Back to the Mac

Apple’s long-anticipated Back to the Mac event, last Wednesday, gave a glimpse into the future of the company and computing itself. The company demonstrated its upcoming plans, paving a new path for computers. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, dressed in his usual black turtleneck, delivered most of the address.

At the opening, Tim Cook, Apple’s COO, discussed the State of the Mac. Apple apparently now has over 20% “consumer market share” in the US. While “consumer” could mean many things, 20 percent is a significant number, and demonstrates Apple’s continuing rise. He also said that the Mac accounts for about a third of Apple’s revenue. While Cook and Jobs treated that figure as significant, it struck me as somewhat low, considering that before 2001, the Mac was Apple’s only major line, and that it costs many times as much as Apple’s other products.

Jobs said that the theme of the event, Back to the Mac, represented a cycle where innovations from the iPhone and iPad would be returned to the Macintosh. These innovations include multi-touch, the App Store, home screens, and autosaving apps. More on that later…

iLife

The first major announcement was the long-awaited iLife ’11. These new applications show Apple’s new direction clearly. The interface is, in many areas, inspired by iOS, and other parts are affected as well: for instance, iPhoto’s photo-emailing feature now runs entirely in-app.

Jobs discussed the three main apps of the suite: iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand. iDVD and iWeb were not dealt with at all, as happened at the last iLife introduction (’09). iWeb, indeed, has remained unchanged; perhaps Apple has deprecated the app, as it long ago did iDVD.

iPhoto now features a complete full-screen mode (rather than a mode limited to browsing photos). Jobs said that fullscreen apps are another iOS innovation being brought back to the Mac. (He said, though, that only some apps work well in fullscreen.) Phil Schiller, who gave the demo of iPhoto, showed the new mode, as well as new simple, automatic slideshows in a variety of themes. The app also includes improvements to Facebook sharing, letting users see responses to posted images within the app. This is one of the ways Apple seems to be approaching an integrated, application-centered approach, reducing reliance on Web browsers.

Also new in iPhoto are new book and card capabilities. According to Jobs, Apple has improved the books themselves, as well as the software. Choosing a theme for a book or new letterpress card presents a new view, called Carousel, which resembles real books on a reflective wood surface. Once a theme and color is chosen, the pages of book can be customized to a great extent. The new letterpress cards can also be customized with photos and text.

The new version of iMovie finally contains reasonable audio editing. Muting a clip in iMovie ’08 or ’09 required opening the Audio Inspector and dragging the Volume slider to 0. Besides that slider, there wasn’t much that could be changed. Now, audio waveforms can be shown below the video clips. Adjusting the sound level and adding fade-ins are simple drags. The same edits can be performed on segments, as well as clips. Also new are audio effects, in the same style as video effects. (Similarly, though, you’re limited to a single effect from the built-in list.)

A new “People Finder” feature uses the Faces technology from iPhoto to pinpoint clips with people in them (these people cannot be individually identified, however). Clips can be sorted using automatic keywords such as One Person, Two People, and Closeup. In addition, new one-step effects can add instant replays, highlights, and more to your videos. Lastly, the app includes the ability to create customized, guided movie trailers from your footage.

Flex Time, a powerful feature recently added to Apple’s Logic series, has made its way to GarageBand ’11. It allows the length of an audio segment to be changed, without loss of quality. Another new feature, Groove Matching, can synchronize different tracks to the same rhythm. New, focused piano and guitar lessons are added, as well as a learning feature called “How Did I Play?”, which shows how you’ve played along, similarly to software such as Rosetta Stone.

iLife ’11 comes free with every new Mac, and the upgrade price has been lowered to $49 ($79 for a five-license Family Pack). It is available now from Apple’s online and retail stores.

FaceTime for Mac

Jobs also announced FaceTime for Mac, saying that millions of Mac users will now join owners of the 19 million FaceTime-equipped iPhone/iPod touches (and presumably the next generation iPad). In the same manner as the iPod version, users of FaceTime for Mac are identified purely by email address, with no cumbersome accounts or buddy lists. The beta is available today, for Snow Leopard only. The app is easy to download and install, and setup is relatively quick. Early reports indicated that iTunes account information was compromised, but Apple seems to have patched the bug. FaceTime for Mac seems to replace iChat, which was so difficult to set up that I never got around to creating an account. iChat, therefore, may disappear when the next version of OS X arrives.

OS X Lion

This next version is Mac OS X Lion, probably numbered 10.7. iOS’s influence is most clearly seen here. Multi-touch gestures will have a much bigger role in Lion. Touchscreen Macs, however, are out, at least for now. Jobs said that touching a notebook screen doesn’t work, as it causes fatigue and is “ergonomically terrible.” Therefore, multi-touch input will be managed through trackpads (both integrated and standalone) and the Magic Mouse.

Applications, both downloaded from the Mac App Store and obtained traditionally, will be present in a new feature called the Launchpad. Launchpad resembles, almost entirely, the Home Screens on iOS (except that app icons won’t be rounded squares). App folders can be created, exactly as on the iPhone and iPad. This new built-in feature may spell death for the huge category of third-party mouse-based app launchers. Keyboard-based launch utilities, such as Launchbar and Alfred, will likely continue to thrive, as Launchpad doesn’t seem a very good fit for power-users.

Fullscreen apps are much more deeply integrated into OS X with Lion. Clicking the green toolbar button (which has had an obscure Zoom function until now) blasts an app into fullscreen (perhaps a multitouch gesture or keyboard shortcut will work too). Apps in this mode act somewhat like Spaces, in that the user can access the normal desktop with a gesture, and return to the app similarly. In the Lion demo, iPhoto’s fullscreen icon (as shown during Schiller’s demo) was missing, as the system manages fullscreen. Apps in this mode can be flicked through using multitouch gestures, with the normal desktop to the left and the Dashboard to the left of that. (This system resembles, in a way, iOS home screens, with Spotlight to the left of the main screen).

Jobs said that the widespread features Dashboard, Exposé, Spaces, and full screen apps would see some unification in a new management feature called Mission Control. It resembles Exposé, with windows clustered by app; the Dock remains visible on the bottom, and the Dashboard and all fullscreen apps form a bar across the top. Apps can be expanded with another gesture.

If Apple stays on schedule, they will release Lion in the summer of next year. It still seems a work in progress: Launchpad folder icons don’t seem to show the last app added, for instance. Craig Federighi, who gave the demo, seemed to have some trouble with the gestures, so they might take some getting used to. However, once users become accustomed to the new features, Lion may mark one of the Mac’s biggest leaps forward ever. The innovations in Lion will, like the iPhone, probably be imitated by competitors (in this case, Microsoft). This, though, will help usher in the new era of computing.

Mac App Store

Perhaps the most important announcement at the event was the Mac App Store. Rumored for years, the Mac App Store finally surfaced Wednesday. With an icon reminiscent of a blend of the iOS App Store’s and iTunes 10’s, the program’s interface closely resembles the App Store in iTunes, with several elements borrowed from the iPad’s Store. On the app’s page, the review/ratings section is identical to iTunes’s, but the screenshots section looks much improved. (The apps shown in the Store include the iLife and iWork apps, which will now, apparently, be sold separately, and some generically-named applications from “Acme, Inc.”)

Apps download as simply as they do on iOS; currently, installing an app on the Mac requires downloading a disk image; opening the disk image; running the installer package/dragging a program to an Applications folder alias; ejecting the disk; and deleting the now-useless disk image. With the App Store, they’ll download right to your Dock, and upgrades will be equally painless.

Apple will take its standard 30% split from purchased applications. While this strikes some as large, Apple manages all of the serving, curating, and more, which can normally cost the developer quite a lot of money.

A larger concern is that Apple will eventually use the Store to close the Mac platform, locking out app downloads from websites and other sources. However, not many users would stand for this; such a move would likely triple Linux’s market share almost overnight. The Mac is very different from iOS, and hopefully, Apple will continue to keep this in mind.

The Mac App Store, though. is as curated as its iPhone/iPad counterpart. The rules and guidelines seem almost identical, including locking out apps that utilize private API’s and those marked as “beta” or “demo.” On the Mac, however, apps have much greater freedom and utility, and sometimes private API’s are necessary. Also, beta and demo apps are essential, and it would harm users to have to download these from another source. With luck, Apple will listen to developers and users, and modify the Store’s submission rules.

Despite being promoted as a feature of Lion, the Mac App Store will be released for Snow Leopard users in “about 90 days.” Developers can start submitting apps in November. Current Mac software developers are making plans to migrate to the App Store. Also, iPhone and iPad developers are considering branching out to the Mac Store as well. Likely, the App Store will be well-stocked at launch, and many more will be added before Lion’s release.

MacBook Air

This event’s “one more thing” was the new MacBook Air. The notebook has been thinned even further, now stretching from 0.11 to 0.68 inches (that’s 0.28 to 1.73 centimeters). A new, much smaller model, with an 11.6-inch screen (alongside the 13.3-inch), was also announced (it weighs just 2.3 pounds, compared to the larger model’s 2.9). These new notebooks range from $999 to $1599. Specs have actually crept backwards, but speed has never been important for this subnotebook. Apple claims that the new MacBook Airs represent the future of notebooks. This may well be true, especially when the mobile yet powerful laptops come with Lion preinstalled. The new MacBook Airs are available for purchase now.

Apple offered a sight of its future, where it will attempt to combine the innovations of its two flagship products, the Mac and the iPad. Lion may be the greatest version of OS X to date, and perhaps, finally realize Apple’s vision of a completely accessible computer.

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2 comments on “Back to the Mac

  1. Pingback: Review: iPhoto ’11 « Geeks Rule

  2. Pingback: Widgets in iOS « Geeks Rule

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