American PieI’ve already confessed on here that when it comes to Apple products, I’ve got less self-control than Eve, Snow White, and the guy from American Pie put together. So the day after they announced the new iMacs, I made the pilgrimage to the local Apple store just to feel of them. (Key finding: the 24″ iMac looks to be the best desktop computer they’ve ever made).

I would’ve gotten one of their new absurdly thin keyboards, but they’re not selling those individually yet, so I was lucky to make it out of there with just a copy of iLife ’08.

And that’s where I just don’t get Apple anymore. On the hardware side, it’s been easy to see the trend: they’ve got a bulimic’s obsession with getting thinner and thinner. But on the software side, they’re sending mixed signals.

As far as I can tell, the philosophy for Apple-supplied software has been the same since the days of MacPaint and my beloved HyperCard: supply a full suite of creativity software for free with every new computer. Programs that any user can pick up and start using immediately, and then discover more powerful features as they get more familiar with them. It was excellent branding, building Apple’s reputation as the left-brain computer. And it was practical — with fewer third parties developing software, it was necessary for Apple to provide it themselves to keep Macs from getting a reputation for being unsupported.

But the last few iterations of iLife have been all over the map, when it comes to functionality and ease of use. Some of the additions are clearly welcome and downright ingenious. Others are just baffling.

The only iLife program I use consistently has been iPhoto, and that’s basically just as a glorified file browser. All the keyword and album stuff has been too clunky, unwieldy, and tedious to use; I use flickr for all the organization, picture naming and keywords, and sharing. The new version centers everything around Events, one of those things that you can tell is ingenious because it seems obvious in retrospect, but never occurred to me before. Apart from that, there are some genuinely improved editing tools, but nothing revolutionary. The other big batch of “new” stuff is all about .Mac photo galleries, and new publishing and printing options.

Which means templates. Back when iWeb was first announced, my initial excitement faded to disappointment as soon as I realized that the fancy show they put on at Macworld was the limit of what the program can do — it does allow you to set up a nice-looking web page just by dragging and dropping, every bit as quickly as they do it in the demos. But there’s nothing behind the curtain; once you’ve filled in their stock layouts, that’s the limit of what you can do. The company stresses how these programs allow you to express your creativity and individuality, as long as your creativity and individuality fit within their predesigned constraints.

GarageBand’s biggest new feature is a Microsoft Bob-like interface that lets you lay a single track on top of one of their prerecorded songs. iWeb promises greater control over your websites, but it’s really just a couple of new widgets and a way to insert a small bit of HTML on a page; nothing’s really been fixed in the inherent limitations designed into that program. And iDVD only adds more new templates and overall, feels like an afterthought — at least they’re prescient enough to realize that DVDs are on the way out and publishing via the web is the way things are going. (And they’re still trying to push the overpriced and limited .Mac service throughout, of course).

The standout for me has been the new version of iMovie. With earlier versions, I never saw the appeal. Like iWeb and GarageBand, it was a case of playing around with it for a few minutes, getting frustrated with the limitations, and never touching it again. Trying out the new version, though, was actually fun. I threw some clips together, added transitions and titles, and put it up on YouTube, all in about 30 minutes.

It’s a lousy, boring, and amateurish video, but that’s not the point: the point is that I enjoyed making it. I felt like I knew what I was doing the entire time. I tried things, and they worked. I scrubbed the mouse back and forth over the clip and could see exactly how it was going to turn out in the final, at any point. I understood how my clips were organized, I understood the effect most of the buttons and drags were going to have, and I felt encouraged to experiment. I wanted to put it online, as boring as it is, just to say, “Hey, look at what I made.” And I was encouraged to go out and shoot more video.

For all I know, it could very well be another case of iWeb syndrome: it seems powerful on the surface, but the more you try to play with it, the more you run into limitations. More than a few other Mac zealots were immediately incensed that Apple had “dumbed down” iMovie from its previous version (and Apple has made the previous version downloadable for those who don’t like the change). But based on what I’ve seen so far, it does what it’s supposed to do, and it actually makes it enjoyable. And it seems to be designed exactly like they claim: somebody started not just by looking at what other video-editing programs do and iterating on that, but by stepping back and saying, “I want to edit a video. What do I need to make that easy to do?” There are plenty of built-in transitions and titles and sound effects, but it still doesn’t feel like being locked inside Apple’s predesigned sandbox.

Then again, I’ve never tried to do much with flickr’s default layout. And I am completely at a loss to explain the popularity of myspace. Maybe people do like being constrained to templates and told what to do. I still can’t help but think that we’re taking a step backwards, though, trying to make computers easier to use by limiting what you can do with them.