Apple WWDC 2004 Day 1

Introducing Longhorn

Here is a little, sur le pouce, late report from my first day at Apple's WWDC 2004 in San Francisco.

The pièce de résistance was of course Steve Jobs' keynote speech. It's my first time at the Moscone West conference center, and this place is huge! So huge that they had to drop the usual dual projector screens for one screen and two satellites at about half-way from the center stage. The lines at the four elevators were scary Monday morning (Jobs said there were 3500 registered developers in the conference, a 17% increase over last year).

Let's start with the obligatory statistics. In terms of sales, Apple has now 80 physical stores which receives 20M visitors and sell $250M of third-party products per year. The iTunes Music Stores have 62% of the online music sales. There are now 20M Mac OS X users, which is 50% of Apple's instal base, so according to Jobs, the transition is over. He called this the third biggest OS transition in the industry, after Apple II to Mac OS and DOS to Windows 95, and before Windows 95 to Longhorn. There are 12,000 native applications and an interesting list of business software editors are active on Mac OS X: cited were Oracle, PeopleSoft, Sun, Quark, Alias, and Microsoft of course.

The only new hardware products announced on Monday are the new Cinema Displays. They're gorgeous and the new 30in display -- "A huge day in the history of big" -- is stunning, not only by their look but more importantly by the quality of the panel. I've heard people around saying that they won't buy a new flat-screen TV but rather one of these. As usual with Apple and its innate sense of lust, you need two DVI ports to drive one screen, and the new video card comes with... four of these, so you can have 8M pixels on two screens if one is not big enough for you.

On the software side, and the biggest subject of this keynote for developers is Tiger, code name of Mac OS X 10.4. Tiger will ship in the first half of 2005, more than one year before Longhorn brags Jobs, and there is a giant poster of a Tiger CD at the entrance of Moscone that reads "Introducing Longhorn" for those who haven't yet understood that Apple is still years ahead of the "copycats" -- "Redmond we have a problem", "Redmond, start your photocopiers". More than 150 new features are promised with Tiger, and Jobs showed a handful of them:

  • On the Unix front: 64-bit for any process, ACLs for security (a feature in FreeBSD 5 that gives much more flexibility than the notion of users and groups in the filesystem), built-in Xgrid, finer-grain locking SMP
  • "A better Windows citizen", i.e. even more MS protocols built-in
  • Live search across the whole filesystem and applications with Spotlight. The concept is a bit similar to the iTunes search function, Jobs gave an interesting demo of such a search built-in the System Preferences (you can search for "WiFi" or "AirPort" or "802.11" and relevant choices will be highlighted and change on the fly as you refine the search). Very fast and much better than the current search
  • On the video front (the one I'm here for really): the upcoming codec is H.264/AVC, successor of H.263 and adopted as the standard for HD-DVD. Videos shown looked four times bigger than MPEG4 at the same bandwidth which, if you ask me, is not a particularly big performance considering how old MPEG4 is (read: it's about time). The first interesting fact about this codec is that it supports adaptive bandwidth that scales from HD-DVD down to 3G mobile phones. The second interesting fact is that some company in Redmond will not support it or put up its own special version that will just happen to work only within their monopole (actually I just made that up, but the contrary would be extremely surprising).
  • Safari RSS. Yes, that's its name, as awful as it is for something that marketing will probably rename Safari 2 once they get over it Dave Hyatt clarifies the name confusion, the browser name remains Safari, Safari RSS is the name of this particular feature within Safari. Besides the name (what about Atom?), the arrival of RSS auto-discovery and search within mainstream browsers (and that will include IE) is significant, as it will help a lot of people discover what newsfeeds are. This said, the demonstration made me instantly think that newsfeeds aggregators are still much more useful than what Safari RSS currently offers: i.e. a way that is as cumbersome as checking bookmarks to see pages that one can find uglier than their web equivalent (frankly, what's the interest of look at Apple's hotnews in Safari RSS, if reaching this feed means that you're already on the regular web page or that you have to check them manually like bookmarks?) But the demoed version is certainly a very early release and he mentioned several other things such as Personal Clipping Service, stored queries as bookmarks. The RSS search is a good addition, though it also add complexity for most users who already have some difficulty making the difference between the address and the search fields (why do I suddenly think that Google will soon start to compete with Technorati?)
  • Core Image and Core Video: like Core Audio, abstraction layers which main interest is to leverage the processing power found in today's GPUs. The current graphic cards have a tremendous amount of specialized power, and the traditional IT speed race is never dismissing new ways to grab power wherever power is. Interesting demo, Jobs wants Adobe to integrate this into Photoshop (good luck, I see this coming in iLife first ;-)
  • Dot Mac sync: .Mac has 500k subscribers and will become more and more entrenched into the system with many more data synchronization. There will be an SDK for developers to hook to .Mac (something which benefit Apple more than anybody else unless they finally open it on the server side)
  • Dashboard and gadgets. Those familiar with Konfabulator will recognize those (and some will scream). Dashboard is "Exposé for gadgets", which are little desktop utilities written in HTML and JavaScript (with some plugin capability to overcome the limits of those)
  • Automator: a visual scripting tool, way easier than AppleScript, that allows one to develop some automated workflow without writing a line of code
  • iChat AV: chat with up to ten other people in audio and three in video (the "people around a table" metaphor is great)

P.S. I meant to post this yesterday but moved directly from Steve's reality distortion field to Murphy's law, awful connectivity at the conference, server errors on this site for hours yesterday... So, I guess you've seen these news all over the blogosphere already.