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Apple steps up to the plate

Think personal computers are heading to the technology graveyard? Apple doesn’t.

At January’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco–one of the two big Mac–specific trade shows held in North America–Apple CEO Steve Jobs outlined the company’s vision of the future. What he sees: Apple hardware and software serving as the “hub of [a] digital lifestyle.” During his keynote speech, Jobs unveiled some spokes of that hub and dropped some hints as to what we can expect from the company in the months ahead.

The intriguing part of Jobs’ vision is the acknowledgement that digital devices will be increasingly important, a statement he made while denying that the personal computer is heading the way of the dinosaur. Instead, Apple thinks the traditional computer will get a new lease on life.

“We don’t think the personal computer is dying or moving away from the center,” Jobs said. “We think the personal computer is on the threshold of entering its third great age: the ‘Age of the Digital Lifestyle.’ [the first two were the ‘Age of Productivity’ and the ‘Age of the Internet’]. This age is spawned by the proliferation of digital devices everywhere: CD players, MP3 players, cell phones, handheld organizers, digital cameras, digital camcorders, and more. We’re confident that the Mac can be the hub of this new digital lifestyle by adding value to these other devices.”

Jobs said Apple hardware could accomplish this goal because Macs run complex applications, have big screens for better user interfaces, burn disks, offer inexpensive storage, and can access the Internet “at every conceivable speed.” These are things that the other, smaller, less powerful digital devices can’t do, he added.

Apple’s “digital hub” approach will have both hardware and software components. The first software product under this category is iMovie, an easy-to-use product for creating and editing desktop video. iMovie has come bundled with new Macs for several months.

Also coming with Macs these days is iTunes, a new application that Jobs unveiled with great fanfare in January. The music-jukebox software is an all-in-one integrated digital music application. It lets Mac users (sorry, there’s no Windows version) import songs from their favorite CDs; compress them into the MP3 format and store them on a hard drive; organize their music using searching, browsing, and playlist features; and burn their own audio CDs. Best of all, iTunes is available as a free download from Apple

Apple’s next two products for the “Age of the Digital Lifestyle” are DVD authoring tools: iDVD and iDVD Pro.

“There are at least 10 million DVD players in the United States–some say 13 million–and that number is doubling every year,” Jobs said. “We want you to be able to make your own DVDs with the movies you shoot and be able to play them on consumer DVD players. Our new products will let you shoot footage on your camcorder, make movies on your Mac, and burn your own DVDs.”

In the past, Jobs said there were three hurdles to doing this: the difficulty in burning a DVD disk, difficulty in encoding the data, and difficulty in laying out the content. Plus, software solutions have been too slow to materialize–until now, he said.

“Our scientists have made a technical breakthrough,” Jobs said. “They’ve developed products that reduce the time it takes for software encoding from 25 times the source material to two times. Previously, software encoding of a one-hour movie would take all day. Now it can be done in two hours.”

You can only get iDVD on a new Power Mac G4 with a SuperDrive (more on that in a moment). iDVD lets you convert iMovies, QuickTime files, and pictures into the format required for DVD using its built-in MPEG encoder; drag and drop iMovies and pictures into a DVD project; create menus, buttons, and backgrounds using personal or professional images; and record DVDs with a single click. DVD Studio Pro does all this and more. With the $999 package, users can encode videos, conduct complex authoring tasks, preview the finished product in real time, and burn DVDs using the SuperDrive.

Anchoring the software front will be Apple’s long-awaited Mac OS X. The “next-generation operating system,” which combines an overhauled Mac interface with Unix underpinnings, hit stores in March with a price tag of $129.

As far as future products go, it’s always difficult to predict what Apple has in the works. There are rumors of several in-the-works projects that would fit into the digital lifestyle scenario: iPhone (a video conferencing/telephony utility), iMusic (a professional-level version of iTunes), and iWeb (a Web page authoring application). Whether these products are truly in the works remains to be seen. But Jobs promised that other digital lifestyle applications are coming.

On the hardware front, Apple thinks the new computers unveiled at Macworld San Francisco will help jump-start its vision of the future of computing. The most eye-popping product revealed at the show was a new PowerBook, totally redesigned from the ground up, with titanium.

The titanium PowerBook G4 sports a PowerPC G4 processor (the first laptop to do so), a 15.2-inch “megawide” screen, and a built-in, slot-loading DVD drive, all new features to the PowerBook line. Weighing in at 5.3 pounds, it’s only an inch thick. The PowerBook is available in a 400MHz version (for $2,599) and a 500MHz version ($3,499).

Apple also has overhauled its desktop line, though not as drastically as the portable systems. The new line of Power Mac G4 towers have the same form factor as their predecessors, but run at speeds of up to 733MHz, busting through the 500MHz ceiling at which Macs have been stuck for 18 months. The new desktops, which range in price from $1,699 to $3,499, feature 133MHz system and memory buses and five PCI slots. The line features CD-RW drives in all models. The high-end 733MHz model sports the SuperDrive, a combination CD-RW/DVD-R drive that can read and write DVDs that can be played in consumer DVD players.

The refreshed G4 line also has an AGP 4-by slot (compared to 2-by previously) with new graphic card options including the nVIDIA GeForce2 MX graphics card with 32MB of SDRAM. And they have a new digital audio sound system (featuring built-in amplifier for support of multiple audio output capabilities) and new Apple Pro Speakers (based on Harman Kardon technology and providing a frequency range of 70Hz to 2,000Hz).

What can you expect from this point on, in regards to Apple hardware? The company was expected to roll out a revamped iMac and iBook line at February’s Macworld Tokyo trade show. It was widely anticipated that Apple would unveil new models of the iMac with CD-RW drives. The overhauled iMac and iBook lines, if they do see the light of day, will be targeted to consumers, whereas the more powerful and higher priced G4 desktops and PowerBooks are aimed more toward the “power” user.

At the summer Macworld New York show, which will be held in July, there’s a very good chance that dual-processor Macs will make a comeback after being temporarily phased out because of a shortage of PowerPC chips. And don’t be surprised to see Macs finally hit speeds of 1GHz or higher.

What you shouldn’t expect is an Apple personal digital assistant (PDA). The company isn’t likely to go head to head with Palm in this arena. If there is an Apple PDA it will probably be a rebranded, Palm-produced device. It also seems unlikely that Apple will be making Internet appliances anytime soon.

But you never know. With Jobs at the helm, Apple always has a surprise or two up its sleeve.

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