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Apple's Other News

SAN FRANCISCO -- The crowd at the opening of today's Macworld Expo was surprisingly light, low-key and in no hurry.

Or so it seemed till a reporter realized he was in the wrong part of the Moscone convention complex and had stumbled into the Society for Critical Care conference.

It was a different story at the main hall a block away, where hordes of Mac enthusiasts and a crush of media waited to get inside to hear the latest keynote from what seems to be the tech industry's hands-down greatest showman.

While most tech conferences build interest with well-placed leaks and previews of what will happen, Apple has become famous for building a groundswell of anticipation by revealing nothing. And despite months of speculation Apple Chairman Steve Jobs managed to pull a few unexpected rabbits out of his hat.

The biggest announcement was of new Intel-based Macs. But there was plenty of other news.

First, the biggest software endorsement Apple could have hoped for came from Microsoft, which briefly shared the stage to announce it had signed a formal agreement committing to develop new versions of Office for at least the next five years.

This is significant because Microsoft, one of the first application companies to support the Mac over 20 years ago, hasn't always updated Office in a timely fashion and battled with Apple over patent issues, including an unresolved dispute over Microsoft's patent claims to the user interface for the iPod.

Microsoft said it will offer new Mac buyers a 50 percent discount off the retail price of Office.

Microsoft and all other Mac developers are transitioning to the Intel-platform. Apple is ahead of the curve as Jobs said the latest release of OS X operating system software and its iLife creativity suite run natively on the Intel Core Duo processor.

Quark announced it has released a beta of its Quark XPress publishing software for the new Macs.

"All our developers worldwide are in the process of making their apps universal," said Jobs. By universal, he means shipping applications on a single CD that can run on either PowerPC or the newer Core Duo-based Macs.

Apple's iTunes Web site is one of the most popular outlets for podcasts. Now Apple says it's made the creation of multimedia podcasts easier.

"It's a very exciting announcement because what Apple has done with Podcast Studio is make podcasts more accessible," Tim Bajarin, president of market research firm Creative Strategies, told internetnews.com.

Podcast Studio is part of an updated GarageBand 3 software in Apple's new $79 iLife '06 creativity suite. Podcasters can use iChat AV for interviews, record them into GarageBand and use tools akin to what an audio engineer might use to enhance the sound. Included are more than 200 sound effects and over 100 jingles, all royalty free.

Jobs started off his talk with an update on Apple's sales. Apple was not the first computer maker to have its own retail store, but the concept was met with mixed results.

Gateway gave up after several years of floundering sales. But Jobs said the network of Apple stores just reported its first billion-dollar sales quarter with some 26 million visitors over that period.

Back on the Internet side, Jobs said a whopping 850 million songs had been sold at Apple's iTunes store, and the company was on a run rate to sell over a billion a year.

"We have 83 percent market share. We're very happy with how iTunes is doing," said Jobs.

There weren't any major iPod announcements, though Jobs did fill a hole in the market-leading player's feature set. Apple now offers a $49 iPod accessory that's both a remote control and FM tuner.

Radio station listings appear on the iPod screen and you can establish preset stations to jump to much as you do on a car radio. Speaking of cars, Jobs said in 2006 more than 40 percent of new cars in the U.S. will offer optional iPod integration.

Apple is adding sports and old "Saturday Night Live" shows to its list of video offerings for the iPod. Since its October announcement that it would offer a few select TV shows at its iTunes store, Jobs said more than 8 million videos have been sold.

It all adds up to a pretty healthy picture for a company that once looked in need of critical care.