Macs against the wall


IF MISERY loves company, misery (in the form of Apple Computer) lured plenty of it at this year's Macworld Expo in San Francisco. Attendance, at over 72,000, was up 15 per cent on last year.

The annual January event is the largest in the world, and usually serves as a platform for Apple corporate announcements and a showcase for new products. However, Apple is, to put it mildly, experiencing uncertainty. In the past year, management reshuffles, product shortages, profit losses and the damaging (if overblown) hype surrounding Microsoft's Windows 95 launch have bitten plenty of chunks out of the once cheerful rainbow apple icon.

But tell that to the Macolytes, who converged on the Moscone Center this year to offer joyous companionship to the unhappy computer giant. If anything, Apple's current beleaguered position only confirms the fans certainty that they are the True Believers on a crusade to free the world of the cloven hooved Bill Gates.

And certainly, the exasperation voiced by Expo attendees that Macs aren't given the media respect they deserve is understandable. In terms of sales Apple is the number one PC company in the US and number two in the world; with sales well up in the past year. Apple leads in the education, graphics, and multimedia sectors, is third in the business world, and half of all US commercial publishers and scientists use Macs.

In addition, Macintoshes consistently have the fewest problems, and topped the charts in every category of user satisfaction in a PC World December survey. Independent studies, repeatedly show that Mac users outperform Windows users by 50 to 123 per cent when given identical tasks.

Such statistics sprang readily to the tongues of Mac Expo attendees, sporting their "Windows 95 = Mac 89" T shirts. And several thousand packed a giant hotel ballroom to hear the reassurances of keynote - speaker James Buckley, president of Apple's US division. "Will there be an Apple computer?" he asked. "Scary question."

His own answer was, predictably, optimistic and upbeat, but, danced around offering any specifics. "We're still here, and there are more Macintoshes out there than ever before," he said. "We still deliver something different and better." However, Apple fudged on when it will release Copland, its new operating system, and held no official press, conferences during the show. Indeed, the company was a muted, presence, considering that it's the star of this annual pull out the stops party.

However, one of the most popular sessions showed why the punters and the professionals still pay homage to their beloved machines. Hundreds thronged to watch popular "Apple Fellow" and Mac proselytiser Guy Kawasaki (whose favourite adjective is "cool") demo the latest in Mac software.

Kawasaki hurtled through 11 rapid fire and often gasp inducing demonstrations. Garnering the loudest "ooohs" was Adobe's new PageMill, a stunning application which allows users to create World Wide Web pages using the friendly Mac drag and drop interface - no HTML necessary.

As the Web currently dominates America's every waking moment - a case of "get a life, get a home page" - anything to do with the Web was hot, hot, hot. Adobe guaranteed their enormous exhibit stall would remain packed throughout the Expo by wiring 30 Macs to the Internet and offering half hour sessions with PageMill. Each participant designed a Web page complete with digital camera" self portrait, and Adobe threw it onto the Expo Web site for the week's duration.

Another startling program which took advantage of the Mac's superb graphics and integration capabilities was Pro View by E magine, which enables a user to create a multimedia port folio in minutes. With ease, the demonstrator assembled text images, hotspot links, sound and video and compiled them into one stand alone presentation on New York City. Like PageMill, the program sells for under US$100.

Many of the demonstrations incorporated some amusing and creative Bill bashing. And at the end of Kawasaki's session, there was a free PowerPC RISC 601 microchip for everyone in the audience, taped to the bottom of each auditorium chair. The innovative chip, a joint product of Apple, Motorola and IBM, powers the well received new Mac PowerPC line.

In its 12th year, San Francisco's Macworld Expo featured more than 1,500 booths and," 400,000 square feet of exhibits, including "Developer's Central", "a tools and solutions cathedral for the Silicon Valley technoheads. At the other end of the spectrum was the Universal "Chiropractic booth, offering free spinal health screening", and the Nada Chair booth, which sold strange back/knee harnesses which looked more appropriate to one of the city's famed sex shops.

Any politician would envy the loyalty of Mac users, and no one here viewed Apple's problems as more than a rare - and brief - system failure. And the San, Francisco Expo remains the mecca for the Mac faithful, a pilgrimage to be made at least once in a lifetime.