A new year, a new Apple. And what groundbreaking mutations has Jobs got for us this time? Like the Galapagos Islands, Apple's isolation from the rest of the PC industry has a habit of producing grotesque sports alongside the radical mutations. How else to explain a notebook with a 17" screen -- the giant flightless bird of Galapplegos -- or the pigmy shrew-alike 12" version? The mutations that matter, the ones that'll warp Apple out of its dependency on under-performing processors or niche markets that can only get smaller, are nowhere to be seen. At least, not in the headline products.
At first glance, the software side's less bizarre than the hardware but still nothing to give the dinosaurs sleepless nights. Safari's a new Web browser, to the delight of Web designers everywhere who've been wishing mightily for yet another variable to worry about. Then, there's the presentation software.
Presentation software. Doesn't that make the heart soar? Keynote, Apple's answer to the question that should never have been asked, can eat and excrete PowerPoint files, but lets you be 'more creative' with your presentation, and make it 'more interesting'. Now, you're a person of the world. You've probably seen, and possibly even own, a television set, and despaired of what appears. That shows how hard it is to make visual information interesting, even if you give the job to fully trained full-time people with the resources of a production company. Bert from Accounts isn't going to cut the mustard no matter how spiffy the software, and anyway you can do a decent presentation with a word processor and the Page Down key. The question isn't whether KeyNote does the job better or worse than PowerPoint but whether we've finally arrived at the heat death of the applications software universe, where nothing remains to be done worth doing.
Some people are worried that Keynote is going to annoy Microsoft and provoke the Evil Empire into abandoning its Galapplegorian outpost altogether, as if its existence is going to be seen as some deadly insult to Bill personally. Nah. That would happen if Jobs announced that all new Macs were going equipped with OpenOffice; it takes more than presentation software and a cut-down browser to rattle the Redmond cage. Instead, Microsoft would be best advised to worry about a third new piece of software, Apple's iLife, the all-in-one digital media application that integrates the Macintosh photo, movie and music management and editing software of the last couple of years.
By now, if you're anything like me, you'll have a handsome few gigabytes of digital fun -- MP3s, JPGs, AVIs and the like. They will be scattered around one or more hard disks across the home network, and on average you will spend one or more frustrating hours a week trying to cobble together a combination of the above to transfer to a laptop or parcel off to a friend. Or you'll have seriously under-impressed a house guest by trying to find your childhood photographs, instead displaying those pictures you took at the Christmas party (sorry, Sharon). It's all very well having one digital library for all your CDs, pictures and movies, but until we get the hang of organising it it'll be no more than an enormous shoebox. Apple's iLife is a strong contender for breaking out of the cardboard mentality. Microsoft has its Windows Media 9, but any system that won't even create MP3s without additional investment is not serious about doing things the consumer way.
What's most important, and the area where Apple could continue to capture the cool, is the next stage of media manipulation -- onto the Web. As an example of the sort of off-beat application that will capture people's imaginations and bring new ways of working -- how Apple is that? -- check out vlogging. Here, people ponce around town with cameraphones and email -- sorry, vmail -- their captured thoughts in living 320x240 pixel colour straight to their blogsites. That'll put paid to reality TV in short order, and about time too. At the moment, you can roll your own vlogging, in the same way you can create your own Web-based media distribution system for your music . But for this form of publishing, there's no equivalent of the mass market desktop publishing package -- just like there wasn't' for paper-based publishing until Apple came along.
Is Microsoft missing what Apple's not? Apple has the iPod, and Microsoft has a wristwatch that shows stock prices. What do you think?