The two biggest rivals in the computer industry, Apple Computer chief executive officer Steve Jobs and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, were at separate conferences touting new technologies Jan. 7. But while Microsoft’s latest technologies largely target the consumer electronics market, many of Apple’s newest announcements are aimed directly at educators.

At the annual Macworld Conference & Exposition in San Francisco, Jobs highlighted new products intended to further establish Apple as a leader in digital video editing solutions and wireless computing for schools.

Among the announcements: new presentation software intended to rival Microsoft’s PowerPoint program; a scaled-down version of Apple’s professional-grade video editing software; and a wireless hub that supports networking speeds up to five times faster than current versions.

The presentation software, called Keynote, combines ease of use, professional-looking themes, and the ability to splice in video clips and other multimedia elements to a greater extent than PowerPoint, according to Apple. Users reportedly can import existing PowerPoint, Adobe Photoshop, QuickTime, and other media files into Keynote, making it easy for students, teachers, administrators, or school board members to create engaging, multimedia presentations. Keynote is priced at $49 for education users.

Apple also introduced Final Cut Express, a lighter version of its professional-grade movie editing software, Final Cut Pro. Students and teachers can use this software to create professional-looking digital video projects. Although its $149 price tag might be too hefty for some schools, the software still marks a dramatic value over the Final Cut Pro version, which costs about $1,000.

Continuing the theme of multimedia creation tools, Jobs announced that Apple has redesigned its iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, and iDVD software programs so they work together seamlessly. The company has repackaged these upgraded programs into a software bundle called iLife.

Before, users had to import and export files between the programs. With iLife, that extra step is eliminated.

The newest version of iMovie also includes a feature called the “Ken Burns effect,” named after the documentary filmmaker who produced Public Broadcasting Service specials on the Civil War, baseball, and jazz. The feature lets users pan across a still photo, superimposing text or motion.

“You can send [movies] to your friends and family … that will blow their mind, that are better than what they can get out of Hollywood,” Jobs said to rounds of cheers from the crowd. iLife is priced at $39 for education customers.

Jobs also unveiled a faster wireless network system that takes advantage of new 802.11g technology. The AirPort Extreme offers network speeds of up to 54 megabits per second (Mbps), compared with the 11 Mbps users get with current 802.11b systems.

While others in the computer industry—most notably Intel Corp.—have been pushing 802.11a as a faster upgrade to today’s wireless technology, Apple is taking a different route by backing 802.11g, which is just as fast as 802.11a but also is compatible with 802.11b equipment.

The AirPort Extreme base station works with all existing 802.11b network cards, but only those with the new Extreme cards can take advantage of the faster speed. The device is priced at $179 for schools.

Featured announcement

The featured announcement at the Macworld Conference & Expo focused on two new versions of Apple’s PowerBook G4 laptop computer—the company’s largest and smallest laptops ever—that probably are priced beyond the means of most school systems.

A 17-inch PowerBook G4, which weighs 6.8 pounds and measures just 1 inch thick when folded, features a fiber-optic backlit keyboard and ambient light sensors that automatically adjust the keyboard depending on the brightness of a room. Apple began selling it for $3,299.

A 12-inch PowerBook G4, which weighs 4.6 pounds, went on sale in late January for $1,799. Both computers feature wireless connections that the company says will allow users to synchronize laptops with cell phones, handheld computers, or other Apple machines.

In addition, Jobs introduced a free new web browser, Safari, for Apple’s OS X operating system. The software can load pages up to 40 percent faster than Microsoft’s industry-leading Internet Explorer browser, according to Apple. Although it’s not aimed specifically at educators, the browser—assuming it works as well as Apple is touting—could prove useful for schools, where time is at a premium during 50-minute classes.

Finally, Apple is extending its offer of a free upgrade to Mac OS X for teachers. The deadline for taking advantage of the offer is now March 31. More than 300,000 teachers have requested this free upgrade so far, Apple said.

Educators contacted by eSchool News sounded impressed by Apple’s latest announcements.

“The Apple offerings … sound very promising and useful at the classroom level,” said Michael Hickey, a professor of education at Towson State University and a former school superintendent. “[They’re] not enough to make me give up my PC base, but I would sure like to see if the Keynote software can give PowerPoint a much-deserved run for its money.”

Alan Whitworth, technology director for the Jefferson County School District in Kentucky, called Apple’s new AirPort Extreme an “excellent” development that “will impact education as we move to more and more wireless [networks].”

“It’s nice to know that Apple has cut through the [confusion] and settled on a standard—802.11g—that allows backward compatibility with many 802.11b devices already installed in our district,” Whitworth said.

Shortly after the Macworld event, Apple confirmed that a bug in the driver software for certain graphics cards was causing problems for users of the company’s Keynote software. Some early users of the program said they experienced problems, the most severe of which caused machines to crash.

In a statement provided to online news source CNET, Apple said it had identified one of the problems and was working on a fix.

“Apple has identified a bug in the driver software for certain ATI graphics chips [that] can affect a small number of systems when used with Keynote,” the company said. “Apple is working on an updated driver [that] should be available to customers shortly.”

‘Smart’ technology

While Jobs was speaking at the Macworld Conference in San Francisco, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, touting an array of “smart” devices and portable video players that run on tiny, Microsoft-powered processors.

One of the devices he previewed was a “smart” refrigerator magnet that could be programmed to receive traffic data, a child’s school lunch menu, or ads from local restaurants via a constant, low-bandwidth stream of data over the FM radio spectrum.

Microsoft plans to use its so-called DirectBand FM transmissions to stream data updates to other emerging gadgets as well, such as wristwatches that automatically update when crossing time zones and a Bernina Artista sewing machine that can download stitch and embroidery patterns from the internet.

“We have one school … that uses computer-controlled sewing machines in one subject to do unique designs,” Whitworth said. “Being able to get additional designs off the internet may have a positive impact in this class.”

Microsoft-fueled smart display screens, which Gates unveiled at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, were to hit stores before his speech. The portable tablet screens connect with a mother ship PC via a wireless connection and can be toted around the house.

Microsoft also announced a new video compression format that Panasonic will adopt on a forthcoming DVD player. The format allows PC files to be played on TV via the DVD player, which is loaded with Microsoft’s software. Gates said a forthcoming DVD player from Polaroid also will be compatible with Windows Media PC files.

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Apple Computer Inc.

Microsoft Corp.

International Consumer Electronics Show