthusiasts, whether they're football fans or skiers or other extreme sports participants who like to stay up-to-speed and must do so quickly while they're on the go.

I've posted extensive previews of Media2Go and SPOT on the SuperSite for Windows, so visit the site for more information. Both products will be available by the end of the year.

Jobs's Macworld address, widely expected to be an almost funereal event for an ailing company, instead turned into a tour de force celebration of technology, marketing, and sheer chutzpah, with Jobs touting the company's Switch ad campaign, retail stores, and consumer-oriented products such as iPod, iCal, iSync, iTunes, and .Mac. Jobs also wowed the crowd and industry watchers with a slew of new product announcements, virtually none of which the rumor-savvy Macintosh online news organizations predicted.

First, Jobs introduced Final Cut Express, a new consumer-oriented version of its revered but expensive Final Cut Pro linear video-editing system. Available now for $300, Final Cut Express includes more than 200 video effects and transitions and virtually all of Final Cut Pro's features.

Cementing Apple's digital-hub strategy, Jobs then discussed important upgrades to the company's core digital-media applications, all of which are now highly integrated with one another. Apple iPhoto 2 adds a new retouch brush and performance enhancements, along with archive-to-CD and DVD features. The company has completely rewritten iMovie and upgraded it to version 3. iMovie 3 sports a new DVD chapters feature that carries over to the iDVD 3 application, which features 24 new professional visual themes.

Apple will include the new versions of iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and iTunes 3 with every new Mac and will sell them together in a bundle called iLife for $50. The applications—except iDVD—will also be available as free downloads.

Jobs also introduced the company's new Web browser, Safari, and a presentation application, appropriately named Keynote. Both applications seem more geared toward replacing Apple's dependence on Microsoft than filling any empty product category, but as is usually the case with Apple, the company seems to have a longer-range strategy in place. I wouldn't be surprised to see a true Microsoft Office replacement come out of Cupertino in the months ahead.

Jobs saved some of his most exciting announcements for the end of his talk, when he introduced new hardware products. The company has adopted the 802.11g wireless specification, which it markets as AirPort Extreme. Apple will soon release two models of AirPort Extreme base stations, as well as AirPort Extreme add-in cards for its new machines. For other users, AirPort Extreme is backward-compatible with 802.11b-based AirPort hardware. Finally, Jobs debuted two new PowerBook G4 computers—a mammoth 17" model with a widescreen display and a 12" model that bears more than a passing resemblance to the iBook. Both PowerBooks feature integrated Bluetooth, fast G4 processors, slot-loading optical drives (a DVD-burning SuperDrive is standard on the 17" model and optional on the 12"), and cool new aluminum alloy cases. The 17" model adds a FireWire 800 port for 800Mbps data transfer, a PC card slot, and a backlit keyboard that automatically senses the ambient available light and adjusts itself accordingly—all in a package that's only an inch thick. Pre-orders for both machines have gone through the roof, and potential customers now face 4- to 10-week delays.

Despite my obvious PC bent, Jobs's keynote and the many products he introduced left me far more excited than Gates's talk did. Jobs and Apple both energize fans in a way that often escapes Gates and company, even though Microsoft's products are, in many ways, superior or equal to much of what Apple offers. But Apple's sense of style, stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, and almost giddy outlook on the possibilities of home computers are compelling and infectious qualities. The company and its products seem more human than Microsoft, which would be well served to investigate projecting its message in the same manner.

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