A look back: The best of 2003 from Apple Computer

Another year has come and gone, and when it comes to summarizing what I think the best releases from Apple Computer Inc. were this year, I have to admit being a bit nervous. After all, what standard should I use to judge the company's efforts?

After much deliberation, I came up with this: Apple isn't a computer company, but a solution company. Apple delivers innovative, elegant and friendly solutions to a specific community with a problem. Apple delivers utility in a decidedly nonutilitarian way.

For example, the Apple II was a solution for the community that wanted to experiment with kit computers but found them too expensive and unwieldy. The Macintosh was the solution for the community that wanted to use computing but found the command-line interface unfriendly and unforgiving. The iMac put fun and style back into computing, reminding people that the ugly beige box in everyone's home did not have to be an ugly beige box if they weren't the type of people who liked ugly beige boxes.

And finally, Mac OS X was a solution for the community that wanted the power of Unix and the benefits of open-source software without the befuddlement plaguing those unfamiliar with the terminal and compiling one's own software.

Using those criteria for measurement, there were a few releases in 2003 from Apple that I see as more evolutionary than revolutionary. They include the following:

  • X-Serve RAID. While it was pitched at the enterprise, I see the target market for the X-serve RAID as video professionals, educators and others who needed high-end RAID storage without the hassles and technowizardry that usually accompany the typical data center product.
  • The Power Mac G5. It's an incredible engineering feat. The box is sleek, sexy and powerful -- and it delivers 64-bit computing to boot! While it may be more evolutionary than revolutionary, it's quite an evolution!
  • Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther). Apple's operating system is, like the G5, really slick. The Expose feature is a godsend for people like me who constantly have 20 to 30 windows open at once. Evolutionary.
  • Panther Server. It provides Windows services for those Microsoft has left behind (Primary Domain Controller emulation) and bundles Samba 3 and active directory integration. It's evolutionary, but by several orders of magnitude -- like walking on two feet was for the human race.
  • Final Cut Pro 4. Optimized for the G5, it delivers real-time effects previously only available on much more expensive systems. Bundled with the typestyler and loop composer, FCP 4 is another step forward. Now if Apple would only relax the copy protection a bit so I could put the image on my server for easy lab installs!
  • Sherlock. I don't know if the content search and index module in Apple's bundle of the Apache Web server was part of Jaguar, since I just found it. But it allows for content indexing and searching of your Web site in four easy steps. It may not be as full featured as paying Google to index your site, but it's free!
  • My local Apple rep and support team. The last honorable mention goes to the people at Apple I've worked with over the past year. They're excellent. The Panther Server team was terrific. The iChatAV team helped me work out some bugs with my connection, even going so far as to do test chats with my father to identify the source of the bug. In particular, Henry Patel, one of Apple's enterprise technical consultants, really stands out. He's been able to help me on many issues and whenever I get queries from readers that I can't answer or from those who need service, I send them to him. Apple should be proud to have him on the team.

Now, here are the revolutionary product deliveries of 2003:

  • QuickTime Streaming Server. This component of Panther Server is revolutionary. It simplifies the process of delivering streaming media and playlists and even produces HTML for the files in your list for easy cutting and pasting into your favorite Web editing software. It makes setting up a media broadcast server simple, and yet it has many features that allow for real-time broadcasting, archiving and streaming. If you have the server, bandwidth and enough creative friends to create content, you can now easily be a media outlet.
  • DVD Studio Pro 2. Unlike Apple's iDVD, DVD Studio Pro is geared toward professionals. DVD Studio Pro 1.5 was so complex, it seemed to be designed for scientists. But DVD Studio Pro 2 delivers all the power and features required to produce a feature film DVD that one would expect from a Hollywood studio, yet, as one of my colleagues put it, "I could teach it to my 6-year-old cousin." Utility -- slick, really powerful and effective.
  • The iSight camera and iChat AV software. Apple's iSight is what you would expect from its industrial engineering group: Highly adaptable, functional and -- here I go again -- slick. IChat AV is the solution to the videoconferencing problem. It makes setting up a video conference as simple as plug and play, and relatively cheap for the quality it delivers.

    I've used videoconferencing systems that corporations had running over Integrated Services Digital Network in the 1980s and '90s. I've used CUSeeMe. This blows all of that away. IChatAV is AOL Instant Messenger on steroids. Apple's brilliance is that it uses your AIM account for connection. If you have a circle with whom you IM, soon you'll video chat with them. My prediction: Expect to see this piece of software on Windows sometime in the near future.

    My only gripe is that the iSight camera doesn't come bundled with the chat software. Apple expects people to be using Panther, which includes iChat AV. Otherwise, they have to pay $30 for the right to use their $140 iSight with it. I think that's a big mistake. There are many people outside of the early-adopter community who will take years to move to the next version of the OS. Many of those people are the same target audience as those who have America Online Inc.'s service (hmmm).

    If I buy another, cheaper, lower quality camera, and want to use iChatAV instead of the subpar software that came with the camera, Apple should charge me. But if I buy Apple's premium videoconferencing camera, it should come with Apple's premium videoconferencing software. I've told it as much. If you agree and want to see this policy changed (or if you have bought an iSight and want the software but don't yet have Panther), you need to tell Apple. It will listen if enough people bring the issue to their attention. Call Apple at 800-my-apple, connect to customer care and weigh in!

That brings me to the best release from Apple in 2003, the one thing that is truly in the spirit of Apple Computer: an elegant solution to a widespread problem. It's easy, touches a number of communities and isn't necessarily computing per se -- and it redefined Apple to many who thought of it only as the "computer they didn't buy." I'm talking about the iTunes Music Store.

The iTunes store changed the music business. Some will tell you it saved the music business. I know that it solved many problems that had become prominent in our popular culture: Finding music online, previewing it and getting it in a way that is safe, legal and affordable. (Apple just announced that 25 million songs have already been downloaded from its store, way ahead of its own predictions.)

The store, available first for the Mac and now for Windows users as well, put Apple products in the hands of many who would never have bought otherwise. It also reaffirmed for me that Apple is a solutions company. The operating system and hardware are a packaged solution, but the profit is in the hardware. Apple doesn't make much money on the music, but it sure sells a lot of iPods. For me and others, the most important thing is that we get to listen to lots of music we would never have been exposed to. That's because without the Preview option, I wouldn't have heard it. And without the store to easily browse, I never would've bought it. Plus, I can listen to it on demand wherever I go and look cool doing it.

I can only expect that 2004 will be even better.

Did I miss something? Do you disagree with my look back? As always, send your questions, comments and curses to y.kossovsky@ieee.org.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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