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Jobs caps snoozathon with cut-down Emagic, iPod

The dullest since Amelio?

MWSF Would the January MacWorld keynote on the twentieth anniversary of the Macintosh live up to expectations?

These January keynotes have traditionally served two purposes: as a stage to bring the company lots of free publicity, and to announce key new products. But as recent keynotes have proved, the latter has been deprecated in favor of a two-hour video presentation: a glossy corporate brochure. Major product announcements are increasingly rare, and this requires the two hours to be stretched accordingly.

One prolonged product demonstration today clocked in at over 40 minutes, which tested even the patience of the faithful ("the longest demo on earth") and left neutrals catatonic.

With no new product lines, or any key hardware updates (for example, to the flagging iMac line), this turned out to be the dullest MacWorld keynote since Gil Amelio's notorious snoozathon seven years ago.

Jobs announced a G5 upgrade to the Xserve - a strange choice to make before an audience of consumers - an updated software bundle that includes music making software based on Apple's Emagic acquisition, and a cut-down a mini-iPod.

The widely-predicted new iPod is targeted at the high end, Flash-based MP3 business, and at 4GB, will retail for $249 when it ships (next month in the US, April worldwide). The iPod mini will come in five colors. Although Compact Flash prices are falling fast, with 1GB cards imminent and 4GB cards pending next year, this should keep Apple ahead of the curve for some time. At least until portable music players become fully integrated with cellphones, and that leaves plenty of time for the iPod itself to grow into a new niche.

Apple acquired Emagic eighteen months ago, and the inclusion of basic music software, called Garageband, in the bundle is long overdue. It isn't exactly new - Apple continues to offer a free entry-level version of Logic, called Logic Fun, but a comparison of the the new Garageband user interface with Logic Platinum shows that this is firmly pitched at the novice. Garageband offers basic sequencing and MIDI instruments, and a number of loops. There's nothing you can't already can't pick up at CompUSA, and it's no threat to Apple's professional offerings (a musician friend of this reporter readily dubbed it "Garagebland") but it makes the Macintosh a more attractive appliance.

Looking for eye-catching announcements to mark the 20th anniversary, MacWorld keynote wasn't the place. The staple desktop Macintosh is beginning to feel somewhat neglected. And Jobs did nothing to address issues raised by Business Week's Alex Salkever of corporate governance, or, more important to many Mac owners, of quality control.

Macintosh owners will find the Expo floor more promising. Today, for example, sees the unveiling of a portable keyboard, the Frogpad, and Jonas Salling's wonderful Mac remote software, Clicker, for SonyEricsson P800 and P900 smartphones. [More to follow.]

But Apple is playing a risky strategy by designing its keynotes to be so light of news. If future keynotes are as short of announcements as this year's has proved, news editors will find it harder to justify their reporters expenses, and the according MWSF coverage will dwindle. The media needs news and drama, not a corporate brochure.

Since Apple more increasingly schedules major product launches, such as the iPod, as unique events, perhaps this is all by design. Is the age of the blockbuster keynote over? If we are obliged to sit through the spectacle of the CEO tapping his feet to cheesy processed loops for what seems like an eternity - excruciating in every sense - then we won't be alone in mourning its passing. ®

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