After the Steve Jobs announcement at Apple (AAPL) headquarters on Tuesday, Apple let the crowd spend a little time with the new iMacs and iLife '08 software. Here are my early impressions:
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The color and design make this new Mac feel very different from its predecessor. I have an iMac in the previous design on my desk at work, and while the machine is by no means an eyesore, it's clearly framed with iPod-inspired plastic. This new iMac has a beautiful brushed aluminum frame, and the glass covering the screen makes it look and feel extra durable. Even better, it looks very clean and unlikely to scratch or stain, which makes me think this machine will look good on a shelf for a long time.
Apple once had a huge lead on its competitors in the design department; it was making shapely all-in-one computers when they were still barfing out beige boxes. That has since changed – a reasonable person will have to admit that designs from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Sony (SNE) look a lot better than they used to. But with these new iMacs, Apple has again jumped ahead, not just in design, but in materials. To the touch, this computer feels like modern sculpture, not an office doo-dad.
Keyboards are possibly the most personal piece of a computer's interface besides the mouse – they're the part we touch most often when we're trying to get information across. So from an aesthetic perspective, I love Apple's new desktop keyboard for its all-aluminum simplicity and cleanliness. But touching it? That's a different matter.
This keyboard, with its flat keys and shallow depth, just didn't feel right to me. I spent some time typing, and the action just didn't feel right to me. Because the keyboard is short and thin, the keys are shallow and they don't feel like they move as far when you press down on them. For me, that made touch typing more difficult because I wasn't getting the same amount of tactile feedback I'm used to from a desktop keyboard. It felt more like a laptop – and was actually a bit less comfortable than the PowerBook G4 laptop keyboard I'm typing on now.
The biggest software news out of the Apple announcement might have been the debut of Numbers, the long-rumored spreadsheet program from Apple. Most of the other announcements were updates of existing titles or services.
Numbers looks great. I can't say much about how the software works, because I only saw a demo and played with it for a few seconds; but it certainly makes spreadsheets easier for the typical user. Microsoft (MSFT) has always seemed to resent the fact that everyday Excel users use spreadsheets to make lists and do presentations as often (or more often) than they use them to make calculations; in the last few years, Microsoft has built in just a few list features. Apple seems to embrace these everyday uses for spreadsheets, making it convenient to put multiple lists on a page, and choose from a pre-populated list of options when it's time to do a calculation.
Numbers looked so good, in fact, that it made me wonder what Microsoft thinks.
Microsoft, of course, has its own Macintosh Business Unit that makes software for the Mac – mainly Office. In the days when Apple's market share was tiny and dwindling, the company seemed cozy with the MacBU, since Microsoft's presence made Mac customers feel reassured that Apple would survive. Now, Apple's market share gains, not to mention the iPod and iPhone, have made everyone feel just dandy about Apple's future, so the protective covering of Microsoft Office might not be so important.
Thus, Numbers. Besides being a very convenient piece of software, Numbers strikes at the heart of Microsoft's core customer base on the Mac: small businesses. One of the Apple marketing guys told me today that the main reason someone would need Office for the Mac now, is to collaborate with Windows users. Most Office files import fine into the Mac, but files from iWork, with their unique layout styles, won't always work too well in Office.
Which brings me to my hunch: The reason Microsoft delayed the release of the next version of Office? Apple showed Numbers to the Microsoft crew a week or so ago as a courtesy, and the MacBU folks realized they had a lot of work to do if they want to look decent next to Apple's new iWork lineup.