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MacWorld New York City 2000: In Review

© 2000 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Accompanying photo galleries: Products I and Products II

 By the time you read this, various news Web sites, and even some of the print magazines, will have had their chance to declare MacWorld New York 2000 as either a success or failure, a triumph or a disappointment. So we won't address these issues, but will instead concentrate on four main messages:

  • MacWorld New York 2000 was crowded. Perhaps not as crowded as MacWorld Tokyo (which regularly counts attendees in the hundreds of thousands), but crowded. Even during the "quiet time" at the end of the day, when the exhibitors and public were all exhausted and many had drifted back to hotels, it was difficult to move from Point A to Point B without bumping into dozens of people. The people were enthusiastic, friendly, excited, and occasionally even courteous, but you couldn't avoid noticing there were great, vast, thundering hordes of them.
  • Apple's Power Mac G4 Cube was the hit of the show. There were arguments about its cost (many people think it should have a lower price), expandability and practicality (the "ordinary" Power Mac G4 is more flexible, and costs less), but everyone who played with one wanted one. Everyone.
  • While the Power Mac G4 Cube (henceforth, "the Cube") was the show hit, it was not the coolest thing at the show. That honor fell to Harman Kardon's SoundSticks, a pair of digital speakers and a digital woofer that plug in to USB-equipped Macs.
  • There were a number of other wonderful things on display that weren't by Apple or Harman Kardon, many of them relentlessly practical and more useful. Just not quite as cool.

Two Clear Winners

Apple, riding the success of the iMac, introduced some new colors that attracted lots of attention (though "snow" is an acquired taste), and the new $799 price for an intro iMac will gather new converts. Some groused that the intro unit should be even less expensive, but none of those complaining owns a computer company (but many of them paid three times as much for their 128K Macs, sixteen years ago; deflation is heck).

Similarly, the new dual-processor G4 machines will catch the fancy of the number crunchers and the pixel renderers. The G4 was already fast; with two processors, people were struggling to describe its speed. So try this: if you go back 10 years to MacWorld San Francisco 1990, a single dual-processor G4 has more sheer number crunching power than all the machines at that show.


But the true hit of the show, as mentioned, was "the Cube." In a space a quarter of the volume of a standard G4, Apple crammed an entire Power Macintosh G4 -- a 450 MHz G4 processor, up to 1.5 GB of RAM, 20 GB (or larger) hard drive, DVD drive, and ATI Rage 128 graphics card with 16 MB of RAM. Also included is an external power supply that looks like a miniature muffler, two external stereo speakers (designed by Harman Kardon) that resemble cut crystal balls, and the new Apple Pro Mouse and 108-key keyboard. Interfaces include two USB ports, two FireWire ports, a 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port, 56K modem, and ports for both a standard VGA monitor or one of Apple's new "one cable" displays (a single cable contains audio, video and power connections). You can also add an AirPort card for wireless networking.

Over the past twenty years Steve Jobs has used the terms "gorgeous" and "beautiful" so often, to describe so many different things, that veteran Apple watchers have learned to just tune him out. But when Steve described "the Cube" as "gorgeous" and "beautiful" and compared it to a work of art, everyone agreed.

While "the Cube" is encased in clear plastic, with a solid white facing around the electronics, Harman Kardon's SoundSticks are clear plastic, period. A set of SoundSticks includes two clear tubes that look like blown glass, housing multiple small speakers, plus the famously unusual iSub woofer. Combined, they pour out sound of incredible purity, and earth-shaking volume. And yes, the SoundSticks are "cooler" than "the Cube," not the least because, at $199 a set, they are more affordable, and will work with any Mac that comes from the factory with USB ports.

Harman Kardon had "the Cube" on display in their booth, with an Apple Cinema LCD display and a full SoundSticks set. Not only did it look like a work of art, it sounded like a work of art. If you took their entire booth and stuck it in MOMA, New York's Museum of Modern Art, it would have looked perfectly at home, though some museum visitors would object to the volume. Even jaded MacWorld Expo veterans were in awe.

Harman Kardon also had probably the best poster at MacWorld: an almost all-white poster featuring "the Cube" and SoundSticks, with the words "Disturb the Peace" in the lower left corner. Refined, even elegant, but with a bite.

True story: my companion for most of MacWorld Expo took one look at the SoundSticks and declared them the "coolest" thing at the show. She repeatedly steered me toward the Harman Kardon booth until I agreed with her (and also agreed to buy a set; who will retain ownership is still under negotiation). During one such visit, the vice president of information technology for a major Wall Street firm was there. He'd come, reluctantly, at the request of his boss, who is apparently an avid Mac fan. The IT VP could not understand why his boss liked Macs, and had long dismissed them as "marginal," "second rate," "non-standard," "out of bounds" and "not ready for business." But standing in the Harman Kardon booth, looking at the G4 Cube with attached iSub and SoundSticks, he had little to say except to tell his boss, "I had no idea. I had no idea. I had no idea."

But now he does.

Low-End Wonders

If you could get beyond the dazzle of "the Cube" and SoundSticks, other wonders were at hand, some expensive or exotic, some not. Starting with the moderately priced, Canon's Canon PowerShot S100 Digital ELPH camera is an engineering marvel. Smaller than a pack of playing cards, it will easily fit in a shirt pocket. The 2.1 megapixel all-metal camera has a retractable zoom lens with a shutter that covers the lens when closed. It may not be the best digital camera out there, but it certainly is one of the most elegantly engineered, and at $599, less expensive than lesser cameras. Aside from outstanding engineering, it is also practical: you can't take a picture if you don't have a camera, and with the ELPH, you can always take a camera.

Canon had another winner in the ZR10 digital video camera. At $899, the price is affordable, the quality is almost scary, and the size is amazing. Much like the ELPH, the ZR10 gives you the impression you are handing an artifact from the future: can this be real? Apple apparently thinks so: their booth featured two long rows of iMacs (in Summer 2000 colors), each with a ZR10 mounted on a wall above it, so you could experiment with iMovie and look at yourself on the iMac's screen, piped in via the ZR10.

Aiming for the really compact market, and those with a Palm computer, Kodak's PalmPix camera may be an ideal match. The PalmPix attaches to a Palm handheld computer (III series or, with adapter, V series) and makes the Palm slightly longer. When you take pictures, you use the Palm's display to view the images; on black and white Palms, the screen images are black and white (though the pictures themselves are in full color), while owners of the new Palm IIIc can see their pictures in somewhat strange colors. The pictures are limited to 640x480 pixels, which isn't outstanding, but the price is low (under $200) and the photos transfer to your computer automatically when you synch the Palm.

Those without Palms or the cash for the Canon ELPH can try the ixla PhotoEasy. This $149 USB-equipped digital camera only supports 640 x480 pixel resolution, but the kit includes the camera and some simple photo editing tools. Maybe if the company makes some money, they can buy capital letters and a pronounceable name.

Many users, of course, have traditional cameras, and would like to get images from their slides and film into their computers. PacificImage Electronics was showing the PrimeFilm 1800i scanner, a $179 slide and film scanner that hooks up via USB. They claim it scans at 1800 dpi, though at one frame or slide at a time, this is definitely for the hobbyist, or an incredibly patient and not too efficient professional.

While the SoundSticks were clearly the most interesting way to get sound out of a computer, Telex offered two USB audio microphones for getting sound into a computer. The M-560 superdirectional USB digital microphone, at $69.99, is promoted by fans as being the "best" microphone to use with IBM's ViaVoice, since it manages to suppress almost all extraneous noise. For those who want both headphones and a microphone, the H-551 offers a USB digital stereo headset with microphone, again for $69.99. Add a joystick, sunglasses and a flight simulator game, and you can't help but look cool, too.

Hewlett-Packard, seeking to regain its position as the leading Macintosh peripheral manufacturer, had a wide variety of printers, plotters and scanners on display. Need to print out a life-size photo of the Sistine Chapel? One of the H-P plotters could probably do the job… On a more practical level, possibly their most interesting machine was the OfficeJet G85, a color printer, scanner and copier with a USB interface, for under $500. It currently ships without Mac software, but allegedly you can download the necessary drivers from HP's Web site, and drivers will ship in the box by October. An optional HP JetDirect print server allows you to put it on a network.

Networks intimidate many users, but how about conferences? Promoted as a conferencing tool, the Xircom NetStation is an all-in-one networking package consisting of a portable 10/100 Ethernet switch with either 4 or 8 Ethernet ports, complete with cables (the cables retract inside the unit). The NetStation can then be left stand-alone, for small-scale networking, or plugged into other NetStations (for larger networking), or plugged into a LAN. For a small flock of PowerBook or iBook users, it is an almost painless way to get everyone sharing files in a hurry; you can even tell them they are "conferencing" if it will make them feel better.

Getting high-speed access to the biggest network -- the Internet -- is also intimidating, especially if you want to protect your home or small office from hackers, and share that high-speed link among multiple computers. Umax, best known for its extensive line of scanners, also has the UGate-Plus and the UGate-3000 aimed right at DSL and cable modem users. These devices are an interesting combination of 4-port 10/100 Mbps Ethernet switch with an integrated DHCP server, Internet gateway and rudimentary firewall. While you can undoubtedly get a better switch and better firewall separately, the integrated package, and low prices, should make these devices attractive.

Sophisticated Circuits, long an innovator with clever power protection and crash recovery tools, introduced Kick-Off, a crash recovery device for USB Macs. Essentially a very sophisticated power cable, it looks somewhat like a power cable that is trying to digest a gerbil. Kick-Off cycles the power on a USB Mac when a crash is detected, forcing a restart. It will probably work on non-USB Macs, too, though the less expensive ADB-based Rebound!, also from Sophisticated, might be the better choice for older machines.

Two very different devices, with similar names, are aimed at G3 and G4 tower machines. The GDock, by New Motion Technology, is a plastic frame that fits between the handles on top of G3 and G4 Power Macs and provides 4 USB ports, 2 serial ports, and 2 ADB ports, and optionally can include a floppy drive or ATAPI bay.

The G•Rack, on the other hand, is a set of metal brackets that replace the plastic handles on G3 and G4 Power Macs, allowing you to mount these machines into standard 19" LAN racks. The manufacturer, Marathon Computers, had a LAN rack filled with a stack of G4 machines, and it acted as a techie magnet, sucking up all passing network managers who came by to "Ooooh!" and "Aaaah!"

At $599, the forthcoming Echo30 tape drive should be a hit with those who should back up their data, but have always found the necessary hardware and software too expensive and too difficult to use. This ADR tape drive from OnStream gives you 30 GB of tape backup, via FireWire, and includes a copy of the industry-standard backup program, Retrospect. About the only down side is that it won't be available until October.

Nova Development offered the largest software package at MacWorld, based on sheer volume. Their new Art Explosion 750,000 offers 750,000 pieces of clip art, QuickTime clips, sounds and fonts, for $149.95 (at the show). It ships on 48 CD-ROMs or 5 DVD-ROMs. Unlike last year, Nova's gumball machine lasted the entire show, despite the larger crowds.

Federal agencies are currently struggling to cope with Section 508, a law requiring all new government office equipment purchases (including computers) to be accessible by the disabled. ALVA Access Group has addressed these needs on the Mac with inLARGE 2.1, a screen magnification software package for those with limited vision, and outSPOKEN 9.0, a screen reader for Mac OS 9 that "speaks" whatever is on the screen. The two ALVA representatives, by the way, were blind, and watching them navigate around with a Mac was highly educational.

MacSpeech tackles similar problems from a different angle with iListen, a set of utilities that allows you to drive the Mac from just talking to it. ListenDo! (free) allows you to control Finder functions; custom ScriptPaks are tailored to drive various commercial packages, from SoundJam to FileMaker to Word 98 to Netscape Navigator.

High End Wonders

At the more exotic end of the spectrum, Common Ground Softworks was demonstrating Qilan 1.1, a graphical application development package for Mac OS X Server (and soon for Mac OS X). Qilan may have an unpronounceable name, but it allows you to put information from high-end database packages (OpenBase FrontBase, Helix, or Oracle) on the Web, without any knowledge of C++, Java, or other programming languages. The $1995 price includes a "Web-enabled" version of FrontBase.

Frontline Software, the Danish publisher of FrontBase, wasn't at MacWorld, but Common Ground was more than willing to display the power of this high-end SQL database for Mac OS X Server and Mac OS X. FrontBase is touted by its fans to be "better" than Oracle, and with prices ranging from free to $1,999, it is far less expensive, too.

Also looking forward to Mac OS X is Running Start's ArticleBase, a high-end Web "content management" tool built on top of WebObjects. ArticleBase allows an organization to put Web content creation in the hands of users: they fill out an on-line form with particulars, and ArticleBase then serves out formatted Web pages with that content. Running Start can't quite decide if it is a consulting firm or a software publisher, so pricing is a bit vague, but ArticleBase is quite slick.

MicroNet, one of the oldest Macintosh storage vendors, has long offered high-end RAID systems, but now they have come up with a new wrinkle: the SANcube. The SANcube is a Storage Area Network (SAN) that connects to up to four Macs via FireWire, allowing these four Macs to share 70 to 270 billion bytes of data. Since the SANcube appears to be a "local" drive to all connected Macs, you eliminate the need to copy files from a server to the Macs, and all machines can instead load and save things directly from the SANcube at speeds of up to 30 megabytes per second. SANcubes can be mirrored, allowing you to have both very high speed as well as the security offered by redundancy. The 270 GB model, with six IBM Ultra66 ATA drives, retails for around $3800.

Tenon introduced iTools 3.0 for Mac OS X. Originally designed for Mac OS X Server but retooled to support forthcoming Mac OS X, iTools provide a graphical (via browser) interface allowing you to set up virtual FTP hosts, DNS, WebMail E-mail (POP or IMAP), and support for SSL 3.0. The $499 price tag will save you countless hours and countless errors trying to configure such functions on your own.

Richard Nixon would have loved the NuSpectra remote controlled pan and tilt camera systems. From almost any Macintosh, you can remotely control color television cameras and send the output as streaming media to a Web site. NuSpectra offers both indoor and outdoor camera systems and, unlike many vendors at the show, their equipment has been extensively field tested, and they appeared to have an excellent grasp of the problems and promise offered by streaming a remote controlled video image over the Web. On second thought, Nixon probably wouldn't like that.

Finally, for those who like "exotic" but are also cheap, consider SuSE Linux, a four CD-ROM set of Linux and Linux applications designed to work on a wide variety of Power Macs, Power Mac clones, and even some IBM RS-6000 supermini computers, all for $49. SuSE has been working with Linux since 1992 (Linux was released in 1991) and their software seems better integrated than many Linux releases (but -- warning! -- it still isn't in the least bit Mac-like).

Wild Idea

Though it really has nothing to do with the Macintosh per se, the StoryBox Network deserves mention, at least from the point of view of innovative thinking. After observing the growing use of "Smart Picture Frames" (special stand-alone color LCD panels that function as digital picture frames), StoryBox Network was founded to provide a service for sharing "digital greetings" and other images. If you have a "Smart Picture Frame" from a supported vendor, and a telephone line that can be shared with the frame, the StoryBox Network will enable you to send and receive photos, news and weather reports, and exchange information with other StoryBox Network users. You can send a photo of your new baby directly to your mother's picture frame, or post fake stock reports directly to the picture frame on your boss's desk. Just think of the love, and madness, you can spread!

For More Information

Apple Computer Power Macintosh G4 Cube, http://www.apple.com/powermaccube/

Harman Kardon SoundSticks, http://www.harman-multimedia.com

Canon PowerShot Digital ELPH, http://www.powershot.com/powershot2/s100/

Canon ZR10, http://www.canondv.com/zr10/

Kodak PalmPix, http://www.kodak.com/go/palmpix

ixla PhotoEasy, http://www.ixla.com

PacificImage PrimeFilm 1800i, http://www.scanace.com

Telex microphones, http://www.computeraudio.telex.com

Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet G85, http://www.hp.com

Xircom NetStation, http://www.xircom.com

Umax UGate, http://www.umax.com

Sophisticated Circuits Kick-Off, http://www.sophisticated.com

New Motion Technology GDock, http://www.newmotiontech.com

Marathon Computers G•Rack, http://www.marathoncomputer.com

OnStream Echo30, http://www.onstream.com

Nova Development Art Explosion 750,000, http://www.novadevelopment.com

ALVA Access Group inLARGE, outSPOKEN, http://www.aagi.com

MacSpeech ListenDo!, http://www.macspeech.com

Common Ground Softworks Qilan, http://www.commongrnd.com

Frontline Software FrontBase, http://www.frontbase.com

Running Start ArticleBase, http://www.running-start.com

MicroNet SANcube, http://www.sancube.com

Tenon iTools, http://www.tenon.com/products/itools

NuSpectra cameras, http://www.nuspectra.com

SuSe Linux, http://www.suse.com

StoryBox Network, http://www.storybox.com