BOSTON — Like a concert performer, Jean-Louis Gassee was showing off the latest Macintosh multimedia gear in Boston a couple of weeks ago. He played an opera while plot notes and English translation ran across the video screen. He displayed a talking dictionary, with pronunciations.
Paper dictionaries still have advantages, the suave Apple Computer executive allowed. ``You can't take this [Mac] to your bedroom very easily ... yet.
The crowd applauded in delight. This was MacWorld Expo, the annual trade show for the Macintosh, its army of enthusiasts, and the industry it spawned.
``Marketing is theater,'' John Sculley, Apple's president, has said. But this MacWorld Expo came at a time of grumbling about Mr. Sculley's reign. Critics say the former Pepsi chief, who ousted the legendary Steven Jobs, has turned away from the individual user in favor of the more lucrative, and predictable business market.
Defenders say that Mr. Job's vision of a computer in every home just didn't pan out. The business market was the only path left.
Whether justified or not - and many think they were - the changes were much in evidence at the Boston Expo. In the past, such gatherings have had an almost religious fervor, what one commentator called the ``Most High Holy Cult of the Sacred Macintosh.''
Jobs had liberated the computer from the inner corporate sanctums and put its powers to work for the masses. The Macintosh was the culmination of this vision, a machine that reached out to the user with simple graphic symbols and a hand-held ``mouse'' in place of arcane computer code.
To devotees, the Mac is not just a device. It is a mental universe. There is even a ``Mac Bible,'' with 226,154 copies in print.
MacWorld had its share of enthusiasts. But attendees noted fewer T-shirts in the crowd. Fairly typical was Boris Altman, who works at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Mr. Altman's department uses both Macs and (gasp) IBMs, and he comes to these shows, he says, simply to ``keep up'' on the technology.
``It's changed a lot over the last two years,'' says Kenneth Rousseau, the head of a small software firm called New Horizons. ``It's the result of the inevitable aging of an exciting product.''
Says Leslie Larson of Power Up, another small software company, ``Now it's your mainstream corporate user.''
MacWorld is a big world. Some 50,000 people shuttled gamely between two exhibition sites, where over 400 exhibitors filled cavernous halls.
The larger displays bespoke classy corporate design, with plush carpets and muted grays. Some showed the teeming inventiveness - if not always the practicality - of the Mac culture.
You're an executive who's tired of your mouse? A company called Articulate Systems in Cambridge, Mass., will sell you a ``Voice Navigator,'' so you can talk to your Macintosh instead. (``The world may not be ready to listen to your ideas. But your Mac is.'') While you're getting it all off your chest, you can consult your WristMac, ``Nerdy but nice'' and only $228.
MacWorld is a white and Asian - and overwhelmingly male - world. It is also very, very technical. A visitor who knows the Mac primarily by its simple graphic displays would be astounded at how sophisticated things have gotten. Once the talking dictionary act was over, Apple's product show shot quickly into the high-tech stratosphere.
As Apple veers toward the high-end business world, some entrepreneurs are trying to claim the niches the bigger companies are leaving behind. One is New Horizons, which is making a basic, Volkswagen-style writing program (``word processing,'' in the unfortunate computer lingo) for people who don't need one that sings in Chinese.
``We aren't aimed at that market at all,'' Mr. Rousseau of New Horizons says, speaking of the corporate buyers.
Consumer groups are also trying to fill the void. The Berkeley Macintosh Users Group, BMUG, has 10,000 members, about half in California. Weekly meetings in the Bay Area attract several hundred people.
The BMUG booth had an unvarnished hackers' quality that seemed a throwback to Apple's early days. ``We provide technical support to end users that Apple doesn't provide any more,'' said Bill Woodcock, a volunteer, who works at Fairlawn Computers and volunteers about two to three hours a day.
Dealing with the company is hard, he says. ``We don't buy thousands of machines every year,'' he says. ``We don't make millions of dollars.''