When is progress not progress? When looks come before use, and when you take one thing away without giving something else back, users respond. It turns out Mac users care about more than just aesthetics, whatever anyone tries to say. Photo: Ondra.

It should have been another home run for Apple today. The new MacBooks and MacBook Pros look like absolutely gorgeous, brilliantly-engineered, environmentally-friendly machines. And for many, the fact they run Mac OS is all you need to know. I really do look forward to seeing one of these machines in person. But in case you haven’t caught on, a lot of people aren’t exactly overjoyed. The loudest complaints: creating digital music and creating digital motion (ahem) are crippled by the lack of FireWire on the MacBook, a format Apple once championed.

Generally, Apple remade their entire line in the image of the MacBook Air: form over function, with design, beauty, and manufacturing excellence, even multi-touch gestures, but without a clear story on value and features. They removed key connectivity (FireWire, particularly on the MacBook) with nothing new to replace it. Talk about putting aesthetics first: some have speculated the FireWire port was removed on the MacBook because it would have necessitated making the case slightly thicker. They added a new connector for video without supporting some standards ordinary people want for video output. Instead of price breaks, they protected their price points, even edging up the mid-range MacBook by $100, which upset some folks – especially since there wasn’t as strong a left-brain rationale for the new models. Perhaps it’s partly the fault of how beautiful the machines are: they shine so brightly, it’s hard for the spec sheet — even the strongest parts of it — to hold up in the glare. (Or maybe that’s the non-optional gloss screen.)

Now, under the right conditions, that could have been a huge hit, except the people who care most about aesthetics already own the MacBook Air — and we’re currently in a global economic slump that’s arguably worse, statistically speaking, than anything that’s happened since Apple was founded. Apple’s case was to get people to make a sacrifice for luxury, right when they want to do just the opposite.

Where were these sentiments at their worst? As it happens, among the creative pros who are Apple’s most cherished users, and some of the press specialists who had been their strongest cheerleaders. That one little matter of the FireWire port turns out to be at the heart of the matter. Read through users’ complaints, and you hear some specifics about why FireWire isn’t ready to go the way of the floppy just yet:

  • Eugenia’s Rants and Thoughts links various complaints, and points out you can “just buy a DELL Vostro 1310 with Sony Vegas Platinum 9, which is more feature-complete than the older Macbook (more RAM, hard drive, ports) at the same price” as the newly-crippled MacBook.
  • Even though he likes the new features, Adam Tow notes that on the MacBook, “I wouldn’t be able to import footage from my video camera nor can I get super-fast downloads from my Compact Flash cards using my SanDisk Extreme IV card reader.” And he points out you can only get a glossy screen.
  • IMJEFFP calls it the “$700 FireWire port” and notes the new model wouldn’t allow him to use a camera he uses for planetary photography.

Some in the press are turning on Apple entirely – and it could be the sign of more dissent to come:

  • The Guardian says the new models “fail to excite” in the headline, and goes on to blame missteps in the announcement for poor stock performance. (A stretch, I think given the volatility of the market, but it shows how bad the spin is today for Apple.)
  • Newsweek’s Daniel Lyons “sours” on Apple entirely and explains “Why the company’s laptops aren’t worth the hype.” His main complaint: Apple keeps dragging journos to these live events only to deliver incremental changes.

… just to cite two examples. Whether that’s fair or not, Apple obviously didn’t get the press they wanted. I think at some point, you have to let the press get excited on their own. Push too hard, and they get cranky.

So Are the Skeptics Right?

For US$999, Apple still offers the old MacBook, which out of the box works with FireWire drives, audio interfaces, DV and HDV cameras, fast card readers, analog TVs and video recording devices, video mixers, and more. Or spend more, and get less. See why people are cranky? Photo of the old MacBook: Allen Reyes.

A lot of PC partisans I know claim Apple gets a free pass. I think they’re unaware just how high the expectations of Apple’s most passionate enthusiasts can be. And I think, frankly, the press can set the bar absurdly high, like wanting major laptop innovation every eight months. Apple made that worse by over-hyping this event at the worst possible time.

There’s plenty to like about Apple’s new machines. There are significant architectural improvements, so it will be interesting to see benchmarks. And they look beautiful. The trackpad gestures sound interesting.

But here are the problems:

Removing FireWire ports is a downgrade, no matter how you look at it. Removing the floppy disk on the iMac turned out to be an upgrade. But remember, the iMac added fast Ethernet and USB ports at a time when those features were often optional. The new MacBooks don’t give you anything, connectivity-wise, in exchange for the FireWire you lose. On the non-Pro, that impact is the worst. HDV prosumer cameras still hold up to AVCHD options, and lots of devices only capture footage, play and record back tapes, and capture live video via FireWire. Musicians rely heavily on FireWire drives and (most importantly) FireWire audio interfaces. On the Pro, they now need FW800 adapters and lose a port. On the non-Pro, they’re completely out of luck.

Imagine how audio maker Apogee may feel. They made their Duet audio interface Mac-only and co-promoted it with Apple, touting exclusive integration with Logic Studio. Now it doesn’t even work with half of Apple’s new laptops, because it’s FireWire only. (No word yet on whether they’re ready with USB, but my guess it they may be hearing about this at the same time the rest of us are.

FireWire isn’t perfect; don’t get me wrong. FW400 offers limited advantages over USB2, and it’s possible to damage some components by hot-swapping a live capble. But then, why not put the FW800 port on Apple’s entry level MacBook, especially since there are still reasons (bigger screen, better GPU, faster specs) to upgrade to Pro? Or why not replace FW400 with eSATA? Or use a 4-pin FireWire port if the case has to be slimmer? Or wait until USB3 is available? Or even give us another USB port? Or at least not constantly keep telling us how you’re always right? Anything would ease the pain.

The integrated video doesn’t sound fully-baked yet. The NVIDIA 9400m will be a big upgrade from the MacBook’s previous integrated graphics. But you can find PCs with beefier graphics cards in them at the MacBook’s price point (especially at US$1600). Worse, if you want to take advantage of its battery-saving feature, you have to stop your work, log out, log in, and reload everything you were doing to switch modes. Windows Vista supports seamless switching on at least some models of the 9400m. Apple may soon, but that’s another demerit at launch.

We’re also still waiting to hear about whether we’ll be able to add connectors for HDMI, S-Video, and Composite TV out. All can theoretically be supported on Apple’s DisplayPort, but only if drivers cooperate. The fact Apple isn’t offering accessories for these formats? Very bad sign. (Updated: Note that that’s not even a standard DisplayPort. Apple is piping standard signal through a proprietary connection that’s not part of the spec. Uh… thanks?)

Apple has to stop acting like no one else exists. Here’s my other beef: aside from the superior aesthetics, Apple overstates what is uniquely theirs. For instance, the whole laptop industry is moving from underpowered integrated graphics on laptops to new, hybrid integrated/discrete graphics chips from ATI and NVIDIA; that’s not just Apple. Now that so many Mac users are dual-platform or switchers, press included, Apple may have to more clearly differentiate what makes them special, and what is PC-wide. There’s really no sin in being clear on that; I think people will respond more positively. And quit with the Vista swipes; that ship has sailed.

Waiting could be a good option. Bottom line? I think what happened is Apple did innovate on form, and function wasn’t quite ready. More video cameras may indeed go the USB route — but it hasn’t happened yet. Intel has some big performance improvements in store — but they’re not here yet. NVIDIA’s hybrid platform looks promising — but the payoff isn’t there just yet, and it sounds like Apple may not even be done with the drivers yet.

And most of all, I think the mood of the world right now is that we’ll buy new tech when it’s ready for us, when we don’t have to throw out gear we care about just to make the case a little thinner, and when we can pay in cash. Not too many people are excited about credit card debt in the moment. If this industry is in it for the long haul, maybe that’s a good thing.

We now return to our regularly scheduled, Theremin-filled music tech news.