MacWorld Report: MacBook Air and iTunes Movie Rentals

Yesterday, Apple made some big announcements, as usual, to kick off the MacWorld Expo, the largest convention and trade show of all things Mac, iPod, and Apple. There weren't any really big suprises, but Apple definitely delivered some really interesting products.

All the new apps on the iPod Touch

First up was talk about some updated products. Steve Jobs demoed free updates to the iPhone and Apple TV. The iPhone (and iPod Touch) got some nice new features, such as being able too put a bookmarked webpage (and probably other third-party apps, which are coming next month) on the home screen as an icon. Also, the icons can be easily moved around and multiple home pages can be created. Even the icons on the bottom of every screen can be changed so your favorite apps have easy access. Google Maps UI and Geolocation improvementsThe Google Maps app has been cleaned up and you can now get your approximate location from the cell towers and a database of geolocated wi-fi access points. The iPod Touch until now shipped without applications like e-mail, but now they're available to all Touch owners for $20 and free with the phone. And, finally, Apple TV has a brand-new interface that packs more functionality in each screen as well as makes it so you can purchase movies and music, and thus you don't need a computer to use an Apple TV (although it does sync with iTunes if you have it). This is interesting because people who don't really care about computers and iPods could even purchase music and movies directly from the Apple TV.

The Apple TV home screenThe first major announcement is that Apple is now allowing users to rent movies from the iTunes Store. Apple has signed all major and some minor studios to their rental agreements, and have set pricing for movies at $2.99 and $3.99 for new releases. Users can also download HD (720p) movies for a dollar extra, and it seems that purchasing movies directly to your iPhone or iPod Touch is currently not available, although I think it would be a cool feature if they had that someday so you could rent some movies at the airport before you get on a flight. The standard DVD-quality videos are only about 1GB and download pretty quickly over a standard broadband connection. The Apple TV and Renting from the TV screenApple claims that most broadband users will have enough of the movie downloaded in under 30 seconds that the movie can be started. If this is the case and it looks as good as DVD, I may start considering it as my preferred method of rental, because it's cheaper than going down the street and getting a scratched-up disc from Hollywood Video and even more instantaneous.

The biggest part of the announcement was the MacBook Air, the thinnest and lightest laptop computer ever. The aluminum case holds a 5-hour battery and an 80 GB hard drive, which is powered by a 1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2 GB of RAM. At its thickest area, it's only 0.76 inches thick, and on the edges it measures only 0.16 inches thin! Steve Jobs brought it out in the standard inter-office envelope to an amazed audience. They claim it's the thinnest laptop computer ever, and at that size, I'm pretty sure no one can dispute that.

Steve Jobs pulling a MacBook Air out of an envelopeAlthough the size is small, Apple really doesn't skimp on features. This ultra-portable has a 13.3 inch screen and a built-in iSight camera. The keyboard is full-size and has the ultra-hip LED backlight. The touch pad looks even bigger than my MacBook Pro touch pad, plus it can do new gestures such as pinching and rotating in various programs. It includes Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi, the fastest wireless internet available. Also, for the person who wants the latest and fastest, the hard drive can be replaced with a 64 GB flash memory hard drive, although it remains seen as to how well these function in the long term. These are $1,000, but apparently they are faster than hard drives and use less battery power.

The MacBook Air side profileSo what does it lose? Well, if you want to use tons of accessories, you'll need a USB hub and lots of dongles. For $99, Apple sells a companion DVD-burner drive that plugs in via USB because there is no internal CD or DVD drive. It comes with dongles to connect their Micro-DVI to VGA or DVI to use an external monitor. Also, USB dongles are available to connect to Ethernet or a phone line. I guess the mobile office would require a nice USB hub to connect more than one of these at a time.

Why is it called the MacBook Air? Well, I guess because the computer is all about a wireless experience. If you think about it, most everything is done wirelessly these days. Most people use the Internet and e-mail almost exclusively (and some Twitter and Facebook exclusively), plus, if you have your music and movies in the way iTunes likes them, you have them either on your laptop or an other connected Mac. The MacBook Air front viewThe only major issue is the occasional install of software or burning of CD, and Apple has come up with a solution for that too. Included with the MacBook Air is Remote Disc software, which allows you to wirelessly use a CD or DVD drive from any computer on the local wireless network once you install it on that Mac or PC. It certainly solves that problem as long as you have access to another computer, which almost every user of this computer will undoubtedly have. Still, the "MacBook Air" is a bit of a hokey name, much like the "iPod inviso" because it isn't aerodynamic enough to fly or anything. It's just really small, not made of air, right?

The MacBook Air serves a fairly small market of people who want to take their computer everywhere and not lug around a large backpack. This "ultra-portable" market is commonly a computer under 3 lbs. that has all the basic features of a laptop in a compact package. Most of these have a 11 or 12 inch screen and a smaller keyboard, while the MacBook Air has a 13.3 inch screen and full-size backlit keyboard. The MacBook Air is also thinner than all the currently available competition from the likes of Sony, Dell and Gateway. At $1799, it may seem a bit pricey, but it is only marginally more expensive than similarly-styled laptops, if it is at all.

Some of us were hoping for more from MacWorld, but it did not happen. Still, you can expect a bigger-capacity iPhone and an iPhone with 3G functionality along with some nice software updates across the line throughout 2008 if predictions prove correct.


Google To Start Publishing Knowledge?

Late last week, Google unveiled via their blog a new service currently called "Knol". Udi Manber, VP of Engineering, says that this "free tool" is based around a "'knol', which stands for a unit of knowledge." Also, "The key idea behind the knol project is to highlight authors. Books have authors' names right on the cover, news articles have bylines, scientific articles always have authors -- but somehow the web evolved without a strong standard to keep authors names highlighted."

As a web developer, I've known this for a long time. I started publishing content on GeoCities a decade ago, and it didn't look pretty. And, not surprisingly, most who try to make their own website can't do much better. Plus, starting your own website can be a huge hurdle to get over. Google has helped make it easy to publish on the web, but their two main products are Google Pages and Blogger. Google Pages is like the web portion of .mac, where it is easy to post little personal pages to share with your friends. Blogger is more for the day-to-day bloggers and reporters, not as much for knoweldgeable, scholarly works. Both of these tools are used by persons to publish their scholarly works, but they're not the ideal method.

Therefore, it makes sense to me that Google would work to give learned people of all backgrounds a chance to let their voice be heard. With Knol, authors can get their content published easily online and their name will be featured prominently with the article. The knol is published on a professional-looking webpage without the use of any HTML, and will also allow people to comment, propose edits, and ask questions. The author may even add Google advertisements to the page and they will get a cut of the ad revenue.

This seems to me to be a natural and very worthwhile extension to Google's services. This may someday come to replace the industry journals, or at least many scholarly articles in industry journals will first pop up as a knol. Of course, because it's a Google service and because Google is taking over the world, the publishing community is trying their best to discredit the product.

Many detractors seem to believe that services such as Yahoo! Answers and the mammoth Wikipedia as well as a number of up-and-coming services are going to be competitors to Google's Knol service. Naturally, the mainstream media saw that they could put "Google" and "Wikipedia" in the same headline and got trigger-happy. For example, the New York Times wrote "Wikipedia Competitor Being Tested by Google", which I think is a very misleading headline. Knol, as it has been proposed, is a competitor to Wikipedia in that both will have knowledgeable articles, but that's about where the similarities end. Wikipedia is a publicly-editable page written in collaboration with everyone who is interested in the topic, while knols will most likely be written by one person. Google says they will not promote or edit the content in any way and the content will be owned by the author, while Wikipedia is basically free of copyright by definition. Many other writers equate Google Knol to Wikipedia despite the vast differences.

Probably the most intelligent article on the Knol service is from Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land. Sullivan, the leader of the burgeoning Search Engine Marketing/Optimization field, worries that Google will have trouble ranking knols in tandem with the rest of the content on the web. In other words, Google or other search engines may see knols as inherently better quality because it is on the Knol website. Sullivan worries that, between Knol, Wikipedia, and a couple other smaller competitors, it may be impossible for an author who has created his own website to get his content to show up in search engines. However, Google knows that the better the results, the more people will use their services and the more money they will make.

In the end, we will just have to wait to see if Google even launches Knol past the current testing phase and if it will gain momentum among the scholars of the world. It seems to me to be a solid service that will help many Internet neophytes get their name out on the web.


The Dark Knight

This past weekend in theaters before I Am Legend there was the exclusive preview for The Dark Knight, next summer's sequel to Batman Begins. The trailer has now surfaced online, and it's pretty exciting. Here's what my friends had to say:

Josh: preview = awesome

Joe: dude yes!

David: uh huh
2008 is finally on its way
about stinking time

Colleen: DUDE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Who knows? It might be a decent movie. In my book, it's going to be surprising if it beats Wall-E for best movie of 2008, but it's a bit early to say for sure..


Merry Christmas from Dinkytown

Last night, we wanted to go caroling, but it was pretty cold out, so we didn't. Instead, we decided to bring some caroling cheer to the online community. Here it is:

UPDATE: This video was removed from YouTube due to "artistic differences".

We shot it pretty quickly, and within a half hour we had the title added and some cut out by using the new iMovie 7. It was really easy to use once I figured out the interface. There was a nice integration feature with YouTube, but we weren't able to use it because YouTube was slow and down at times. In the end, though, it was a nice, quick little video.


Movie Rental Experience Improves with Redbox

The past couple years, I've not had much time to watch movies, due to having a full-time job and being involved in the People of Praise, among other things. Three or four years ago, I was a Blockbuster member and rented a couple movies every week. I spent about the same amount using Netflix the year after, and it was great to not have to stop at the local Blockbuster to pick up movies. Now that I don't watch movies, though, it's painful to rent movies. I can count on my right hand how many times I've rented movies this year, and that's mostly because I don't want to pay $4.50 to rent a movie. It's just not worth it, plus the last time I rented a movie, the DVD was almost broken and only worked in my computer and not a friend's.

Redbox PhotoOver Thanksgiving break, I was introduced to Redbox. My dad and I walked into McDonald's and requested a copy of Live Free or Die Hard, one of my favorite movies of the year that I definitely don't want to own but liked. To rent it, I just swiped my credit card and gave them my zipcode and e-mail address. The Redbox clearly stated that it was due tomorrow by 9pm. It only charges us $1 per day. And, I could bring it back to any Redbox anywhere if I wanted.

When I got home after renting, I was very glad I gave Redbox my e-mail address. They sent me a nice confirmation e-mail of my purchase and reiterated the information about the rental. The next afternoon, an e-mail reminding me to return it found its way to my inbox as well. And that evening, I asked a friend to return it for me, and later that evening I got a final e-mail saying that it was successfully returned. Oh yeah, and I enjoyed watching Die Hard 4 for the third time as well. (I think my parents enjoyed it too.)

At this point, I was very impressed with the slick service and, of course, the price. But what remained to be seen was their website. If Redbox was going to be cool, it needs a good, functional website. And, yes, the Redbox delivers there too.

Redbox Online Rental and Pick-UpBack when I used Blockbuster, you used to be able to look a movie up online and see if it was at your local Blockbuster location. Redbox does one better than this: you pay for the movie online, and it stays reserved in the Redbox. For popular movies, you could get to your local Redbox and find it's all out of Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End. But if you check online, you can find out if it's available and reserve it, so even if those who walk up to the Redbox can't get a copy, there's one hiding inside the machine with your name on it. (If you don't pick it up within a day, it automatically gets "returned".) Now that's the functionality you need on a slick-looking movie rental website. I also love that Rebox's site has attitude, saying "Yes" in about 10 different languages in their FAQ and advising you to "Lean over the keyboard whilst entering your password to foil spies" during login.

There are a few drawbacks, though. Of course, unlike Blockbuster, they only have space for a couple hundred movies in the Redbox, not thousands like at Blockbuster. For this reason, it seems, they limit themselves to fairly new releases. I saw a couple releases from up to a year and a half ago in my local Redbox, but don't expect it to be there if it didn't come out recently. Also, when searching online, it seems that one of the nearby Redboxes is "unavailable" at any given time. I don't know if that means that the local McDonald's don't have a good internet connection or if they bring the online features down when someone is requesting a movie, but it's pretty annoying to not always have it available. (One time last night it went offline while browsing the title selection on their website and the website just stalled for a couple minutes instead of giving me an error.)

My local Redbox is just as close as the local Hollywood Video dive, but for the price and the convenience, I'm going to check first if I want to rent a movie.


Amazon's Kindle: Wireless e-Paper for the Non-Geek

Amazon Kindle with New York TimesLast week, announced its newest big venture, the Amazon Kindle. It seems to be the second major entry into the world of eBooks that are functional and will help develop this potential new market.

First of all, these eBook Readers use a technology called e-Paper, which seems to be something like a computerized Etch-A-Sketch. The machine has black and white pixels, and the reader only uses power to change whether the pixels are on or off. Thus, while reading a page, it takes no battery power; the Reader only needs power to change the content of a page. The only major side-effect seems to be that some readers get annoyed by the process of redrawing (or "turning") the page.

Sony ReaderSony recently launched their second version of the Reader platform, which I had the chance to play with at the local Target store a couple days ago. The product is very small and silver. You add books to the Reader via synchronizing with your computer. The best formatted books are all purchased through the Sony Connect store, but you can upload any PDF and it will work fairly well. Navigation seems to be simple and sleek, with less than a dozen buttons on the device. Priced at $250, it's definitely still for early adopters and bookish peoples, but not a ridiculous amount.

In comparison, the Amazon Kindle has many interesting new features, mostly relating to getting items on your Kindle. The Kindle includes a wireless EVDO modem, which gives you access through an unnamed cell phone provider (for free). This allows Amazon to market to those who don't use the internet much or at all, because they don't need a computer to use the Kindle at all. Plus, with the wireless distribution, the Kindle has a number of other features, such as newspaper and magazine subscriptions to be delivered automatically to your Kindle. (Also, for those snooty bloggers who want people to pay for their content, you can subscribe to enhanced RSS feeds of Slashdot and people like Robert Scoble.)

The Kindle with CoverWith these enhancements come some downsides, I think. First, for user-interface reasons, because you do not have a computer to sync with, the Kindle needs to have a keyboard. And much of the front real estate is taken up with a small keyboard for hunting and pecking. Second, the rechargeable battery get quickly eaten up with features such as the Wireless and mp3 playing functionalities, although both can, of course, be turned off. The user interface seems like it may be a bit clunkier than the Sony Reader, mostly because the selection buttons have been replaced with a small scroller wheel or something.

Most importantly, the Amazon Kindle is selling for a whopping $400. This isn't an Apple product, and with the beige-white look to it and the many, small buttons, it's not winning any great design awards either. I don't expect the Kindle to catch on unless they drop the price in half to increase the adoption of this new device. Still, for people who love to read and want to cut down on paper and bulk in their backpack, this may be the perfect solution.


Why I Like My Mac

Alright, here's the exhaustive list:

  • Intelligent Touchpad: Most of the laptops I've used have very annoying pointing devices. This MacBook Pro has a spacious pointing area and, once you get to know it, the easiest-to-use functionality possible. Want to scroll? Anywhere on the touchpad just hold down two fingers and scroll in the direction you want to go. Want to right-click/CTRL-click? After enabling it in mouse preferences, hold down two fingers and click as well.
  • Zooming: Anywhere in Mac OS X, I can hold down CTRL and use the scroll wheel/fingers to zoom in and out. That YouTube video just too small? Zoom in at it and it'll fill up as much of the screen as you like. The screen pans around as you move the mouse, and it's great for reading things when you can't get up close (or just don't want to).
  • Unix-based: Your file permissions not acting correctly? Open the terminal and look at the permissions via good ol' ls. Install the developer tools off the OS CD and all you Unix hackers can compile your own version of just about anything. Plus, like most distributions of Unix, it comes with all the necessary tools.
  • Dictionary: Mac OS X has an address book and calendar built into the OS for plenty of nice integration, but, of course, why not a dictionary central to the OS? Mac includes a full copy of the Dictionary and Thesaurus, which are available with one click.
  • Windows-friendly: I still run my old computer and even store most of my files on there, and that causes no problems with the Mac. Connecting to Windows and Linux SMB shares works flawlessly, and with the right passwords and the power of Hamachi, I can get my data from anywhere.

Why I Like Mac OS X Leopard

  • Boot Camp: This is the official 1.0 release of Boot Camp, and it was probably the nicest implementation of Windows I've seen on a PC. After setting up your partition and booting into Windows install, just pop in the Mac OS X install disc and install a complete package of Windows drivers. The one Windows install includes an app to switch back to OS X as well as drivers for your monitor, keyboard, and mouse (and it includes all the fun mouse stuff like finger-scrolling). It's like all the nice features of your laptop but still running Windows if you need to.
  • Spaces: The only thing better than having a nice monitor is having two monitors to work on. You can't achieve that on the road with a laptop, but with Spaces, it's the next best thing. Spaces gives me 4 separate desktops accessible via simple keystrokes. I have e-mail/chat in one space, web browser in another, iTunes in a third, and a development environment in the fourth (if needed). There's even a keyboard shortcut that will show all the spaces where you can then move windows from one space to another. Programs can be assigned to a space, and if you switch to an app that is only in another space, it'll zoom over to that space automatically.
  • iChat: It's the little things in the new iChat that I like. I can share documents even with people running older versions of iChat. If someone has a link in their status, iChat now gives me a button to click on. Most of our paint colors at home are too close to skin color, so the backdrops don't work well, but they're still kinda fun.

Google Making Open Source Facebook

Right now, Facebook is probably the most successful and biggest hyped thing on the Internet. Most of it is for good reason, because many people, especially college students, have almost exclusively adopted it as their replacement to e-mail and Instant Messenger. With the release of powerful APIs to hook deeply into Facebook's site, some powerful applications (but mostly really annoying ones) have been created that leverage the social network of Facebook and integrate so well you don't even realize it's a program built on top of Facebook. It's amazing how successful this has been with consumers. But, of course, now that Facebook has aligned with Microsoft, it's time for Google to take a swing.

Google does not want all the social networking to go to Facebook (and therefore the ad dollars to Microsoft), so they released an API package they call OpenSocial. It basically seems that you'll now be able to create Google Widgets that interact with data from social networks. Signed on are currently MySpace, Friendster, Six Apart, and, among many others. The openness of the system sounds intriguing, but we have yet to see how the API matures and what aspiring developers can do.

I think that, of course, it's great to have an open platform. Plus, as TWiT said on this week's podcast, these social application developers don't have to be locked into Facebook's system exclusively or be worried about Facebook taking away their business with a new feature. Plus, Facebook is a very closed system, and the ability to put some of this content on your blog as well as behind the curtain of the Facebook login will be a boon for plugin developers. In the end, a viable competitor in any market is good, and I'm glad that Facebook may finally be getting a handful of viable competitors all supported by Google.

UPDATE: In other Google news, this morning they announced the Open Handset Alliance which is developing a free, Open Source phone operating system. Between Google and Apple, I'm actually getting excited about owning a cell phone, especially a Google OS based on Linux.


.mac: A Follow-Up

After talking to a couple friends, I found that I was assuming my readership knew a bit about Macs and how they work. Some readers thought when I posted .mac: What Is It Good For? that I was saying that I didn't like my new computer. That's certainly far from the truth.

.mac (pronounced "dot mac") is an online service that Apple tries to sell you for $99 per year. They give you a e-mail address, 10GB of storage, and the ability to synchronize settings across your Mac user accounts. What I was saying was that it seems like it'd be worth it if you have a couple Mac machines, but with only one Mac, it's hardly worth it. Plus, I have my own server on which to store data and run my e-mail.

Sorry if I confused you, but I'm glad I was able to clear that up. Hopefully, sometime soon, I'll give a rundown about what I like about the Mac.


FON: Share Your Home Wireless Securely

Some people believe that you should share the wireless signal with anyone, because Internet access should be free. I think that's a swell idea, but it doesn't work well in practice. I like having a secure network within our house because I like to share files and printers between computers. Those two goals don't work together well unless you get a router from FON.

FON is a new company that has the solution. Their routers are made specifically to solve that problem. The router has two wireless access points built in - a secure one for your home network and then a FON access point. If you share your internet by enabling your FON access point, you can access other FON access points around the world via an account. This is much better than just connecting to any old wireless access point, because you know it's a FON router and not a hacker trying to steal your passwords.

What’s FON?

Apparently the idea is so interesting that Steve Jobs himself sat down with the people at FON for a couple hours. Most likely, Steve Jobs is interested in getting more open places for people to browse via their MacBooks, iPods, and iPhones, so it's not surprising that he's coming up with ideas on how to do that. Maybe we will see some similar features in a new version of the AirPort (or a partnership with the creators of the often-rumored Google phone, maybe).