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COMPUTING

Macworld Expo, day two: Douglas Adams, MacQuariums, stalking Wozniak, and parties

January 7, 2000
Web posted at: 2:22 p.m. EST (1922 GMT)

by Andy Ihnatko, Macworld Online

From...
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SAN FRANCISCO (IDG) -- Steve Jobs' keynote was sure to begin at 9 a.m. sharp Wednesday morning, but two things merited a slight lie-in: One, my ongoing struggle against evil and this cold; and Two, the serene knowledge that it'd take Chairman Steve a while to get warmed up anyway.

Of course, before Steve came back to Apple, there really wasn't much need to even attend the CEO keynote. As a responsible journalist I couldn't ignore them, of course, but my work there was limited to checking my watch from time to time and, when it seemed appropriate, finding a Mac on the show floor with an Internet connection and hitting the MacInTouch web site for a summary of what the CEO said.
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But as I coughed in bed, in the shower, and then on the way to Moscone, I knew it was important to get to the keynote. With Steve, it's all about presentation and context. It's not just what he says, it's how he says it, what he says after that, and what sort of shirt he was wearing when he said it. It's about his hand gestures.

But admittedly, nothing he says in the first forty-five minutes is likely to be terribly important. For the first 45 minutes, the audience is still surviving on adrenaline, so that's the time to tell everyone how many iMacs and iBooks went out the door since his last keynote.

Off-key keynote

As I entered, Jobs was in the middle of explaining these new iTools. I spot a friend near the back and she explained what I'd missed, in full detail and in less than twenty seconds.

These new Internet tools (and Apple's new role as a provider of Internet services) are...interesting. They won't make Apple any money, not directly anyway, but they're...interesting.

As these iTools were being explained, though, I felt a small sense of rising dread. This better not be it. iTools do two wonderful things for the company: they're a huge PR tool in positioning one of the key differences between Mac OS and Windows, viz, that Apple's OS is agile enough and holistically-engineered to such an extent that you can pull off stuff like this. You can have a client-server relationship that's so intimate that you can mount an Internet server through a Web browser and have it relate to the local Mac like a perfectly ordinary hard drive. That's a big deal.

I just hoped this wasn't it. I think Apple -- maybe for the first time -- has moved beyond the need to use keynote addresses to keep proving itself as a viable company with a healthy future, but any tech company has to exploit such an occasion to underscore the idea that the company has some sort of idea of what it wants to be when it grows up, regardless of how big it is at the moment.

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Fortunately, I hadn't long to think about this when Steve got to the meat of the presentation, and began showing off Mac OS X.

After some initial notes about architecture, he began speaking of changing the Macintosh user interface... and here, Steve Jobs, Interim Chairman laid his first egg. The mere raising of this subject sucked much of the air out of the room, and for the first time his comments weren't generating enthusiastic applause. It was light and decidedly tentative.

His first rabbit was a button. A blue button. A blue translucent button. A blue translucent button with gradient shading and specular highlights.

Oh, boy. Is this new OS all about making the user-interface look like one of those horrible websites that takes three minutes to load in because every object is a Photoshopped nightmare? But I was premature. The next thing Steve showed was the new mechanisms for dealing with windows. No more close box, zoom box, etc. A red light, a yellow light, and a green light.

Oh, boy. This could be real trouble. At a busy intersection, they instantly mean Stop, Caution, and Go...but what the hell did they mean inside the left side of a window's title-bar? For the life of me, I couldn't even guess as to which would do what, and that gave me a sinking feeling. He proceeded with general appearance issues and I found myself worrying a bit, hoping something bigger was coming up.

But of course I was premature. Ghastly as these user-interface elements might have seemed by themselves, they worked really well together, dammit.

This wasn't meant to be a simple display of doo-dads, though. Steve gave us everything. The PDF foundation of onscreen graphics. The new way windows and dialogs work. The huge attention to the tiny details that are at the core of the user experience. Menus now fade away. The default buttons aren't circled with a big black magic marker, either: now, they gently pulse. These seem like mere fribbles, and in a lesser OS, they sure would be. But each of these little devices has been placed right where they can have the biggest impact and left out of areas that need simplicity and lack of clutter.

What's beyond doubt is the ongoing support of an idea which Douglas Adams brought up well over a decade ago (I think) when his alter-ego explained his notion of computer evolution in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Whereas primitive computers used maybe 5 percent of its processing power getting its instructions from its users and then used the remainder in actually executing them, a truly sophisticated one devoted most of its power to the broader task of simply trying to figure out what you want it to do. In the book, the ultimate expression of this was a nondescript desk that would look at what you were doing with your tool-of-choice (a pencil and paper, an abacus, a Macintosh) and from this, interpret your intentions.

And there's a similar thing going on with Aqua, the new user interface. Obviously it's not entirely the same thing, but clearly a great many processor cycles are being invested not in getting a calculation done in .004 seconds rather than .011, but instead in doing what might otherwise be termed absurd things to make the user experience (in this case a more satisfying term than "user interface") more pleasant.

A real rundown of Mac OS X's new philosophies and the Aqua interface is beyond the scope of this report (and it'll be done well by Macworld and MacCentral and the rest), but suffice to say that X looks to be a real winner. And I haven't even started talking about its infrastructure and architecture.

Will the mainstream press "get" it, though? I can accurately describe the appearance of this OS as the very first time we, actual users, are getting an operating system that looks like a movie prop, the sort of thing where actors are miming their mousing and keyboarding to keep up with some expensive and flashy cartoon animation. People who just don't understand user interfaces -- and let's not forget that percentage of writers who really don't care about Apple -- could misinterpret this as a flashy, Fisher-Price solution and not a powerful operating system.

Which of course is pure rubbish. This Fisher-Price solution is intended so that you never even think of what a powerful OS you're commanding.

The one thing about this demonstration -- the whole keynote, actually -- that sort of concerned me was the dusting-off of a tired old prop that I had hoped we'd banished for good: the propping-up of Microsoft as The Great Satan. Of course, I'm not suggesting that Bill Gates isn't taking most of his orders from the cloven-hoofed one. Honestly, could I retain any credibility if I did? But the constant use of Microsoft as a sub-species to be gloated over got very tired... and ultimately, very counter-productive.

In this marketplace, no company has time to gloat. And more than that, in commerce as in politics, leaders promote their competitors as inferior adversaries as a prelude toward motivating their troops into combat. And the one reality about market share, as confident as I am about Apple, is that he who has less than ten percent of the market is going to waste more resources than he can afford to lose when he chooses to battle someone with more than ninety percent.

In the drink

The keynote is complete and I am free -- "Free!" Ha! -- to take to the show floor. This is always a unique experience; it's a mixture of business I could just as easily do at home and business I can only do here. I've got plenty of formal appointments to see product managers and look at what they'll be doing in the coming year, but they're no more important than trying to give attention to all of the aisles of both sizes of the Moscone Center, because you never know about these little companies with something wonderful you've never seen before.

One thing that's clear from the start: no areas set aside for people eating lunch. No art galleries. No seating areas. Most importantly, no immense blue curtain cordoning off vast tracts of convention space, which means that unlike previous years, there are enough exhibitors to fill the room, nearly.

Among the many little surprises I find is something I find in the MacTreasures booth. It is a Macintosh SE that's been converted into an aquarium. They are raffling it off.

And it's not a one-off thing; evidently, they're going to be selling them, for they've found a supplier of completed Macintosh aquariums.

At this point, I must be careful about what I say, as one always must when legal matters are concerned. So I shall speak in generalities. Most people know that years ago, I designed a scheme for converting a Macintosh into a working aquarium. I then wrote a long illustrated manual which clearly explained the step-by-step process for doing so, with all the specifications clearly defined. I then gave away this (dare I say) commercial-grade manual, retaining all rights to both the work itself and the work defined within the work, but explaining that people were free to distribute copies of it to anyone they wanted.

As for building MacQuariums, they could do that too, for free, so long as no profit was involved. For one of the main ideas here was to use my MacQuarium as a vehicle for charitable contributions: people are free to sell MacQuariums so long as the money's going to charity. It makes me happy when every few weeks I get an email from someone telling me that they've raised a thousand bucks for their school by making these things.

So when I discover -- as I often do -- that there are people who come across my plans, think, oooooh, this guy's done all the work, now I can swoop in and exploit him for my own gain, I get angry. Angry.

I call my attorney and have words with the eggsucking weasel who seeks to steal my legally-protected work, and politely try to make the aforementioned eggsucking weasel see the error of his ways. And with exceedingly rare exception, once they're confronted by the reality of the situation, they agree to go forth and sin no more.

Suffice to say that some phone calls were made.

The stars come out

But what instantly dispelled my dark mood was a pair of celebrity sightings, nearly back-to-back. The first was Gregory Hines, justly-famed dancer (and star of occasional movies and TV shows). This I merely noted with some pleasure.

Fifteen minutes later, I was chatting with a friend at Bare Bones Software's booth. In mid-sentence, something instantly commanded my full and immediate attention, and I so I stopped talking for a full twenty seconds, a Macworld Expo record. When I resumed, my first words were "Do you know that Steve Wozniak just walked past your booth?"

I was met with some small skepticism. Well, all right, we wasn't wearing his resume on a rotating hat display, but whereas there are thousands of men on this planet who could sort of look like Steve Jobs if they got the right haircut (and yelled a lot), when the most Steve Wozniakish-looking man you've ever seen in your life walks by, one must proceed with the assumption that this man is Woz himself.

I set off in hot pursuit, his white sweater with colorful vertical piping making him an easy quarry. When I caught up, he was talking to a PR person about a network-management tool, and I had a chance to observe him closely. And now, I would have bet money on it. A guy who looks this much like Woz, who's wearing a nameless Apple badge -- and here's the kicker -- is talking to someone about tools for maintaining a sophisticated public-school network has just got to be The Man. (Woz is spending semi-retirement in the public school system of his town.)

As he continues to chat, I prepare my remarks. When he's finished talking, I'll have a 2.6-second window of opportunity to make my move. I will open with the most important bit, the "My God, your work has been just huge for me since I was a whippersnapper, you're a shining beacon to all aspiring ubergeeks everywhere" and then transition into asking how a certain specific project is coming along.

The window of opportunity opened and the clock began running. I made my move...and was instantly blocked by a reader of my columns, who was kind enough to want to tell me that he enjoyed my work. Which, again, was very, very kind, and I'm always very appreciative when it happens...but as I smiled and shook his hand and signed the conference program he gave me, my increasingly disappointed eyes followed Steve Wozniak's sweater as it disappeared into the crowd, never to be seen again.

Drown your sorrows

Well, the mature adult responds to disappointment by thrusting himself into either his work or alcohol, and as luck would have it I could do both by planning out the night's Expo parties. It's important to plan out your evening intelligently; you have to manage your time symphonically, moving yourself to crescendo only when body is willing, and my cold was a rather big X-factor.

One of the wonderful benefits of my job is that I can more or less pick and choose, so I laid out the night thusly: First, Dantz's Retrospect party. This one is an Expo never-miss, as they never misstep in choosing a venue and they never misstep in assembling the guest list. The result is that you find yourself in a room full of people you really want to talk to, drinking things that are eminently drinkable in an environment which lends itself to both talking and drinking.

After choosing a Conversation party, you need to choose a party with a good buffet, one with proteins and meats instead of finger foods. A quick sampling of the buzz tells me that Iomega's to-do at the Museum of Modern Art will be heroically catered. Done.

Finally, there are the two big splashy parties: Macromedia's and Apple's. Were I a younger man (or weren't filled to the rafters with over-the-counter pharmaceuticals) I'd contemplate putting in appearances at both, but alas, reality forces me to choose and so I choose Apple.

Dantz' party proved as reliable as always. There is no time during Expo when you do not have an opportunity to do a little business, but this was chiefly a social function, exploiting the chance to just work on a beer (Root Beer in my case) and chat with friends, some I talk with regularly, some I only see at the show.

One of the latter is a consummate sci-fi geek and I relish our twice-annual and quite shameless discussions. It's here where I bump into him and here where we begin our good-natured donnybrook. I decided to reserve my trump card ("And the Babylon 5 novels are like WAY better than any 'Trek' book!") for when it was truly needed.

The Iomega party was another good call: I'm desperately hungry and just when I need something substantial, there's Iomega's horn of plenty. I barely notice the sushi bar as I brush past it on the way to the Dead Animals buffet, and load up a plate with roast chicken and vegetables. I'm waiting for the year when some company has the good common sense to call their shindig the "One Good, Decent Filling Meal Between Decadent Parties" party.

And then there was the Apple party. This can usually be counted on to be the most overblown and noisy affair of the week, with Apple renting out a dance club for the evening but keeping 99% of its infrastructure intact. I'm one of society's outcasts, eagerly shunned by the in-crowd, and this is actually the one time a year (except for the other time) when I can go to a loud, senses-assaulting crowded party with drinks and dancing and overall foolishness.

Even on that scale, this one was the best in two or three years. The lights and the music were sufficiently disorienting, as was the layout of this immense club, and one of the brilliant master strokes was hiring club performers who dance in elaborate costumes wired from head to toe in flexible electroluminescent tubing. Which was a real marvel.

Last month I thought myself rather clever for having wired up my hat with 12V lamps and a custom-made controller with pre-programmed light patterns. But these performers (I'm told they work under the name "Earth Circuits," or maybe "Circus" -- it was rather loud in there) gave me a serious case of the have-nots. I must learn more about how this stuff works.

Adding to the unreality was an enormous neon "X" placard being waved and twirled by one of the performers. It (and the nicely-evolved lady performer whose neon dress was designed to show off her delightfully complex contours) lent the party the air of a geeky orgy. And with good reason. The energy of the keynote has lit everyone's fuses and one can't help but exploit such a good opportunity to do a bit of jumping up and down.


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