Now that the dust has settled a bit and I have had a chance to get hands on with the new products (as well as grill the various Apple product managers about them), here are my thoughts on the products and plans announced by Steve Jobs last week at Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
First up, lets talk about the iPod – 14 million units sold in the three months to December 31, 42 million sold to date and 32 million of those sold in 2005 alone. These are fantastic figures, and justify the significant amounts of money committed by Apple to pre-purchase flash memory and other key components in massive bulk. Despite the early problems with scratching and display failures, the iPod Nano has been an undisputed success, accounting for the majority of those sales in the run up to Christmas. The introduction of a basic sleeve case (similar to that provided with the iPod Video) and some tweaks to the glaze used on the front of the device will hopefully reduce the scratching problem.
Sales of the iPod Video remain good, and have been helped in the US considerably by the growing library of TV shows available for purchase from the iTunes service, as well as by the growing number of video podcasts. I for one can’t get enough of Rocketboom and Planet TV – if you are not already a subscribe – Subscribe now!
I was very disappointed that no video content deals for the UK were announced. Once again the UK, which is a key market for Apple – particularly where iTunes is concerned – received no content, and we are left with just a handful of music videos nobody wants, and half a dozen Pixar movie shorts as the only commercial video content we can purchase. Very poor show and Apple should be ashamed of itself for this.
Apple has shifted 850 million songs worldwide via iTunes, that’s three million a day and equates to a 83% market share. It has also sold eight million videos since launch.
Also a bit disappointed and very surprised that no update for the Shuffle was announced. This product is a full year old now and is looking very tired. 512MB is looking VERY small capacity-wise for such a device, even an entry-level one, and the lack of any kind of screen is becoming a problem, especially for the 1GB device. I own a 512MB Shuffle and think it is a fantastic device, however I am accutely aware of its flaws. the 512MB need to be axed, and the 1GB refreshed at a minimum.
Hopefully something is coming soon, but it really should have been now. As I said in my post before the keynote, a single 2GB Shuffle with some kind of basic display to replace the 512MB and the 1GB models, and a bump in the Nano line to either 4GB and 6GB or 4GB and 8GB would be the logical move.
The one bit of iPod hardware news from the keynote was most welcome, the launch of a new dock connector-based wired remote control. Different from the original, and using the same key design and layout as a Shuffle, the remote also contains an FM radio, using the iPod itself for display and tuning. A firmware update is needed to enable FM radio support. My girlfriend Liz has already acquired one of these, and while the FM reception is not great, the remote control features and build quality are excellent.
On the financials, the company announced 2005 fiscal revenues of $5.7 billion, along with news of the first $1billion quarter (three months to December 31) for its retail chain. This is excellent news, and should be sustainable provided Apple addresse the problems that are creeping into its store chain as it expands. The flagship Regent Street store in London is a prime example of this.
Having had a promising start, negligent management, poor maintenence of in-store displays and a rapid deterioration of the quality of in-store sales staff have seen this large and expensive to run store become a ghetto for foreign tourists looking to check their email for free.
Staff on the floor are rude, lazy and know nothing about the products they are selling, suggesting that they are not being trained before being exposed to the public. Security staff are equally rude and frequently stop innocent shoppers, falsely accusing them of shoplifting. I myself was grabbed on leaving the store one day and falsely accused of stealing a copy of iWork 05 (and when they realised their mistake, I did not even receive an apology). I have also witnessed at least six more incidents of people being grabbed on leaving the Regent Street store and accused of taking items, only for security staff to discover the shopper they have manhandled has done nothing of the sort.
The store is often filthy, the products out for display are frequently in a poor state of repair, with iPods scratched beyond use, keys broken off desktop and laptop keyboards, defective or pieces broken off digital cameras and mice that no longer move the cursor or respond to clicks.
Even Dixons would not accept this mess in a retail store, and if Apple is to continue its retail expansion, it needs to retake management and staffing control of stores such as Regent Street and begin restaffing ASAP.
A brief mention was made of the forthcoming store at the Brent Cross Shopping Centre in North London. No date was given for its opening, which had been expected in December 2005.
Moving on to the Mac, and I must say I am very excited by the new Intel-based Macs. Like many, I had hoped that Apple would opt for processors from AMD, which in my opinion provide far better desktop processors than Intel these days. However, Intel does still have the upper hand in the mobile computer chip space, producing mobile processors and chipsets that are more power and heat effecient than AMD’s nearest products. This is one of the main reasons why Apple selected Intel over AMD.
The dual-core iMac models announced are good, offering the same design, only minor peripheral spec changes over the G5-based machines they replace, while delivering significantly more processing power for the same money. This was an excellent decision.
The Intel Core Duo processors that Apple is using at this stage are by no means the fastest available to them. but they do offer a good balance between performance, power consumption and heat output.
Similarly, the dual-core 15inch MacBook Pro (the new name for Intel-based Powerbooks) could have been faster, but instead a happy medium of performance and battery life has been achieved, and the new model is as much as four times faster than the Powerbook it replaces.
I was surprised that the Mac Mini was not the first machine to receive the Intel treatment, but given that it is a full year old now, with no official speed bump since its introduction at Macworld Expo 2005, it can’t be long before this machine also makes the move to an Intel platform – most likely a mobile Centrino processor and chipset.
Finally – software! We love the update to iLife – adding podcasting support to GarageBand is most welcome and will be a popular among the army of Mac-based podcasters out there. Photocasting in iPhoto is nice, but not sure how useful it will actually be, and officially supporting third-party DVD burners in iDVD is long overdue and most welcome.
The big software news was the introduction of iWeb into iLife – a very nice and easy to use WYSIWYG web page creator with support for RSS feed generation, podcast enclosures and other things that would otherwise have most novice web page creators bleeding from the eyes in frustration. In the keynote, Jobes made a big deal of the integration if iWeb and the new features in iLife with .Mac. However, we can reveal that all of the Internet-based features can be used without a .Mac account (using any old web space instead). However, it all works a lot more smoothly and reliably if you do use a .Mac account.
As usual, the extremely annoying-to-listen-to Roz Ho, general manager of Microsoft’s Mac business unit popped up for her three minutes of waffle. I am sure she is excellent at her job, but she is one of the worst public speakers that Microsoft has ever thrust into a keynote spotlight. Please Roz, stay off the stage and leave the speaking opportunities to someone easier on the ear.
Once you got through Roz’s waffle, you discovered that Microsoft is committing to developing Office for Mac for a further five years. This is good news, and it will be even better when Microsoft gets its finger out and produces a version of Office that works natively on Intel systems, rather than relying on the Rosetta emulator as it currently does.
What Roz didn’t tell the crowd, was that Microsoft is pulling the plug on the Mac version of Windows Media Player – so we can forget ever getting Windows DRM compatibility for the Mac. Considering the extended support for Office and the importance of multimedia content within apps such as PowerPoint, this is a very silly decision.
Apple also announced an updated version of its iWork suite. Still no spreadsheet, but some nice new features in the word processor and presentation tool. I am looking forward to receiving my review copies of iWork 06 and iLife 06 so I can put these through their paces properly.
One more thing…..Apple released version 10.4.4 of Mac OS X Tiger – and yes, it does use universal binaries and will run on both Apple’s Intel and PowerPC hardware. Still not sure what security measures it is using to prevent use on any old piece of Intel junk, but I am sure we will know in time.