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Macworld San Francisco, Any News for Scientists?

1-10-03 Bryan William Jones

So, a quick roundup of MWSF for the science market had a few notable announcements. Initially, for the teachers who read this site, the OS X for teachers program has been extended until March 31st 2003. And briefly, because scientists and engineers are also consumers, Steve Jobs announced that Apple had sold over 600,000 iPods and because I am writing from a location with some of the best snow on earth, Apple has entered into a relationship with Burton Snowboards to make a jacket with a built in pocket for iPod and audio controls on the sleeve. Very cool.

In an announcement important for developers, Steve then went on to describe 5 million active users of OS X currently and that Apple expects to approximately double this by the end of the year. Application news includes the announcement that there are now 5000 native applications available for OS X and Apple and Microsoft have also has extended the Office deal for $199 with purchase of a Macintosh.

Because video editing can have applications in many areas of science, we have two video announcements including a new iMovie with new effects (most natably the ?Ken Burns effect?) which can actually be useful for science users. For instance, I recently downloaded Still Life from Granted Software to effectively display large mosaiced microscopy images in presentations and I must say I am impressed. If Apple’s ?Ken Burns Effect? can live up to Still Life, they have something. Apple has also announced Final Cut Express, a $299 version of Final Cut Pro that has most of the capability and effects of the full version. Semi-related, Steve also announced that Apple was decreasing the cost of DVD?s on the Applestore to $3 a piece. (It should also be noted that DVD?s are an effective option for long term storage and archival of data of all sorts.

Other important application information includes the release of a new browser, Safari. Safari is the first major new browser in 5 years and is based on KHTML. Why did we need a new browser? Steve Jobs explained that the primary reason was speed. Safari is now the fastest browser on Mac with major speed increases for Javascript which is very important for many scitech users. The second major reason for Safari was claimed need for innovation. Ever since the browser battle between Netscape and Microsoft effectively was tilted in Microsoft?s favor, the browser market has stagnated. No real innovation has occurred with commercial browsers even though a number of open source options existed with new features. Apple has integrated Google into Safari and since this release is effectively a beta, (stable though it may be) Apple has also provided a very easy to provide feedback on websites or code that may be problematic. All one has to do is press the bug icon on the upper right portion of a browser window and fill in the info. The folks at Apple will review this and integrate the fix into the codebase. Additionally, because Safari is based on an open source rendering engine, Apple will continue to document all improvements to the engine and post the information for the benefit of all just as they did today.

To me, however, the bigger application release for the scitech markets is an application called Keynote. As an interesting aside, earlier in the keynote before the ?Keynote? software announcement, I found myself wondering just how Steve did his presentations and what software he was using for the presumed video compositing. I had always thought that the data presentation in the Macworld keynotes were always clean with effective but not overdone transitions and I knew Steve was not using Powerpoint but I never bothered to write him to ask what software he was using. For the Keynote announcement Steve describes the software as a presentation application for when your presentation really counts. Hmmm. I was intrigued, both from a cursory interest perspective and from a business perspective as this was another market that had stagnated. After all, ever since Microsoft bought the precursor to Powerpoint for their business markets, very little innovation has occurred in the presentation software application market and other applications have simply disappeared. Remember Aldus Persuasion or Harvard Graphics? Yeah, we?ve had a few new ways to display data with graphs that too often are used for tacky overly wrought 3D representations of data that have no business being rendered in 3D. (Rendering data in 3D with funky patterns or colors often does more to detract from the data and results in sometimes confusing representations of data. And it?s irritating.) However, Steve went on to say that this application was written for him and he had secretly been using the application for all of his Macworld presentations in 2002.

Keynote apparently uses Quartz rendering and OpenGL throughout which Steve then went on to demonstrate effective use of through transitions including cross fades which can be very effective for the display of data without snapping one different image from another up on the screen. For example, with visually registered data, cross fading one image into another results in a much more pleasing and effective display of information. Additionally, Keynote also has made innovations by linking to an internal spreadsheet application for rapid updating of graph data without having to go back to a separate spreadsheet application. This is a huge advancement as users have in the past, had to go back to a spreadsheet application, re-draw the graph, export that graph as an image and then import that graph image into the presentation application. With keynote, you can quickly update your graphs without ever leaving Keynote or having to make separate images. Another big advantage is that Keynote can import and export Powerpoint files as well for true cross platform compatibility. Finally, the Keynote file format is open and documented allowing for the potential of integration into databases and other applications making for potentially a stealthy invasion of the business markets as well as providing very useful tools to scientists and engineers. Imagine being able to have Keynote automatically generate summary data slides from a database of protein sequences generated the night before or link into any other automated data collection environment and automatically summarize data.

I will be publishing a review of Keynote as soon as I can lay hands on it and get some experience using it. But for now, I can see a few improvements that I would like to see in the next version of Keynote. They are the ability to have a split screen showing reminder notes or speakers notes visible to me on my laptop, but not visible to the audience on the projected image. Additionally, a virtual laser pointer would be nice allowing one to select a number of colors for ?virtual lasers? that would be visible to those with types of color blindness. Finally, integration with Inkwell would be very cool allowing me to dynamically update slides or draw on slides while they are being displayed. Another potential fantasy suggestion would be to have a hardware component/companion to Keynote like a small tablet that is 1024X768 video out capable that one could make presentations on?. I do miss the Newton.

Perhaps the biggest announcement of interest to the scitech crowd perhaps was not even mentioned at the Macworld keynote. Maybe for lack of time, it was not announced, but Apple has now released a beta of a complete X Window System environment on OS X based on X11 using the open source standard XFree86. This brings with it a number of significant advantages to the science and engineering communities by providing an environment for ease of access to the world of UNIX software out there and simplifying the process of porting applications from other UNIX environments to OSX. Additionally, OpenGL support is now present leading to significantly accelerated graphics performance. Finally, as of the morning of the 8th, Phil Schiller stated that X11 for OS X had been downloaded over 25,000 times.

From the press release: ?Apple today introduced X11 for Mac OS X that allows X11-based applications to run side-by-side with native Mac OS X applications on the same desktop and makes it even simpler to port X11-based applications to the Mac. Apple’s implementation of X11, the common windowing environment for UNIX operating systems, is easy to install and is optimized to take full advantage of Apple’s innovative Quartz(TM) graphics system to deliver hardware-accelerated 2D and 3D graphics for fast text scrolling, dynamic dragging and resizing of windows, and stunning 3D animation through OpenGL Direct Rendering. With a complete suite of the standard X11 display server software, client libraries and developer toolkits, X11 for Mac OS X makes it even simpler to port Linux and UNIX applications to the Mac. X11 for Mac OS X is easy to get up and running with a single download and install for both the display server and client libraries, and the optional X11 Software Developer Kit for Mac OS X allows developers to build almost any X11R6.6 application with a simple recompile. X11 for Mac OS X is completely integrated with the Aqua user interface for seamless cut and paste between X11 and Mac OS X applications and full access to Aqua controls for zoom, close and minimization to the Dock.?

Was that all? Not quite. Apple also released what they call Airport Extreme, an 802.11g compliant device that is backwards compatible with 802.11 and increases wireless networking speeds almost 5 times that seen in standard Airport or 54 Mbps. Additionally, they added a feature in the new Airport base station that will be welcome indeed in many laboratory environments. A built in USB port to enable USB printer sharing via the Airport module effectively making it a wireless print server as well.

Now, for the real surprise of the Expo. As you most likely already know, Apple released two new Powerbook models, both of which will ensure a big sales jump for the portable line, perhaps to the exclusion of the mid-range (now somewhat obsolete) Powerbook. Both of the new models are constructed with an aircraft grade anodized aluminum case which should prove much more durable than the painted titanium cases of the mid-range Powerbook. (Titanium does not take to anodizing, thus the painting). And the aluminum cases may prove to be a more rigid chassis than the TiBook as titanium is actually quite flexible. As for networking, they also have been truly optimized for a wireless life with built in Airport Extreme and built in Bluetooth.

The smaller Powerbook, with a 12in LCD, now takes over as an almost sub-notebook sized laptop much like the old Powerbook Duo?s and will, I am sure, prove a best seller in Apple?s lineup. It combines true power with an 867 Mhz G4 and Nvidia 420 Go graphics chipset in a form factor similar to the iBook. The removable storage media is a slot load combo drive, and amazingly, there is an available Superdrive option which can be had fully loaded for right around $2100.

For the true lust object in Apple?s current lineup, we also have the larger Powerbook with an astoundingly large 17 in screen and Firewire 800, a Firewire standard twice as fast as before. Ethernet, like its 15in sibling is 10/100/1000, and wireless antennas have also been improved to match the performance of the iBook. Now, Apple historically has worked in little touches that that are innovative and useful and if the screen is not enough for you in this category, check out the keyboard. Apple has worked in a fiber optic illumination system that simultaneously backlights the keys with a soft blue glow and illuminates the symbols on the keys with a slightly greenish tint. What?s more is that the keyboard illumination is controlled automatically by sensors that determine ambient light levels. Technology combined with elegance of design is what this feature is all about. All of these features make this the penultimate laptop bar none, and it?s still an inch thick. Nobody else has anything like it and while the 12 in Powerbook is the laptop to have for heavy travel, any scientist or engineer needing a true portable desktop would do well to check this out. Could I ask for anything more? Well, perhaps more available RAM as we are still limited to 1GB, but when higher density RAM chips become available we might be able to boost the total capacity of RAM. After all, my old 9600/300 was only designed to be maxed out at 768 MB of RAM, but it contains over a GB of RAM. Oh, and the price? The 17in Powerbook runs $3299, but this is actually not a bad price as I remember paying significantly more for a 5300 and you get the design, performance, the screen and that keyboard.

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