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Apple Makes its Case for the Connected Home

Depending on your perspective, Apple Computer is an amazing American success story or a colossal failure. On the one hand, the company, rejuvenated under the tutelage of CEO Steve Jobs, has unleashed a slew of impressively designed Macintosh computers, successfully converted to the UNIX-based Mac OS X operating system, and taken the consumer electronics world by storm with its dominant iPod portable audio players and iTunes Music Store. Financially, Apple has emerged as a smaller, but profitable company, with quarter after quarter of surprisingly solid earnings.

However, there are dark portents for the California company as well. Its Macintosh computers, though elegant and well designed, haven't fared well under Jobs, and the company has lost market share consistently, year after years, since he's returned to the company. At this point, Apple's worldwide market share is under 2 percent, or at about 3.7 percent in the US. And though its iPods have been inarguably successful, Apple still makes a much bigger profit on each Mac sale. If Apple were to lose its Mac product line, it's unclear that the company could survive.

So what's the message one should take away from the company's situation? In my opinion, there's never been a better time to support Apple. If you're interested in digital media, home networking, or personal computing--or perhaps all three, if you're reading this--than you should know that Apple's product line-up has never been stronger. So this week, I'd like to take a look at Apple's recent products, and see how they might fit in with the Connected Home.

Digital Music

It's inconceivable that anyone even remotely aware of the latest trends hasn't heard of Apple's wildly successful iPod, now entering its fourth generation. The latest iPods, just released Monday, feature the patent pending Click Wheel that Apple debuted with the iPod Mini earlier this year, removing the need for the overly-sensitive, capacitor-driven control buttons that almost ruined the 3rd generation iPods. In this year's models, the Menu, Play/Pause, Next, and Previous buttons are now integrated directly into the scroll wheel, which is also used to navigate through menus and scrub through songs.

But wait, there's more. In addition to a simpler menu structure, aimed at making the device even easier to use, the new iPods are also smaller, thinner, and a lot less expensive than the previous units. The 40 GB iPod, for example, now costs $399, or $100 less than its predecessor. Likewise, the low-end 20 GB iPod is now just $299. The hard-to-find iPod Mini remains priced at $249, quite a premium when you factor in the cost of the 20 GB iPod and the fact that many of the new iPod's feature aren't present in the Mini. But both iPod models now ship with all the cables you need to interoperate with either a Windows machine or a Mac, a nice touch.

Apple also negated one of my biggest complaints, battery life, with the new iPods. Previous iPods were supposedly capable of up to 8 hours of battery life, but my 3rd generation iPod would rarely hit the 5 hour mark. The new devices are capable of 12 hours of life, according to Apple, thanks to a new hardware design and more battery-conscious software. That's still 10 hours shy of the Dell DJ, but acceptable.

The only thing Apple didn't fix in this generation is compatibility with Microsoft's popular Windows Media Audio (WMA) format: Apple still disables this feature in the iPod's firmware, no doubt in a bid to lock users into its proprietary Protected AAC format, which the company uses for downloads from its iTunes Music Store. However, with iTunes the clear market leader, it's unclear how much longer the WMA argument will hold weight. Sure, many Windows users do have large libraries of WMA-compatible songs. But the latest versions of iTunes do offer a way to convert those songs to MP3 format, which will play on the iPod.

In short, I'm a huge fan of the Dell DJ, but the iPod is clearly the device to which all other digital audio players aspire. The iPod has always had good looks and a clean design, but now it's good a less lofty price and better battery life to boot. It's getting harder and harder to not recommend the iPod without reservations.

Home Networking

Last week, Apple began shipping a curious new home networking product which it calls AirPort Express. This stunning little box is a bit hard to describe. In short, it looks like the white power brick that Apple ships with its notebooks and iPods, and indeed, it does include the standard two-prong adapter that will let you plug it into a power outlet. But the AirPort Express isn't a power adapter. Instead, it offers a quirky array of functionality. First, it's an 802.11g wireless access point, and it features support for all of the latest wireless technologies, including Wireless Protected Access (WPA) security. Second, it includes a USB port to which you can connect a printer and then share that printer among all the PCs and Macs in your home network. Third, it features a unique AirTunes feature that pushes songs from iTunes (again, on a Mac or PC) to your home stereo, courtesy of an integrated audio plug. Finally, it can extend the range of an existing wireless network, though that only technically works with Apple AirPort Extreme networks.

Confused? Consider some of the ways in which you could use this handy, $129 device. In a home, you could use it as a standard wireless access point. Or you could use it to remote your iTunes music to a better stereo system than your PC. Or you could use it to extend an existing wireless network to the far corner of your house, or your deck, or any other area where your current network performs poorly, or not at all. I'm going to use it on the road: Because I often travel with more than one PC, I can use the AirPort Express to push a hotel room's broadband connection to two or more PCs. And because it's a full base station, I'll get all the security benefits you can't get with an ad-hoc, PC-to-PC network.

There are a few rough spots. The AirPort Express is currently far more configurable with Macs than PCs, thanks largely to the fact that Apple previously only supported AirPort Extreme on Macs and the company already had a mature set of wireless network management tools on that platform. In my experience, setting up or configuring an AirPort Express on Windows is painful or impossible, depending on your hardware. But this detail will no doubt be resolved through a series of software updates. As it is, AirPort Express is an incredible home networking solution. It can only get better.

Personal Computing

Have you ever felt like your Windows PC has a big target on it? Well, bad news: That's because it does. Windows is the target of choice for hackers, who unleash a never-ending slew of email-, Web-, and IM-based electronic attacks on Windows PCs simply because there are so many of them. If you're tired of constantly updating your computer with security patches, afraid of launching email attachments, or fearful that simply opening Internet Explorer will expose your system to untold spyware maladies (not far from the truth), then I've got a solution for you. It's called the Macintosh. And yeah, Macs are a little bit expensive compared to that PC you're using, but as your parents might have told you, you often get what you pay for.

Macs are more elegant than PCs, generally more reliable, and far less likely to ever succumb to an electronic attack. That's because Macs aren't targeted by hackers, largely, but also because the Mac's underlying UNIX technology is so mature and well-written. Macs utilize a modern and visually gorgeous operating system called Mac OS X. They include a best-of-breed set of digital media apps called iLife. And they interoperate nicely with PCs, supporting Windows networks and file types. That means you'll be able to transfer files easily between Macs and PCs, making the Mac a nice choice for a second PC.

What Macs aren't good at is gaming. If you're into playing the latest games, please, feel free to enjoy your virus-laden PC. But if you use email, a Web browser, Microsoft Office, or want to burn a DVD movie of your family's latest birthday party, the Mac isn't just a great alternative: It may be the obvious choice. Sure, your software choices will be less plentiful than they are on the Windows side, and yes, you may suddenly find yourself advocating the use of the Mac to friends and family as if you were the technological equivalent of a crusader. But that's the effect the Mac has on many of its users, the same combination of satisfaction and excitement that grips TiVo owners. There's just something "right" about a Macintosh.

One small issue: Apple's consumer-oriented desktop Mac, the iMac, is currently unavailable. That's because the company had a hard time getting the powerful G5 processor into the new iMac's small enclosure. But the iMac will be available again by September, just in time for the back-to-school market. My advice is to wait for it, or snag one of Apple's gorgeous PowerBook or iBook notebook computers if you're the mobile type. You won't be disappointed.

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