Network: Apple launches iBook with no strings attached

Steve Jobs's new portable seeks to make wireless technology mere child's play.
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Say what you will about Steve Jobs, but he certainly knows how to put on a show. Expectations were high when he took the stage at the MacWorld Expo in New York last week, and Apple's still-interim CEO (or iCEO, as he's known) didn't disappoint.

The assembled Mac fans - indeed, the entire computer industry - had been waiting months for Jobs to unveil Apple's latest product, a portable version of its hugely successful iMac. They got what they were waiting for, plus a few additional surprises as well.

For starters, there was a guest- appearance from the ER star Noah Wylie, who played Jobs in the film Pirates of Silicon Valley. Wylie reprised the role, walking on stage in Jobs's trademark all-black clothing and launching into a mock- speech about Apple's latest "insanely, spectacularly, totally great products".

After the celebrity warm-up, Jobs got right down to business with the announcement of QuickTime TV, an ambitious attempt to launch a new kind of Internet TV channel. Apple has gathered together media companies such as the BBC, Fox News, Rolling Stone magazine and Walt Disney, who will put video content on to the Internet using Apple's QuickTime software. Apple got off to a slow start with Internet video, allowing rivals such as Real Networks to grab early market share. But with partners like these, Apple is clearly aiming "to give Real a real run for their money".

Next on the menu was a demo of OS9, the next version of the Mac Operating System, including a new Internet shopping feature that can search the Net for any product you specify and compare prices available on different websites. Top of the bill, though, was the iBook, the long-awaited portable computer that Apple has designed specifically for the home and education markets. "We went to our consumer and education customers and asked them what they wanted," said Jobs. "They told us they wanted an iMac-to-go."

So that was what they got. Like the iMac, the iBook is moulded out of translucent white plastic with coloured panels that are available in either blueberry or tangerine. This plastic is a durable polycarbonate edged with rubber, which acts as a shock-absorber for when it is being used by schoolchildren. Apple has also worked hard to extend the iBook's battery- life and Jobs claimed that it can last up to six hours "so you don't need to take a charger or second battery to school".

The actual technical specification of the iBook is nothing special, although its 300MHz G3 processor should compare favourably with most PC laptops. More important are its price and stylish design. The iBook will cost $1,599 when it goes on sale worldwide in September and Jobs claimed that a comparable PC laptop would cost at least $2,000. UK prices have yet to be announced.

There are lots of small design touches that are obviously intended to appeal to kids. Instead of a label saying "Made in Taiwan" the iBook says "I was assembled in Taiwan", and "My serial number is XXX". As one observer commented: "This isn't a computer, it's a pet." That's probably just what Apple wanted to hear. Education is a key market for Apple and come September there will probably be hundreds of thousands of schoolkids pestering their parents for an iBook.

The iBook isn't just a piece of clever marketing, though. It also provides one real technical advance. During his demo, Jobs used an iBook to log on to the Internet. Then, to give the audience a better view, he picked it up and walked to the edge of the stage - at which point everyone realised that there were no phone cables attached.

For 18 months, Apple has secretly been working with the communications company Lucent to develop a wireless networking system that it calls AirPort. This consists of a base station, shaped like a flying saucer, and a receiver card that slots in beneath the keyboard of the iBook. The base station has a 56K modem built in and an Ethernet network interface, so that it can connect to the Internet via a phone line or a network in a school or office. It can then transmit to a maximum of 10 iBooks at distances of up to 150ft.

"That's bigger than anyone's house I know, except Bill Gates's," quipped Jobs, but the serious point was that AirPort brings wireless communications into the mass-market for the first time. "AirPort is going to be huge in education," said Jobs. "They've been waiting for this for 10 years."

Americans will have to pay $249 for the base station and $99 for the receiver card, although wireless capabilities and pricing for the UK have yet to be determined.

AirPort looks like it could be another huge success for Apple. It's an example of what the company does best, taking complex technologies and making them easy to use. And, showbiz razzmatazz aside, it shows that Apple can still come up with ideas that leave the rest of the industry standing.