Under the Desktop: Desperately Ignoring iPod
The moniker "digital divide" has a certain meaning in today's computing world: the gap between the computer literate, or even the owners of computing products, and those without access to online content and resources.
Another kind of digital divide was evident at last week's Macworld Expo San Francisco: it was the growing differences between the lifestyle of consumer computing and the requirements of professional content creation. While both existed side-by-side, as walked the show floor I found fewer products that appealed to my professional side and more that leaned towards my inclination for gadgetry.
A case in point of this professional-consumer split was the keynote address of Apple CEO Steve Jobs to the assembled Mac-philes. The products covered ranged from the $249 iPod Mini audio player to the $10,999 Xserve RAID high-performance storage system.
Fun for the Rest of Us?
But the bulk of the attention, from both Apple and the media, focused on the consumer-centric iPod Mini, rather than the new Xserve G5 server and its speedy RAID storage -- the very product that was of interest to the content pro. Both new and old iPods as well as a seemingly endless assortment of add-ons could be found in almost every row on the show floor. The iPod arrived as a its own content platform itself at this Expo.
Another aspect of this pro-consumer schizophrenia was evident with content creation applications demonstrated at the keynote address. The hit of the address -- for many attendees of the Expo itself -- was GarageBand, one of the applications of the $49 iLife 4 rich media suite (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: GarageBand offers a mix of a digital interface (a timeline with waveform representation of audio loops) and retro modeling of analog controls (mixer knobs and volume sliders). Of course, it's all digital being on a computer screen, but you know what I mean.
Earlier in the keynote, Jobs pointed to the new version of Final Cut Express. Version 2.0 of the $299 program offers a batch of real-time capabilities, including compositing, effects and color correction tools. Of course, this is the prosumer edition of the $999 Final Cut Pro. Still, the focus of the moment was on the entry-level audio tool.
Jobs called the company's iLife applications "Microsoft Office for the rest of your life," contrasting the solid, productivity suite that dominates most computer workplaces with after-hour content-creation activities. Longtime Mac users will recall that Apple's first slogan for the Mac was "the computer for the rest of us."
The attraction of the new GarageBand software was immediate, similar to the other modules of the iLife suite introduced at previous Expos. Or it's like the classic consumer content-creation application of all time: MacPaint. The program makes something that's hard look easy.
"It's the power to make a mess," observed Robert Lettieri, the multimedia courseware specialist for Synthesis, the National Engineering Education Coalition at the University of California at Berkeley, and co-author of Peachpit Press' QuickTime and MoviePlayer Pro 3: Visual QuickStart Guide. He said he expected many consumers to create some awkward-sounding selections with GarageBand, just as novice desktop publishers package a letter-size page with a dozen or more typefaces.
And this has been Apple's strategy all along. The company offers staged sets of hardware and software platforms that let customers either consume and develop digital content. Each platform can feed the next: Novice creators can enter the field, even on Apple's entry-level platform such as the iMac and develop their skills, and finally, graduate to professional-level machines and tools for production work.
The Needs of the Pros
Still, the commitment by Apple to the professional content market has been mixed in recent memory. The company decided to pass on the fall Seybold San Francisco 2003 and instead took out a booth at the Oracleworld show across the street.
In addition, I found Jobs' keynote revealing in that he chose not to focus on the use of Apple's new hardware in content creation shops, as might have been the case in the previous half a dozen years. Instead, he showcased the use of the PowerPC G5 in clustered scientific computing, with a technology called Xgrid.
(Note: I will discuss the technologies and value proposition behind Apple's Xserve RAID in more detail in my next column along with other storage and imaging hardware introduced at Expo.)
Still, it's tough to argue with success. The consumer platforms moved Apple into the black in the last quarter, compared with a loss for the year-ago quarter. Apple announced yesterday that it had its best quarter in four years, and executives credited the revenue gains to the 750,000 iPods it sold during the holiday season.
For other angles on the Apple keynote and content strategy, I suggest a couple of other opinion pieces. The first is my Creativepro colleague Gene Gable, who offered an "Open Letter to Steve Jobs." He took a close look at Apple's iLife tool kit and wondered about some missing pieces.
A wide-ranging analysis of consumer digital content was offered by eWEEK.com's Messaging and Collaboration Center Editor Steve Gillmor in a piece dubbed Battle of the Bands: Gates vs. Jobs. He attended the Expo keynote and then flew out to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show the following day.
One of Gillmor's thesis is that technology innovation now moves from consumer products to professional applications. I am still deciding if this reversal of fortunes applies to content-creation applications but it may in some segments of the market. See what you think and let me know.
A View from the Floor
Certainly, the Expo was smaller than years past, although that wasn't easy to see on the show floor. However, from the mezzanine level, above the fray, the large empty space behind the curtains was apparent.
Yet, the vendors I spoke with all thought the show was a success and at the end of the run reported a better result than they had expected. In places, the aisles were often very crowded with attendees, who were eager to see (and even better from a vendor's perspective, purchase) the latest wares on the platform -- iPod or otherwise.
Although the consumer products were numerous, there were many worthwhile products for content-creation professionals. While I will run them down in greater detail in a subsequent column, here is one that I especially liked:
The best product at the show was the Camdynamics' Lens&light Optimizer profiling system for digital camera lenses. This amazing software comprises a target and imaging correction software for Mac OS X 10.2 and above.
As explained by Rasmus Lemke, product manager, all lenses, even high-end professional camera lenses, have a number of optical imperfections. And each is different, no two lenses are alike, even with the high degree of manufacturing quality.
These imperfections can cause a variety of artifacts in your images. Some of these are familiar such as pincushioning or barrel distortions. But I was impressed with the vignetting that can occur on images, seen as a change in color along the corner or sides.
What do these imperfections mean to our images? Along with the color shifts in parts of an image, they can make a straight line curved, or distort just a portion of the whole.
"The normal guy sees [the problem] all the time. But they just accept it because there's no easy way to get it out. With a target, we really know where the error is and we don't need to start from scratch each time," Lemke said.
Lens&light Optimizer profiles the lens at each of its aperture settings (see Figure 2). The software then can apply a filter and correct the problems automatically (see Figure 3).
Figure 2: Here's a raw image of the Lens&light target taken with a standard wide-angle lens. It's easy to see the distortions: a bowing towards the center and color shifts at the corners.
Figure 3: After the Lens&light Optimizer software processes the image, the lines are straightened and the color shift is gone.
The company is looking for a distributor and its arrival at Expo was its U.S. premiere. The software costs 750 euros ($845) and the targets cost either 200 ($225) or 300 ($338) euros.
Sometimes it's easy to see the problems in an image, and perhaps other times it's difficult. As the medieval sage Samuel Ha-Naggid said: "The truth hurts like a thorn, at first; but in the end it blossoms like a rose." The same thing with your images, there's beauty there and perhaps some thorny imperfections.
Read more by David Morgenstern.
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