Minding the Gap in the Mac Desktop Range

August 8th, 2006

Apple’s new Mac Pro’s are fantastic machines. True powerhouse workstations with enough grunt and expandability to satisfy professionals in everything from scientific research to 3D design and every imaginable creative profession along the way.

Faster than the stunning Quad G5, with enough room for 16GB RAM, 2TB hard drive storage and two DVD burners, there’s little else a Photoshop or Final Cut jockey could possibly want. Trouble is they’re priced to match.

Don’t get me wrong, $2499 for the standard config. is good value and stands up well to comparisons with similarly specified machines from PC manufacturers like Dell. But for someone who needs a reasonably powerful and expandable Mac without the sheer grunt of the Mac Pro, Apple has little to offer.

Yes, the Mac mini is a great machine for many tasks and if most of your work involves using iLife, Office, or online applications, it’s great. Likewise the iMac looks great and serves its market well. But there are many Mac users and potential Mac users who won’t buy either because they need, or sometimes think they need to add PCI cards, they’re own display, or internal storage. There are games players who need a GPU capable of handling today’s games without dropping frames left right and centre. They don’t all have $2500 to drop on the Mac Pro and so won’t buy a Mac.

That’s a great shame, because I have a hunch that those people make up a significant number of potential sales. If it is to significantly expand its desktop market share Apple has to do something it hasn’t done for at least the last decade — get inside the heads of potential customers and figure out what they will pay money for. Not what they need, that’s irrelevant. It’s what they think they need and what they desire that counts. Apple has proved itself adept recently at telling us what we need and then persuading us to part with cash for it. Now it needs to flip that around. Otherwise it will remain a niche player in the desktop market forever.

Why Nike+ iPod Equals Insanely Great

July 13th, 2006

The deal Apple did with Nike to create the Nike+ iPod accessory could just be about the most important it has ever done, surpassing those with record companies for iTunes downloads and even those future deals with movie studios.

Here’s why: there seems little doubt that, despite its ’speculation and rumor’ comment, that Microsoft is working on some sort of iPod. If, as reports would have us believe, it will carry the Xbox branding and have J Allard at the helm, it may just have enough to put a dent in the iPod’s halo. That together with the interoperability saga and the rumbling on of the ’sweatshop’ claims must be causing concern to Tony Fadell and his iPod team. Then of course, there’s the reports of delays to the next version of the nano and the ‘real’ video iPod – which may still be a year away. All that bad news means that Microsoft’s entry into the market may just come at a time when the iPod is at its most vulnerable.

So, it was crucial for Apple, at a time when it has no new iPods to announce, to produce something positive. And the Nike+ is it. Far from being just another iPod accessory, the Nike+_ is a whole new platform and will attract a whole new potential market to the iPod. Come the Holiday Season if you’re one of the estimated 30 million runners in the US, or one of many millions more in the rest of the world, and are thinking about buying a music player, you’ll opt for an iPod, no matter how good Microsoft’s Zune player is — unless of course you have an aversion to Nike or its shoes.

More than that, though. The Nike deal demonstrates that Apple is working phenomenally hard to add more functionality to the iPod and I expect more deals like this one to be announced over the coming months. Apple knows that it’s not enough to have the best player with most compelling content anymore. For the iPod phenomenon to continue to grow it realises that it must push it beyond beyond being merely a media player and into niches where none of its competitors has yet explored.

Intel Pro Desktops on August 7?

June 28th, 2006

I’m not one to put my neck on the line unless it’s absolutey necessary, but I’m becoming more convinced with each passing day that August 7 is the day that Apple will announce Intel Pro desktop machines and finally put the ageing Power Mac G5 out of its misery.

At 10am PST that day, Steve Jobs will deliver a keynote speech to mark the beginning of Apple’s annual WWDC in San Francisco’s Mosone Center — scene of more than one or two significant Apple announcements in recent years. Officially the keynote will be about Mac OS X Leopard, but it wouldn’t be Apple if it didn’t spring a surprise at the last minute. Besides, I’m not convinced Jobs would deliver the keynote himself unless there was something significant to announce.

Also, we already know that Intel has slated mid-July for the launch of its Core 2 Duo (Conroe) chip, which is almost certain to be the processor in the new Pro desktop.

Finally, sources tell me that Apple’s PR departments around the world have been pumping the phones and inviting editors of Mac magazines to SF for the keynote. This is highly unusual, Apple never invites Mac magazine editors to its developers conference. That alone tells me that it has something big up itself, and what could be bigger than the announcement of what could be, if the Xserves launch in the next coupel of weeks as expected, the final piece in Apple’s Intel transition?

Pro desktops are a perfect fit for WWDC and are sure to generate much excitement among the assembled masses.

Watch this space…

Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard Screenshots

June 23rd, 2006

Trinity Rubicon has what it claims to be screenshots of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. There’s no captions or commentary provided, but they look pretty real to me.

Among the things worth noting are the fact that in the first shot, there is an Internet Explorer for Windows window on the same desktop as the Mac native applications. There’s also a Boot Camp icon in the menu bar. This would appear to suggest that Boot Camp will be a virtualisation solution when it ships, rather than requiring you to reboot your Mac.

Further, it looks as if you’ll be able to run Windows apps transaprently, without the need for a separate Windows desktop window. Also interesting is the ‘About this Mac’ window which lists the Windows version underneath the startup disk.

There’s also a new animation for Fast User Switching, demonstrated in the second grab, though it looks pretty awful.

Finally, note the new Address Book icon in the Dock — it has a date as well as the ‘@’ symbol. A combined Address Book and iCal perhaps?

I haven’t re-produced the screenshots here because I can’t be certain of their provenance, nor of the rights attached to them.

Foxconn Threatens Legal Action over ‘iPod City’ Sweatshop Claims

June 19th, 2006

Foxconn Electronics, the contractor behind the now notorious Mail on Sunday story about poor working conditions in an iPod factory, has denied claims made in the report.

Describing the article as a ‘vicious attack’, Foxconn Electronics spokesman, Edmund Ding, told Digitimes that the company reserves the right to take legal action against the newspaper.

Among the discrepancies in the report, according to Ding, is the claim that one factory at Longhua employed 200,000 people who worked 15-hours a day for $50 a month. In fact, said the spokesman, Foxconn Electronics employs only 160,000 people worldwide. He also said that Foxconn abides by Chinese employment law which requires a minimum wage of $101 per month inside the Shenzhen Economic Zone and $88 outside.

Ding said that Foxconn had been making improvements to living conditions in its dormitories and had been named by the Shenzhen government as a role model among Taiwan-based investors in Shenzhen.

Apple Fights Back over iPod Factory Claims

June 14th, 2006

You may have read about a report in the UK’s Mail on Sunday ‘newspaper’ at the weekend, entitled ‘iPod City’. The article described working conditions in a factory in China in which they make, among other things, iPods.

It detailed the conditions under which workers lived and performed their duties, and how much they are paid. To anyone who has ever visited a factory in China or read about one, there was nothing new in the story. To me, it seemed to be a pretty scurrilous attempt by a tabloid newspaper to create a scandal on the back of the iPod’s fame in order to sell copies. What was disappointing was the way in which it was picked up and reported by websites without any comment on the source or the context. Macworld UK and MacNN, in particular seemed happy to re-print the accusations verbatim.

Now Apple has responded saying “Apple is committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible.”

It also points anyone who’s interested to its code of conduct for suppliers which can be read here

If you read the code you’ll see that it’s very specific on the living and working conditions of suppliers’ employees. Apple has also said that it is investigating the allegations made in the story and I, for one, am pretty confident that if it finds breaches of the code of conduct, it will take action.

Now I don’t know whether the Mail on Sunday attempted to get comment from Apple for the story. Having dealt with Apple many times in the last ten years, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had and Apple had refused to say anything. Equally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the MoS decide that the story wouldn’t be quite so dramatic if it included a line saying that Apple was very strict about suppliers conduct and would investigate the claims.

Now that Apple has made it clear publicly how seriously it takes the conditions of workers in its suppliers’ factories, what are the chances of the Mail on Sunday running a follow-up? No, thought not.

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SketchUp now free for Mac

June 13th, 2006

Google has launched the free version of SketchUp for Mac, available now. It has also updated the Mac version of Google Earth to R4 beta

“With just a few simple tools, you can create 3D models of houses, sheds, decks, home additions, woodworking projects - even space ships.” says Google.

As with the Windows version launched a few weeks ago, the basic SketchUp is free for personal use, while the Pro version which costs $500 and adds features such as the ability to print at higher than screen resolution, export to a variety of 3D file formats, and export animations as .mov and .avi files, can be used commercially.

SketchUp is not yet Universal Binary and requires Mac OS X 10.3 or later and a 100% OpenGL compliant graphics card.

Apple Store iTunes Protests are Plain Crazy

June 12th, 2006

Last week, I posted that I thought it was time for Apple, for its own sake if nothing else, modified the FairPlay DRM on tracks downloaded from the iTunes Music Store. It generated quite a debate, and most of you disagreed with me. Having read this report about protests at Apple Stores over the weekend, I’m beginning to agree with you.

If there’s one thing that’s likely to push normally fair-minded, liberal thinkers like yours truly to an extreme point of view, it’s a bunch of rent-a-mob protesters talking through their rear-ends.

Here’s what DefectiveByDesign which organised the protests had to say ‘Apple claims that people would steal from them if they didn’t use DRM, and that they have to protect themselves. This is how they would like to portray it, but it’s not how it is. Inclusion of DRM in products sold by Apple and other companies is inspired by their greed and desire to control us. To accomplish their goals, they want to monitor, report, and regulate your every interaction with your computer and electronics.’

Whaaaat? Yes it is how it is. But that’s academic, because without DRM there would be no legal music downloads, ever. Because as many of you pointed out in the comments to last weeks post, the record companies wouldn’t allow it. It’s about protecting the rights of copyright owners to be paid for the work they own the rights to and of artists to be paid for their work.

Here’s what DefectivebyDesign says on its website ‘There is no more important cause for electronic freedoms and privacy than the call for action to stop DRM from crippling our digital future.’ Actually, there are many, many more important causes, such as defending the rights of citizens of countries like China to access all the information on the Web, and stopping governments around the world demanding ISPs hand over private data. I could go on, but you get the picture.

DRM is a pain and I still believe that Apple should modify Fairplay in the way I described in last week’s post. But these marginal extremists are just plain crazy.

Study shows iPod more popular than Beer with Students

June 8th, 2006

AP is reporting that the iPod is now more poular than beer-drinking among the US student population. The survey notes that 73% of students questioned said that the iPod was an ‘in thing’ compared to only 71% for drinking beer. Among other ‘in-things’ listed in the survey were social networking site, FaceBook.com, downloading music, and text messaging.

Best not get too carried away though. The iPod has a long way to go before it matches beer’s staying power. It’s only he second time in the 18 years of the survey that beer has been knocked off the top spot. The other was in 1997 when the Internet won.

Me? I’d vote beer every time — and it’s a while since I was a student.

‘Beleagured’ Apple should nix iTunes Fairplay

June 8th, 2006

MacBook heat problems, Norwegian law courts, patent tussles with Creative, and lost court cases against bloggers,— too many more new stories like that and the dreaded ‘b’ word will start to appear in news headlines about Apple (I used it here as a joke, by the way).

In terms of news value, the MacBook teething troubles may merit little more than a line or two in the mainstream media, but every story about iTunes or the iPod seems to make headlines. And Apple could really do with some positive ones for a change. Which is why now is the perfect time to kill the Fairplay DRM, or at least the parts of it which prevent iTunes downloads being played on any music player other than an iPod (yes, I know you can burn them to CD and then re-rip, but that’s hardly the point).

I’m not opposed to DRM in principal, there are good reasons for it. Record companies and artists would be unlikely to give their blessing to any system that allowed downloads to be shared and copied without restriction. However, the elements of Fariplay which prevent iTunes downloads being played on any other kit than that made by Apple are indefensible. Sure, they make commercial sense — why let customers choose their own MP3 player when you can corral them into buying an iPod? But even that’s no longer a compelling argument. Does anyone really think that if Apple lets Creative or iRiver owners play iTunes downloads on their players that millions of us will suddenly swap our iPods for inferior devices?

Ethically and morally there is no debate. It’s wrong, plain and simple. If I pay 79p or 99 cents for a track, it chould be my choice how I listen to it, not Apple’s or the record companies. Even worse, if I want to stream music around my house using an Elgato EyeHome, Roku Soundbridge, or any other third party device, I can’t listen to iTunes downloads — despite the fact that Apple’s only possible competitor to these products is AirPort Express, which pales by comparison to other music streaming kit.

Apple, I believe, has absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain by opening up Fairplay, and allowing iTunes downloads to be played on any piece of kit their owner chooses. How about it, Steve?