TOOLS & TOYS: MACS EXPOSED

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At the '99 Macworld Expo, the computer that came back from the dead inspires a bounty of drool-worthy new products.

You are inadequate. You lack speed, memory and storage. You are on a quest for better and faster digital devices. And just when a major spending spree lulls you into thinking that you're ready for the new millennium, some Silicon Valley geeks go and spoil it. Macworld Expo '99 arrived. You are again inadequate. You learn that you need products that are better and faster.

Apple's premier product show, held Jan. 4-8 in San Francisco, rode in on a wave of company comeback quarters, just when digital demigod and arch-nemesis Bill Gates is suffering his own emasculation and consumers are "thinking different" by buying the best-selling computer on the market: the iMac. The company that creative professionals prefer has leapt from the obits to launch even more potent products, bound to quell any feelings of inadequacy. For now. And hundreds of third-party companies, hellbent on Mac compatibility, are following. Flanked by a larger-than-life "Think Different" panel of John and Yoko and a virtual HAL 9000, Apple's co-founder and interim "iCeo" Steve Jobs appeared in faded jeans and casual-Presbyterian-minister look to unveil products that got the Mac faithful literally squealing with delight.

Big Brother Jobs -- the man who launched the revolutionary Macintosh and wowed us with the "1984" TV spot -- led his flock with a religious fervor that was perhaps unprecedented in recent Apple history. Though not quite a Three Minute Hate, this was a 90-minute Orwellian PC dis-fest meant to show how Apple has the fastest toys in town.

If the iMac was the great revolution in consumer desktops, it now has a professional counterpart: the new Power Macintosh G3. This isn't about souping up the lackluster beige G3, out there since late 1997. It's about reinventing it. Think 1 gig of memory. Think 100 gigs of storage. Think iMac on steroids. This translucent blue-and-ice minitower runs on PowerPC processors humming at up to 400MHz.

What's in it for you? Starting at $1,599, it's a graphic designer's dream. With the ATI RAGE 128 (said to be the fastest 2D-3D graphics accelerator chip on the market), the new G3s can handle power-hog visual effects like alpha blending, video textures, shadows, reflections, fog, texture morphing and more. Moreover, Apple just licensed Silicon Graphics' OpenGL -- the industry standard 3-D computer graphics software platform -- for use in future operating systems. If you hate the nightmarish cables and daisy chains required of scanners, printers and storage peripherals, your day has come. Now that Apple has replaced its serial and SCSI ports with industry standard USB and FireWire ports, you can connect almost any peripheral to your Mac.

FireWire technology should also revolutionize desktop digital video, letting users connect digital cameras and camcorders directly to the G3 -- a fully capable A/V machine. That means near- broadcast-quality video authoring at consumer prices. That's what was brewing behind Oz's curtain. Out on the show floor, some 450 companies were showing what they could plug into it. Despite the horde of Y2K-compliant carnival barkers and Snakeoil 2.0 salesmen, this just wasn't the fin-de-siècle funhouse of years past. There were no cyberskatepunks or vampire hacker womyn pawning storage devices, no song and dance routines -- just a bunch of guys roaming around with Agfa scanner boxes on their heads in hopes they'd win a prize. One human billboard covered his entire body with promotional pins and donned a half-dozen cranial cartons to show that "Your Agfa scanner becomes a part of you."

I planned to go straight to the advertising-related stuff, I really did. But Connectix (the folks who brought you RAM Doubler, Speed Doubler and the QuickCam) just released the Virtual Game Station. For $49 you can now play many Sony PlayStation titles on a G3 Mac.

Hours later. With Myth 2 and Dark Vengeance off my mind, I could now get down to business and ogle the MAMS -- Media Asset Management Systems. Canto Software was on hand with Cumulus 4.0, the latest asset management product to let creative professionals put all their images and layouts, movies and music into one big database. "Most ad agencies keep lots and lots images on- and offline, like clip art, images they've used before, backdated stuff they've done; most of the time they have a hard time finding them," says Jason Taylor, VP-sales and marketing. "Cumulus really is an easy way of putting all of that on an online searchable database, so whether it's on a CD or a Zip on a shelf, you can do a 'find' for it in the database and see where it is."

A few stands away, DiamondSoft has just the thing for advanced font management. While creatives know and use fonts like GroschenlCG Extra Extended and AGaramond Semibold Italic, they hate juggling physical font files. Unlike Suitcase and Adobe Type Manager utilities, Font Reserve 2.0 hides the under-the-desktop stuff. With font vault, a browser and a little clicking and dragging, this $120 application organizes, classifies and protects fonts so you can focus on text and design.

Next, I stopped by to see the royalty-free stock photography and illustration: This year IMSI launched the world's largest collection of Mac-ready visual content. MasterClips 1,000,001 (yep, that's a million and one) is the first product to marry a retail package to an online visual database; for $120, users get 400,000 images on CD-ROM and 600,000 more at ArtToday.com. Likewise, Corbis Images launched "the industry's first one-stop shopping service," for more than 25 million traditionally licensed and royalty-free images online. Need original pictures? Joining the Canon XL1 DV camcorder and other devices was the $1,999 Fujifilm DS-330, "the only digital camera in its class" to allow manual setting of focus, apertures and shutter speed. Also, the revolving Panoscan System is apparently the world's only digital camera to take 360-degree, high-resolution panoramic images in a single file -- without stitching or postproduction.

Other Linda Blair-like hardware included the Robinson Robot of Lost In Space fame, presented to promote disc-repair software. My own head spun with the constant barrage of '80s slang -- now firmly entrenched in computer advertising jargon. At every other booth I heard about "killer apps," and products that are "awesome," "freakin' awesome," "totally awesome" (which Jobs delivers with two thumbs up) and that wannabe bad-boy favorite: "kickass." By the end of the show, I felt like breakdancing my way to a Mondale-Ferraro rally.

For "kickass" image manipulation, old design standbys have upgrades galore; products like Adobe Photoshop 5.0, After Effects 4.0, Kai's Power Tools Version 5 -- all to facilitate your next leap to godhood. One favorite, though, was the Ultimatte KnockOut Software. Your composite images look like the front page of the National Enquirer. You've cut and pasted your subject to the desired new background. Pretty slick-looking, too. "For far too long we've been wondering where the edge is, trying to cut and paste and feather" to even out transitions, says Alan Hellard, demo artist for Ultimatte Corp. When an artist selects inside and outside problem transition areas like weeds or flyaway hair, KnockOut finds the middle ground, providing seamless transitions between foreground and background; not a single blade or hair follicle is lost in this perfect montage. For $495 you'll have people saying, "Hey, that really is Newt at the Lambda Lounge."

At truly the most colorful of Mac shows, more than 100 third-party products (mice, CD-R drives, joysticks) shed traditional drabness for translucent iMac blue. By now you know that the new iMacs come in Strawberry, Lime, Blueberry, Tangerine and Grape -- and that the Mac-based office, with strawberry mice and clear blue Zip drives on tangerine iMacs, promises to be the grooviest thing since "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."

Speaking of color, Epson just released the Epson Stylus Pro 5000, a digital alternative to IRIS and dye-sublimation products used by graphic design professionals. At under $10,000, it is purportedly "a product that changes an industry."

With all these "revolutions" and industry-changing breakthroughs, I was hoping for freebies. The budget for this show was reportedly drawn up on Apple's deathbed, so I got no promotional mousepads. T-shirts were either for sale or available upon correctly answering software trivia. All I got was a boring, non-translucent-blue ballpoint pen -- and the opportunity to wear a scanner box on my head. Keen on free dietary supplements, I headed out for the after-hours corporate shindigs. After parties ruled by cross-dressers, sushi, and bossa nova, I end up at a table with some Christian surfers and a "Mac astrologer" who tells me I, like the Mac, am "golden," a "celestial favorite for '99."

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