Biz spins over giant's gyrations

Apple and Hollywood are a bit like Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. They’re from different worlds, they never expected to wind up together, and they frequently infuriate one another.

But Hollywood has grown accustomed to Apple’s face. The iTunes/iPod/iPhone troika is the dominant platform for legal, paid downloads. And any writers’ hangout in Hollywood is likely to sport more Macbooks than an Apple store.

The latest pronouncements from Apple on June 8 — delivered in a keynote by VP Phil Schiller with mogul Steve Jobs still on medical leave — introduced the expected next versions of the iPhone and of the Mac operating system and some unexpected price cuts. But for Hollywood, the news included a mystery, an exasperating change of direction and a little make-up gift.

The mystery is Jobs himself. The mogul whose disdain for buttons helped define the iPod and iPhone is nearing the end of his announced six-month leave. News reports indicate he’s healthy enough to return to work, so Apple seems to be sticking to the plan for Jobs to return at the end of June, no further announcement required.

Such silence is in character for Apple. (There’s an entire cottage industry that’s dedicated to interpreting scraps of information about the secretive Silicon Valley giant. It’s been called Cupertino Kremlinology.)

Some folks in the entertainment industry are such passionate users of Apple products — Final Cut Pro has become a serious rival to industry leader Avid’s Media Composer, and the Macbook Pro laptop is a fave for editing in the field — that any Apple announcement brings rejoicing and gnashing of teeth, often in equal measure. This time was no exception.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been a Mac user since 1986.)

Apple has a history of dropping technologies when it thinks they’re about to become obsolete — or just to save bulk and weight — even when its pro customers still want them.

The new Macbook Pro line unveiled last week dropped the Expresscard/34 expansion slot from all but its top-of-the-line 17″ laptop, enraging some video editors, who used it to hook up vital hardware to their laptops.

“Gone? Are you kidding me? GONE?” wrote TV editor Shane Ross on his blog. “One of the things that made this computer a PRO computer was the EXPANSION slot.” Ross adds that with the 17-inch Macbook: “Forget editing on the airplane on that cross-country flight. You barely had room with your 15-inch model.”

Michael Horton, founder of the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro user group, has seen such sudden obsolescence before. “It’s the same thing they do all the time. They just announce it and too bad, you’re on your own,” he says. Horton is among those irritated by the long wait for a new version of Final Cut Pro.

Another product rumored to be on the way is a tablet computer, like an overgrown iPod Touch. Some speculate that will be the future of the consumer Macbook label, with all future laptops being “Macbook Pros.”

In news that should give showbiz something to smile about, Apple gave its current portable media players, the iPhone and iPod Touch, the ability to download TV shows and movies directly from the iTunes store without the need to hook up to a PC. That should spur impulse purchases.

The new iPhone software improves streaming audio/video as well. It supports a new “tethering” feature, which lets users connect a computer to the Internet via their iPhone.

“Tethering is something a lot of people have gotten comfortable with around the world. And it’s something that’s going to be important going forward for Apple,” Macworld Magazine senior editor Peter Cohen says.

But AT&T, the exclusive network provider for the iPhone in the U.S., doesn’t support tethering. In fact, Apple chided AT&T during the keynote on several fronts, including the carrier’s inability to support MMS messaging, a feature the iPhone supports and users are demanding.

Ma Bell, then, had best be careful, lest it find Eliza’s kiss-off number “Without You” as its ringtone.

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