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Apple's announcement finds 'amazingocity' in the expected

Am I off-base in comparing this latest (and presumably last of 2013) Apple media event to the encore after an already great stadium rock show?

It’s the end of 2013 and Apple has already keynoted out with their seaboats out, so to speak. We cheered through iOS 7, rose out of our seats for new MacBook Airs with Haswell processors and super-long battery life, danced like giddy idiots when Apple performed the the unveil of the tubular Mac Pro, and clapped until our hands were sore for an iPhone of glimmering gold and another iPhone made from purest green.

But there’s the point in the Paul McCartney concert — after he says good night and leaves the stage — when you realize that he hasn’t played “Hey Jude” yet. We think we know what’s coming, purely by process of elimination.

So today’s media event was Apple’s encore of “Hey Jude.”

(Though given the number of annual updates that haven’t been released yet, and products Apple has promised for 2013 but has yet to ship, it’s was certain to be more like the medley on Side 2 of “Abbey Road.”)

As we settle down into our seats (either in the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, or in the multi-screen command center here at Ihnatcorp Global HQ) we’re not betting on any surprises.

We wait for the livestream to start and continue to try to divine hints from Apple’s electronic invite. It’s fruitless, but fun, kind of like coming up with a “system” for picking lottery numbers. This time the invite mentioned things still left to cover — so, new iPad covers? — and falling leaves.

Note to Apple: MAD Magazine’s Al Jaffee is still around and he’s still working. One of these days you ought to hire him to design the invite and not even tell anybody about it. Just wait for somebody to print it out, fold it up, and then see what appear to be abstract designs magically turn into a caricature of Nixon wearing an Apple wristwatch.

(Subnote: Al Jaffee is 92. Apple should get on that idea sooner rather than later.)

Flying The Flags, Sounding The Horns

Once again, Apple kicked off with their “mission statement” video which accuses other companies of “confusing abundance with choice.” This kicked up a little controversy the first time it appeared at WWDC in June. Some thought it was self-absorbed, some thought it was needlessly jabbing at Microsoft and Google.

I thought it was a great thing. Apple does indeed have a mission statement and a company culture that informs what they do, and it’s nice to see a company stick it right out there instead of letting everyone guess about it.

Tim Cook takes the stage and starts talking iPhone sales: 9 million in the launch weekend. “The biggest iPhone launch ever.” Which is true of many, if not most, iPhone launches.

Then, a shout-out to iOS 7: 200 million upgrades, making it the fastest software upgrade in history. 64% of iOS devices are now running iOS 7.

Yup, that’s something that only Apple can pull off: Apple users will upgrade if they possibly can. That’s because they add tangible and appealing features that gets users interested. Also, Apple makes upgrades easy-peasy: the device immediately invites the user to upgrade (no searching through menus for the update link) … and it’s free.

I must also note that Apple users are more engaged with their hardware than Windows users are. But it’s a legitimate point of pride: Apple has created a recipe for 64% adoption.

Next: iTunes Radio (what a success)(?) The App Store! 13 billion dollars paid to developers!

(This is another number that begs for clarification. How widely is the wealth being spread? Is it all going to the big studios selling top-ten games? Is it mostly going for in-app purchases instead of discrete apps? This tells a more complete story.)

The New Mac OS

Onward to Macs. A line that merits its own slide: Apple’s purpose is “To build computers people love to use.” Like the intro video, it would sound silly and insincere coming from any other company.

Then Tim started comparing MacOS to the Windows. Citing Windows netbooks, and Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy in which they’re trying to make desktops and notebooks into tablets. To see Apple describe Microsoft (and Google’s) strategies, the competition is pursuing a squiggly line. Apple’s roadmap is straight and focused.

(A timely comparison: Microsoft has just released Windows 8.1 and Surface 2)

Craig Federighi, senior VP of software engineering, takes the stage to talk about Mac OS X 10.9.

He speaks of Apple’s goal of improving the performance of hardware with software. The larger message there, though, is to point out that Apple controls the entire end-to-end experience. They make the Mac, the OS, the services, and even many of the apps … which presents the company with opportunities that Microsoft can’t pursue through the multi-maker Windows hardware world.

Mac OS 10.9 features sound like a misplaced slide from a new Mac announcement: battery life is enhanced, delivering an hour more of web browsing and 1.5 hours more of QuickTime playback, and there’s a new compressed memory that (Apple promises) can make 4 gigs of memory perform like 6.

(One note, though: some of the marvelous features of Mavericks come courtesy of Intel’s new generation of CPUs. But the point is made: there are advantages to taking your vacation at Disneyworld. One company can create a seamless experience in which your hotel, your meals, and your entertainment have all been designed to support and enhance each other.)

Even some of Mavericks’ lesser features are going to convince people to upgrade. I’m excited because I’ll be able to tag files. I think Windows and MacOS 10.8 impose a 1980s mentality on documents. Those operating systems index everything and can perform lightning quick searches. So why must I still keep things organized, for Heaven’s sake? Just let me tag files with data that will help me — and the OS — find what I want when I want it without having to think about volumes, folders, and the cloud.

Mavericks is a true 21st-century OS that presents great features throughout the experience. Take the experience of reading an email. The message refers to a meeting. The email consists of plain, simple text, but the Mavericks edition of Mail can extract every useful piece of information from it and present each piece in its most useful context, without making you leave your mail app. Popups show you your schedule for the day, the contact information for the people you’re meeting with … even maps and weather for the location.

As frequently happens with Apple announcements, it’s not that these features haven’t been seen on other platforms. But I don’t recall them being integrated and implemented in a way that compels ordinary people to use them. And if people don’t use the feature … what’s the point?

Craig moved on to the distribution of Mavericks, which might (unexpectedly) be one of the best announcements of the day.

They’ve re-engineered Apple’s development process to make it easier to pop out new updates; and updating the OS is as simple as downloading an app.

“Today,” he said, “we announce a new era for the Mac; today we’re announcing that Mavericks is free.”

Which elicits genuine whoops. It’s practically a callback to last year’s “Back To The Mac” theme, in which Apple promised to take some of the features and lessons they’ve cultivated from making iPhones and iPads and use them to improve the Mac and MacOS.

Why is iOS 7 so popular? Because the upgrade is free and it’s easy.

(Compare and contrast this with my experience of upgrading from Windows 8 to 8.1. Neither of Windows’ built-in services for locating updates worked. Instead, I had to search for it on Microsoft.com and click on a link that started the process on my tablet. Thanks, guys.)

Mavericks will be a “single step update. And it’s not just free: it’s also ecumenical. You get Mavericks even if you haven’t updated your 2007 iMac since the day you took it out of the box. Fast-forward straight to 10.9 without having to install (or pay for) anything that was released in between.

Why create this system? It makes things easier for users, and improving the user experience is a genuine drive for Apple.

But! They also want to keep third-party developers on board with the Mac’s future roadmap. The best way to encourage devs to write apps that take advantage of Mavericks’ new features is to get those features on as many Macs as possible as quickly as they can.

Mac Hardware

Then it’s on to Phil Schiller (Senior VP, worldwide marketing) and new Mac hardware.

As expected (naaaa na naaa NA NA NA NAAAA … Heyyyy Jude!) the MacBook Pros are receiving fresh new Haswell CPUs. And some minor redesigns: the 13” model is now just 3.46 pounds and less than a quarter of an inch thick. Battery life on the 13” improves to 9 hours, probably thanks to the new CPU.

(Nerd alert: while boasting of its 9 hour movie playing stamina, Schiller described “The Dark Knight” as “The Black Knight.”)

(A nerd forgives but does not forget. I will be kind and assume that he was only confusing Batman with the Black Knight from “Monty Python And The Holy Grail,” which would be an acceptably geeky reference. Ni!)

The 15” model is popular among mobile creative pros, and gets a more aggressive performance bump. The new edition has the Intel Crystalwell CPU, with GeForce GT 750M graphics as an option. 8 hours of battery.

Both new models have improved WiFi and Thunderbolt performance.

The nicest improvement: the price. The entry level 13” drops to $1299 from $1499, and the 15” Pro is $1999 instead of $2199. The new pricing, and the thinner bodies, takes the sting out of the fact that this is still a high-performance notebook without an Ethernet port. (It’s still an add-on dongle.)

Both models start shipping today.

MacBook Airs remain unchanged since their Haswell update earlier this year. Some people are pining for Retina displays, but it won’t happen anytime soon. Apple likes clarity in the product line. The MacBook Air is “Insane battery life, quite affordable” whereas the Pro is “Pay the price in both categories for the ultimate mobile Mac experience.”

The Mac Pro

Then it was time to finally talk about the Mac Pro, one of the most eagerly anticipated Mac releases ever. I don’t think I’ve spoken to a developer or a Pro user who wasn’t phenomenally excited to own one of these; the unveil at Apple’s developer conference this summer made it out to be a true number-atomizing monster.

Apple describes the Mac Pro as “the future of the Pro desktop.” Xeon E5 with up to 12 cores. Fastest memory in a desktop. Data path as wide as a desert and about as hot. Dual workstation-grade GPUs … this is a graphics monster, clearly aimed towards realtime transactions of media (read: 4K video editing and studio-grade audio production). The GPUs can also be repurposed for added number crunching.

We knew that Apple would need to commit to a launch date soon (it had been promised “later this year”). I was looking forward to a video montage that Tim would probably introduce by saying “We gave some pre-production Mac Pros to some professionals, to see what they could do with them.” Followed by testimonials of the feats of unprecedented amazingocity that these men and women were able to achieve now that the flux capacitor is real and installed inside this fine GMC sports car.

Alas, all Apple had to show were some quotes. The most interesting one for me was from Dean Devlin, who assured the world that 4K ultra HD video editing was a dream on this beast. I liked to hear that only because I’ve been writing about Apple for decades. Devlin wrote produced “Independence Day,” famous to geeks as being a cross-promotion with Apple for the then-new PowerBook 5300. So if you want Jeff Goldblum to take down an alien armada with a notebook, even a Mac designed during Apple’s lowest ebb is the best tool for the job.

But I’m surprised Apple didn’t give the stage to game developers, or visual effects artists. Much of the excitement I’ve heard from Pro users has been based on their dreams of things that they can’t do with existing Mac Pros and would be ridiculous to even attempt, for lack of firepower.

Well, we’ll get those stories firsthand in “December” — no specific release date mentioned. The cheap model will be $2999, for 4 CPU cores, 12 gigabytes of RAM, and 256 gigs of SSD storage.

And it’s highly recyclable. “If you don’t want yours,” Phil boasted, “I’m sure you can find someone to take it off your hands.”

(Totally redeemed himself for the “Black Knight” line.)

Apple Apps

Phil handed the clicker off to Eddy Cue, senior VP of software and services, to talk about apps.

Newly updated iLife apps: iMovie, iPhoto and GarageBand. Eddy gave it a quick flash-demo, mostly showing off the new look. The iPad edition of iPhoto now gets the ability to design and order photo books. iOS iMovie now integrates your movies into a single viewer. GarageBand is expanded to 32 tracks on iOS, and gets a new look on MacOS.

Xander Soren (product director for Apple music apps) shows off a new GarageBand feature: a realistic set of virtual drummers will accompany you on its own, and take your direction.

I bet the names provoked lots of debate inside Apple. Kyle, Nikki, Aiden, Gavin … no Keith? A virtual Keith Moon would have increased the gameplay factor of GarageBand. Perhaps you could get him to drum the way you want by placing snakes, bats and bugs on the right parts of his drum kit and provoking him to frantically swat his hallucinations away) that will play on its own and take your direction.

All iLife updates available today, for free. And that’s iLife. That’s what all the people say …

Onward to iWork, which was “rewritten from the ground up” on MacOS.

The new editions get full file compatibility between iOS apps (which we’ve always had, right?), 64 bit architecture, and new UI.

The highlight of the new MacOS edition of iWork is that the tool panel has become context-sensitive and the entire interface has been moved into a single window. It’s all very iOS-like … and it’s clear that the interface for the new Web edition of iWork (shown off over the summer) showed off the new direction for the desktop apps rather than a compromise to make the desktop interface work inside a web browser.

(I’ll have to play with it more before I figure out how I like this. “The right interface for the right hardware” is very much the sine qua non of software design; I hope the new Mac iWork proves that the one-window UI is the right way to go and not simply a necessary evil.)

Overall, the new Mac iWork apps have streamlined, slick iOS 7-style designs. The editing window in “Numbers,” for instance, looks muchly like a final presentation graphics, not like live spreadsheets.

Keynote gets new effects and animations. Transitions have more realistic physics and some new ones. And yes, Tim Cook and the rest have been dogfooding the new Keynote by using it to drive today’s media event.

Onward to a new iWork demo. It’s a cleaner interface. There’s an embedded sharing tool that lets everyone see and edit your document either inside iWork or through iCloud’s new web-based editor.

And we finally get Google Docs-style collaborative editing! Two users can work on the same document live. And your partner doesn’t need to own iWork, or a Mac, thanks to iCloud’s new highly-slick iWork web editor.

(But let’s wait and see how well collaboration works in practice. It’s not easy to create a system that prevents people from bonking heads. But what I’ve seen so far is excellent.)

All of these updates are free and available today, Apple says, with a curt nod toward’s Microsoft’s new subscription model for Office.

Nice stuff. But Apple didn’t have much to say about new iWork features, or expanding it beyond personal and small-group use. Which seems odd, given that the suite hasn’t received a lot of love from Apple since 2009.

The bigger worry: no mention of Apple’s Pro apps. No mention of Final Cut and only an incidental reference to Aperture. Another surprise. The Mac Pro is a clear recommitment to power users … a group that had been feeling ignored in favor of the consumer market. Hopefully the Mac Pro is the leading edge of a new wave of attention for these power user apps.

iPad

Tim returned to the stage and beamed about the impact of the iPad, flashing a sequence of popular quotes from the original iPad’s launch that predicted that the radical new computer would flop.

Showing some kindness, Apple didn’t attribute any of these quotes.

“Earlier this month, we sold our 170 millionth iPad,” Tim beamed. It ain’t boasting if it’s true. He also cited the usual statistic that the iPad is used four times more than all other tablets put together. Like the stat about App Store payouts, I’d like to see more details on this instead of just a two-color pie chart.

But it’s true that Apple owns the tablet market today. Samsung sells a healthy quantity of 10″ Note tablets but with little of the same success or cultural penetration of the iPad. I have seen people — real people, out in public at tourist spots here in Boston, some even with children — using BlackBerry PlayBooks. Twice.

I have never, not once, seen anybody using a Galaxy Note tablet. Hmm.

It’s important to note that Tim came out to give this part of the presentation. He kicked off a long section underscoring not the success of the iPad, but its credibility.

“iPad combines into an incredible experience,” he said, citing hardware, software, OS, and services … all run and designed by Apple. Again, stressing that the advantage of Apple isn’t all tied up in any one product; Apple delivers earth, sun, and atmosphere and thus is the only tech company that can control the weather that its users experience.

475,000 apps for iPad, claims Tim. And then he clarifies that they’re “not stretched out smartphone apps like our competitors are doing.”

(Mmm … not really true — Android apps reflow themselves to suit a variety of screen sizes — but close enough to be an OK statement.)

It’s interesting that Tim spent so much time “selling” us on iPad, isn’t it? It’s possibly due to the fact that tablets are becoming a competitive market and Apple needs to keep pressing the considerable advantages of the iPad platform. The Nexus 7 is a terrific tablet and the Kindle Fire HDX does many things better than the iPad.

Tim then introduced a video showing people using iPads. The video was a sign of Apple slightly changing the conversation about the iPad.

We’d seen that “look at all of these people using iPads” many times before in many editions. This time, though, the video mostly seemed to show people using the iPad for productive work; if there was even a single shot of grandparents chatting with kids on FaceTime or giggly kids playing a virtual piano or gaming, I missed it.

Phil came back up to show off the 2013 iPads.

“The biggest step yet in delivering the vision that is iPad,” says Phil, before a product reveal video.

Here we go: the new fullsized iPad is thinner by 20%, lighter (just a pound, where the iPad 4 was 1.4) and has narrower left and right bezels.

But the big surprise was its new name: it’s now the iPad Air.

How interesting! And a blatant giveaway of Apple’s new strategy. The MacBook Air is a “real” computer. By adding the iPad to that family, the big iPad inherits the perception that this a “real” computer, too.

They even mentioned how much faster the new iPad Air can open files. Yup, they’re now hitting the “the iPad is a productivity device” button like it’s the “Jump” button on a Donkey Kong game, or the “Shoot innocent person in the face” button in “Grand Theft Auto.”

I’ve often observed that the iPad Mini is slowly becoming the “mainstream” iPad, and wondered if there would one day be an “iPad Pro” that would free up the “iPad Nothing” name for the smaller model. Are we seeing the groundwork?

I’ll bet money that next year, the “iPad Mini” will become just “iPad.” Meanwhile, the iPad Air will be used to drive that iPad spike deeper into the business and enterprise markets.

Any big box store sells plenty of touchscreen-enhanced Windows 8 notebooks and convertibles in the same rough price range as the iPad Air. So how will Apple compete with those devices? By creating touchscreen MacBooks? Naw: by selling the iPad as a better, faster, simpler, more secure, and more reliable alternative to Windows 8.

Few $500-$800 Windows 8 notebooks are cheaply made. But can you buy a thin, metal-clad Windows notebook that gets 12 hours of battery life? Hell no.

This is brilliant. And all Apple had to do was change the name and adjust their attitude about what the big iPad is for.

Back to details: the iPad Air gets the same A7 CPU as the iPhone 5s, including the M7 motion processor. Apple says it’s 8 times faster than the original iPad, twice as fast as last year’s, and with 72x the graphics performance of the original. MIMO wireless technology with multiple antennas, for faster WiFi. Colors are silver and space gray. So: there’s no gold here and no TouchID … but otherwise it’s got 5s mojo where it counts.

(Why no TouchID? My guess is that they want to use that component exclusively on the 5s to avoid supply shortfalls. Also, it’s not a compelling “add” for the iPad as it is for a pocketable device.)

Pricing of the top-dog iPad stays the same: $499 for the base 16 gig model. The iPad 2 stays on the price list at $399.

(Why? The non-Retina display now officially looks like hell, and it’s still using the old-fashioned 30 pin dock connector. It’s probably sticking around because it’s the iPad for education and enterprise. It’s for people who buy hundreds of these things, not just one for you and one for the spouse.)

The iPad Air will ship on November 1.

So where does this leave the iPad Mini?

It’s finally getting a Retina display. The screen is 2048×1536 at 7.9” diagonally, same display as an Air, and closes the longstanding gap between the Mini and less expensive Android 7” tablets. The main worry was “can Apple make a super-thin tablet without sacrificing battery life?” but it’s still rated at 10 hours.

Like the Air, the new Mini is also powered by the A7 CPU and gets potentially faster WiFi.

Price is $399 with WiFi, the usual $130 extra for LTE and GPS. Which is still a hell of a lot more than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HDX.

Which is probably why the 2012 non-Retina iPad Mini remains on the price list at $299. So now Apple’s little tablet is a shorter hop up from $229 Android mini tablets.

Apple wrapped up the iPad section by introducing new $39 smart covers and new $79 all around cases made from leather (like the swell new cases for the iPhone 5s).

Rumors of a click-on keyboard cover (like the standard accessories for Microsoft Surface tablets) were just speculation.

(It’s bewildering that Apple decided not to hop on board the Microsoft Surface jet train of success, eh?)

Wrapup

Tim comes back to smile and be proud again and then introduce a new ad for the iPad Air, showing it hiding behind a yellow pencil.

“Other companies would be incredibly proud to have just one of these products. But we couldn’t be more pleased to present all of these in time for the holidays.”

And with that, the crowd leaves the stadium and heads to the parking lot with hoarse throats and ringing ears.

Apple didn’t show off anything we didn’t expect to see. Firm dates for the Mac Pro, refreshed MacBook Pros, and new iPads. Ship date for the new version of Mac OS.

One element was notable from its absence: not even a passing mention of the word “iPod.”

This product line revitalized and reinvented Apple, and became one of the most significant and important products of in tech history. But Apple’s clearly moved on; the whole line got a revamp in 2012 but now? A couple of new colors were quietly added to the online store without any fanfare.

But this, too, was expected. Apple feels no sense of loyalty toward its previous successes. The iPod got Apple lined up to where they needed to be to start selling music, and then gave them the consumer electronics experience they needed to design and sell the iPhone (and then start selling apps).

So the lesson is that no Apple product should ever get too comfortable.

Consumers are clearly transitioning away from trackpads and keyboard and picking up multitouch devices whenever they can get away with it. The iPad Air could be a very early sign that Apple’s preparing for a day when notebook computers become a niche product and it no longer makes sense to create an ultralight notebook with a keyboard.

Apple makes so many consistently smart moves. One of them is to cannibalize their own sales before another company gets the chance.

As it is, I prefer my iPad to my MacBook for many tasks. If Apple continues to press that “the iPad Air is for productivity” button and both developers and users respond to that signal, the Air might land on that same island of unloved products where even the iPod Touch is now headed.

ABOVE: Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller announces the new iPad Air. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images