Apple Makes Its Case for the Connected Home in 2004

Depending on your perspective, Apple Computer is either an amazing American success story or a colossal failure. On 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, and taken the consumer-electronics world by storm with its dominant iPod portable audio players and the Apple iTunes Music Store. Financially, Apple has emerged as a smaller but profitable company, with quarter after quarter of surprisingly solid earnings.

On the other hand, dark portents exist for the California company. Its Mac computers, although elegant and well designed, haven't fared well under Jobs, and the company has lost market share year after year since he returned to the helm. At this point, Apple's market share is less than 2 percent worldwide and about 3.7 percent in the United States. And although the iPod has been inarguably successful, Apple still makes a much larger profit on each Mac sale. If Apple were to lose its Mac product line, whether the company could survive is unclear.

So what message should we 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, and personal computing, you should know that Apple's product line-up has never been stronger. Let's take a look at Apple's newest products and see how they fit into the connected home.

Digital Music
That anyone even remotely aware of the most recent trends hasn't heard of Apple's wildly successful iPod, now entering its fourth generation, is inconceivable. The newest iPods, which Apple 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 third-generation iPods. In this year's models, the Menu, Play/Pause, Next, and Previous buttons are now integrated directly into the scroll wheel, which you also use to navigate through menus and scrub through songs.

But wait, there's more. In addition to a simpler menu structure, which is designed to make the device even easier to use, the new iPods are also smaller, thinner, and a lot less expensive than the earlier units. The 40GB iPod, for example, now costs $399--$100 less than its predecessor. Likewise, the low-end 20GB iPod is now just $299. The hard-to-find 4GB iPod Mini remains priced at $249, quite a premium when you factor in the cost of the 20GB iPod, the huge storage difference, and the fact that many of the new iPod's features aren't present in the iPod Mini. But both iPod models now ship with all the cables you need to interoperate the device 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. Earlier iPods were supposedly capable of as much as 8 hours of battery life, but my third-generation iPod 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--still 10 hours shy of the Dell Digital Jukebox (DJ) but acceptable. I'm eager to see how the new iPod fares in the real world.

The only major complaint Apple didn't address 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 Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) format, which the company uses for downloads from the Apple iTunes Music Store. However, with iTunes the clear market leader, how much longer the WMA argument will hold weight is unclear. Sure, many Windows users have large libraries of WMA-compatible songs. But the most recent versions of iTunes 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 less expensive and arguably more capable 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, and now it has a less lofty price and better battery life to boot. Recommending the iPod without reservations is getting easier and easier.

Home Networking
Last week, Apple began shipping a curious new home-networking product that it calls AirPort Express with AirTunes. This stunning little box is a bit hard to describe. It looks like the white power brick that Apple ships with its notebooks and iPods, and it does include the standard two-prong adapter that lets 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 (AP) and features support for all the most recent wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security. Second, it includes a USB port to which you can connect a printer, then share that printer with all the Macs and PCs in your home network. Third, it features the 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 extends the range of an existing wireless network, although that functionality technically works only with AirPort Extreme networks.

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

The AirPort Express has a few rough spots, however. It's currently far more configurable with Macs than with PCs, thanks largely to the fact that Apple earlier supported AirPort Extreme only 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 Apple will no doubt resolve this detail through a series of software updates. As it is, AirPort Express is an incredible home-networking solution that can only get better.

Personal Computing
Have you ever felt like your Windows PC has a big target painted on it? Well, bad news: It does. Windows is indeed the target of choice for attackers who unleash a never-ending slew of email, Web, and Instant Messaging (IM) electronic attacks on Windows PCs simply because so many of them exist. If you're tired of constantly updating your computer with security patches, afraid of launching email attachments, or fearful that simply opening Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) will expose your system to untold spyware maladies (which isn't far from the truth), I have a solution for you--the Mac. And, yes, 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 succumb to an electronic attack largely because attackers don't target Macs but also because the Mac's underlying UNIX technology is so mature and well written. Macs use the modern and visually gorgeous Mac OS X. They include a best-of-breed set of digital media applications called iLife. And they interoperate nicely with PCs, supporting Windows networks and file types. So you'll be able to transfer files easily between Macs and PCs, making the Mac a nice choice for a second PC.

But Macs aren't good at gaming. If you're into playing the newest games, feel free to enjoy your virus-laden PC. But if you use email, a Web browser, or Microsoft Office, or you want to burn a DVD movie of your family's most recent birthday party, the Mac isn't just a great alternative--it might be the obvious choice. Sure, your software choices will be less plentiful than they are on the Windows side, and yes, you might suddenly find yourself advocating 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 Mac.

But you might have one small problem buying a Mac right now, depending on your needs. Apple's consumer-oriented desktop computer, the iMac, is currently unavailable because the company had a hard time getting the powerful Power Mac 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 rush. My advice is to wait for the iMac 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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