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  • If a Rumor Fails, Try, Try Again

    May 11th, 2006

    Back in December, folks who like to talk about possible new Apple products speculated that the first round of MacIntels would be confined to the consumer computer lines. I'm not sure where these ideas came from, and I'll be charitable and suggest that "informed sources" were involved in at least a few of these cases.

    I suppose there was a little logic behind it as well. It had been quite a while since the iBook and Mac mini were upgraded, so it was only natural that Apple would focus on these models first. What's more, there had been recent updates to the iMac, PowerBook and Power Macs, so it didn't make sense for these products to get new digs so early in the game, right?

    Well, we all know what really happened, and that is that products initially updated in the fall of 2005 were among the first to go Intel, one professional, one consumer, more or less. But the iMac, despite having an Intel processor oriented more towards a notebook, is a hybrid, because it serves a business environment as well as a home setting. You don't suffer from the experience either way. But what about the poor folks who went with the iMac G5 only weeks earlier, figuring it was a safe bet?

    The MacBook Pro? Well, I suppose you can say that the last PowerBook G4 update was a tepid affair, as actual processor speed was the same, and it only had a few minor performance tweaks, plus more pixels on the desktop. Besides, the speed of the 2005 PowerBook barely exceeded that of the 2004 versions, but PowerBook updates had been minor at best for quite some time.

    With the spring introduction of an Intel-based Mac mini, it was once again widely believed that an updated iBook was right around the corner. Why would it take much longer? After all, the chips suited for the product were out there.

    In subsequent weeks, with nothing new to show but a 17-inch version of the MacBook Pro, speculation about a near-term Tuesday introduction of the iBook replacement persisted. Tuesdays came and went, but nothing changed. So what's taking so long? Has Apple run into troubles perfecting a new design and ramping up production? That would explain the postponement of an announcement about a release, but after all, Apple promised you nothing. Not a peep, except that it was well on track to complete its Intel transition before the end of the year. Bear in mind this is months earlier than originally promised when the Intel migration path was first announced.

    Now there are severe competitive constraints on the configuration and pricing of a new consumer laptop. Remember that schools have purchased lots and lots of iBooks, and students as well. The educational buying season is weeks away, so Apple needs to get something new ready for delivery, even if it may not have all the elements first planned.

    With the Mac mini, iMac and MacBook Pro, the price of admission is definitely in the ballpark. You compare them with similarly configured PC boxes, and you find they are all very close in price. But don't forget the "similarly configured" aspect, since many of those other computers are available in stripped down form, lacking all the features and software bundles you find on any new Mac.

    They also give graphics short-shrift, and let's face it, Apple got slammed for relying on integrated graphics for the Mac mini. But it's true that Apple used one of the better Intel graphics chips, and only avid game players really suffer from the result. Besides you didn't buy the previous Mac mini as a gaming machine anyway.

    But I think that a $1,099 iBook would be a hard sell in a world where the average price of an entry-level notebook is much less. A $599 Mac mini can be justified when you consider the added hardware, including the remote and wireless networking. You expect the same in the iBook replacement, which, by the way, will probably be a MacBook. But I'm not relying on informed sources for that conclusion, just a little dose of common sense.

    Bear in mind, however, that those new Intel chips don't come cheap, and it may well be that Apple is waiting for the expected price reductions on these parts before the supposed MacBook can be readied. There may even be a modified form factor, perhaps with a larger screen in the widescreen motif that's part and parcel of other Apple computers.

    The pressure, of course, will increase as each Tuesday passes without an update. It may not matter so much that the iBook replacement didn't arrive in April and not so far in May. But by the first part of June, with schools and college students in the market for a new notebook in big numbers, Apple will be forced to deliver something.

    But until then, if another Tuesday passes with nothing new to write home about, you just change the rumored release date yet again and move on. Wait long enough, and you'll definitely get it right.

    Then there's the expected announcement of a Power Mac replacement at the WWDC event in August. Let the rumors and speculation begin.



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