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RealTime IT News

Apple's Little Computer Announcement

David NeedleReporter's Notebook: SAN FRANCISCO -- When Steve Jobs unveiled Apple's first Intel-based Macs at last year's Macworld Expo it was major news at the most appropriate of venues. Tens of thousands of Mac faithful were on hand to get their first look at and hands-on experience with the new systems, which were an instant hit.

In fact, Jobs preceded the new Mac rollouts with a few bits of iPod news that the crowd on hand readily applauded. But then Jobs noted that "now this is Macworld so let's talk about the Mac." In other words, enough with the appetizers, lets get to the main course.

A year later Jobs pretty much flipped the equation: This is Macworld so let's talk about the iPhone.

Jobs spent a few minutes on the previously announced Apple TV and booming iPod sales. He couldn't resist zinging Microsoft's Zune, noting that market research reports showed Zune captured a paltry 2 percent after November, it's first month on the market. "Two percent versus 62 percent for the iPod. What can you say?" Jobs asked rhetorically.

Then it was onto the iPhone. When I asked a senior Apple developer if he thought the crowd would be disappointed that there was no Mac news in the keynote, he quickly retorted, "The iPhone is a Mac. It runs Mac OS X."

Point taken. The iPhone is a heckuva package. A "widescreen" 3.5-inch iPod/cell phone that connects to the Internet with a full Safari Web browser, rich HTML e-mail and innovative touch screen. But is it a computer?

The iPhone
A little bit of everything.
Source: Apple

Technically, sure it's a computer, but Apple will never market it that way. Especially given the fact that the company dropped the word "Computer" from its name, opting instead to go with the Apple Inc. branding.

Clearly the company has moved on from its computer roots to become a major provider of consumer electronics. As technology forecaster Paul Saffo told me in a recent interview, "Apple still makes the best computers on the planet, but it is now a consumer electronics company. Apple knows how to leave its legacies in the past and knows it has to keep racing flat out into the future."

Speaking of legacies, usability expert Jakob Nielsen said the iPhone's touch screen is "the revenge of the Newton." Former Apple CEO John Sculley spearheaded the Newton, a whizzy handheld computer whose flaky handwriting recognition was skewered by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and elsewhere. When Jobs returned to Apple he wasted no time killing the Newton.

"Text messaging is a killer app for mobile phone users as is e-mail for business users," Nielsen told internetnews.com. "The big unknown is how good it's going to be for typing." Then again, Nielsen notes, "it's amazing how good some people have become at typing on the tiny Blackberry and Treo keys."

Let the others play

There were plenty of other things to look at this year besides the iPhone, believe it or not. Other World Computing was showing the Modbook from Axitron, a tablet computer based on a Mac notebook.

There were also plenty of graphics and video companies showing new ways to be creative with the Mac. One that caught my eye was Plasq. The company had a new version of Comic Life, it's comic book creation program, and previewed a brand-new program called Skitch, which is now in beta.

Skitch provides an easy way to create or cut and paste a graphic or image you might want to send in a chat session, MySpace or e-mail. The onscreen Skitch box, reminiscent of an Etch-A-Sketch, has basic drawing tools and images that users can resize with a click of a mouse. You can, for example, scribble a quick map or drawing and drag it into a chat session or quickly grab a .JPG image to include in an email.

Skitch was developed out of need, Keith Lang, one of eight far-flung members of the Plasq team, told internetnews.com. Lang and two other "Plasqers" are based in Australia; two are in the U.S. on either coast, one is in France and one based in Switzerland. "I actually met some of my partners here at the show in person for the first time," said Lang.

Lang said they use Skitch as a quick way to exchange ideas, graphics and images online without having to, for example, save and load attachments.

An iPod accessory company called Mophie had a creative idea at its busy booth. A bunch of Macs were set up for Macworld attendees to sketch out their best idea for Mac or iPod accessories. Dozens of drawings were on display and visitors were encouraged to vote for the best one. Mophie said it would create a prototype of the winner on the last day of Macworld.

Suggestions included a magnifier clip on screen for the iPod, a purse link or chain for the iPod, and my personal favorite -- the iPod decoy. It is a cheap, empty plastic box that looks like an iPod you can clip to your belt, while your real iPod can be safely pocketed elsewhere safe from thievery.

Hey, who knows? If the Pet Rock could be a hit, nothing would surprise me.

David Needle is West Coast bureau chief for internetnews.com.