Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2005 / 11 Shevat 5765

End of line for Microsoft?

By Mark Kellner | The biggest news from Apple Computer last week might not be the $99 iPod Shuffle (stet) or the $499 Mac mini (stet), of which more in a moment.

May I propose, instead, that the big news might well be a $79 software package that received somewhat less attention: iWork (stet) combines Apple's already-sound Keynote presentation software (now called Keynote 2) with a new word processor/document publisher called Pages? Oh, and did I mention the $79 retail price tag for both, 20-percent less than Keynote alone originally cost two years ago?

But as good as PowerPoint is, it's not the easiest software to use. It's so widespread that you can often tell a PowerPoint presentation from a mile away. And it's not cheap: $230 is the list price for the Windows version or its stand-alone Mac counterpart.

So here's Keynote 2, offering new themes for your presentations, integration with photos, video and music already on your computer, and what Apple says is "cinema-quality" text and graphics animation. All this for about one-third the price of PowerPoint and you get the word processor thrown in.

Pages - which I hope to see and test later this week - will import and export Microsoft Word files. That's crucial: if it works with Word, a company's IT (stet) department will have less to gripe about when employees want to use it. Pages will offer some nice looking templates, which could turn even the ham-handed among us into pseudo-designers. And it, too, will work with other multimedia software on a Mac - iPhoto (stet), which organizes pictures; iTunes, which handles music; and iMovie, for videos - so you can grab items and put them into documents.

Why should Microsoft worry? At the low end of the price scale, they're seeing a challenge from low-cost PC makers offering the Linux operating system and related applications, all free or very low cost. Linux has its own issues, and the apps may not be as sprightly as Microsoft's, but what's there is "good enough" to put some pressure on Microsoft among the extremely budget-conscious. Just check out Wal-Mart or some other retailers to see the Linux-based offerings already available.

At the other end of the scale, Apple's announcements represent a challenge on some key Microsoft fronts. Not only will iWork engage Word and PowerPoint on price, but Mac OS X is an elegant, solid, feature-rich operating system, one that Apple will enhance further this year.

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Buy a $499 Mac mini from Apple, add $75 in a needed memory upgrade (to 512 MB), and the $79 iWork package and you're ready, in my view, to unplug your PC, and recycle the monitor, keyboard and mouse for use with the new Mac product. There may be a learning curve for some die-hard Windows users, but it should be tempered by a much greater level of reliability.

And did I mention that the Mac OS comes with an e-mail client and Web browser? Or that Apple is loading the iLife/iTunes/iMovie trio on all the new Mac minis? Put this all together and it's a formidable package, one I hope to review in detail here soon.

For its part, Microsoft's Mac software unit is stoic and even optimistic. Scott Erickson, a group product manager there, told me that PowerPoint for Mac sold even better after the original Keynote launched, and claims - rightly, I believe - that the arrival of a new Mac platform is good news for his product sales.

Still, there are bugs and hassles that need to be worked out in Microsoft's Mac products. Some of these will be addressed with revisions to Entourage, the Mac e-mail client. Others may come later. But Apple is strutting with a little more swagger these days, and if that isn't making Microsoft's Bill Gates even the smallest bit uncomfortable, perhaps it should.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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