The Waiting Game

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You've got to hand it to Steve Jobs. Age has not withered the Apple CEO's famous flash and showmanship. P.T. Barnum himself could not have done a better job at the Macworld convention in San Francisco last week. Barnum, of course, could only offer dancing elephants; Jobs has some of the most sublimely sexy high-tech products of our age. And he was able to pull these latest tricks out of his hat at a time when Apple's profits are turning to deficits and Macs are selling at fire-sale prices. Whatever his flaws, the man knows a thing or two about timing.

Take the showstopping titanium-covered G4 PowerBook, which Jobs left for his now traditional "one more thing" finale. This is pretty much what Mac lovers like myself have been fantasizing about for a long time: it's 1 in. thick and weighs less than 5 lbs., with a gorgeous 15-in. screen and slot-loading dvd drive. No Windows laptop offers all those features combined. After years of lugging clunky old PowerBooks onto planes and casting jealous glances at the guy with the 1.3-in.-slim Sony Vaio across the aisle, I'm looking forward to making the Vaio guy lust for my svelte beauty. Who says size doesn't matter?

My sweet revenge may have to wait some time, however. Although the G4 laptop ($2,599 to $3,997, comparable to Vaio prices) will be officially released at the end of this month, there will probably be quite a bit of pent-up demand, and Apple has a long history of not delivering enough product on time. "We'll be making them just as fast as we can," Jobs told me. But when I asked if there would be a shortage, he smiled and said, "I hope so." Lines of would-be buyers clamoring for his products would, after all, make for an irresistible spectacle. Memo to Mac loyalists: time to test your patience again.

Same goes for the new high-end G4 desktops Jobs also unveiled last week. They will contain what Apple has unimaginatively dubbed a SuperDrive. This is another industry first: a combined dvd-r (for recordable) and cd-rw (for rewritable) slot. What that means is, you will be able to record 60 minutes' worth of your own digital home movies and slide shows onto a disc that will play in any dvd machine (or 74 minutes' worth of digital music that will play on any CD machine). There's even a free piece of software called iDVD to help you design a semiprofessional-looking dvd menu. "Free" is a relative term, however, since you will have to pay $3,500 for the computer it comes in. Eventually, the SuperDrive is supposed to migrate to other Macs--but again, don't hold your breath.

One of Jobs' smaller delights is available now. iTunes is Apple's new free MP3 player, and it outclasses all its rivals--even the $30 versions of Real Jukebox and Music Match. While the folks at Apple may be a little late to the digital-music party, they've made up for it with delightfully intuitive song-name searching and lightning-fast CD ripping (iTunes records at around eight times normal CD speed). Mac loyalists, once again, will have to hang on for all the good stuff (including Apple's new operating system, OS X, which Jobs had promised for January but is now set for a March 24 release); at least iTunes will help us whistle while we wait.

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Questions for Chris? E-mail him at cdt@well.com