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Saturday, January 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Practical Mac / Glenn Fleishman
It's time to rate Apple's performance in 2003


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Apple Computer spent 2003 as it spends every year: trying to outthink the rest of the computer industry with products that competitors dismiss as obvious after having failed to release them on their own — and before they release their own versions.

It's time to reflect on whether Apple's actions in 2003 were prescient, ahead of their time, or problematic.

The year started at the annual Macworld convocation (exposition, actually) where Apple unveiled its smallest and largest laptops decked out in a hot aluminum case. Truly hot. Almost burningly hot. But very cool. The 12-inch model didn't catch on immediately but the 17-inch became a status symbol as one of the largest and most powerful portable desktops.

The 12-inch PowerBook lacked most of the features that differentiated a professional Apple laptop from its consumer iBook series; in September, Apple rectified that with a revamped, full-featured model.

Apple also made a splash at Macworld as the first computer maker to sign on to the then-in-progress IEEE 802.11g wireless standard, which Apple dubbed AirPort Extreme, and which offers 54 megabits per second of wire-free networking.

Although 802.11g wasn't approved by its engineering standards group until June, Apple, Linksys and a few other companies shipped hundreds of thousands of consumer units, proving the demand for more speed and backwards compatibility.

In April, Apple introduced a revolutionary downloadable music store: simple, cheap and legal. It also refreshed its top-selling iPod music player, allowing third-party add-ons, like directly powered car-radio adapters and a microphone for voice memos and note taking.

When the music store was first announced, skeptics pointed to its Mac-only, iPod-centric approach as dooming it to a footnote. Within a few weeks, Apple had sold millions of tracks. In October, it released iTunes for Windows. By Dec. 15, Apple had sold 25 million songs at around a buck a piece or $10 per album. It also shipped more than a million iPods in its last fiscal year.

Apple produced one of the first mass-market 64-bit computers with the Power Mac G5, announced in June. The G5 is behind the speed curve on some of Intel and AMD's fastest processors but dollar for dollar remains a better processing bargain.

The G5 is a classic Apple move: Its entirely different computational architecture works seamlessly with virtually all earlier software.

The case dropped out of the future, and instead of producing airplane-hangar noise, the computer hums a bit, no louder than the revised Power Mac G4.

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In September, along with fixing the 12-inch PowerBook G4 and updating the 17-inch model, Apple replaced the long-lived and well-loved 15-inch titanium PowerBook with an aluminum upgrade.

The 15-inch aluminum was the right combination of power, price and size to win the hearts of many of my colleagues and myself, and I'm sure when Apple announces its sales figures for 2003, the 15-inch will be one of its most popular models ever.

Apple kept up the pressure, shipping Panther (Mac OS X 10.3) a year after its Jaguar update, even as Microsoft made it clear that Windows XP's successor might see the light of day in 2006.

If I have to pick nits, and I do, Apple has made less hay with the software side of its business than the hardware. Panther wasn't polished enough to be released when it was, causing folks unexpected system problems, hard-drive erasure, and preferences loss, depending on hardware and the features they chose to turn on.

Apple has released a slew of updates that have fixed most problems.

The rest of Apple's free and inexpensive software still needs to be completed; some products have been out for years and still have version 1.0 problems. Safari is fast and beautiful, but why can't I pay bills on Washington Mutual's site with it while I can with Internet Explorer?

Keynote, a PowerPoint replacement, makes it easier to make good-looking presentations but simple editing tasks are irritating and PowerPoint blows it out of the water for creating structured step-by-step sequences.

As I've written many times before, the iSync/iCal/Address Book/.Mac nexus is broken.

Despite my best efforts, and the best efforts of colleagues trying to do the same, I'm unable to get Apple's package of calendar, contact and synchronization to work reliably and consistently together or with other devices, like cellphones and Palm organizers.

And throw several hundred photos at iPhoto and even with a fast processor or two, be prepared to wait and wait and wait.

Apple's scorecard for the year has to be top marks for hardware and music, including iTunes, and middling scores for getting the rest of its packages right.

It receives detention for poor advance testing of Panther, but a hall pass for fixing the problems quickly and staying on top of security flaws.

We have high expectations for Apple, which is why I judge it so harshly on the areas it misses. It will have a chance to make good on its potential next week at Macworld Expo.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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