• On the Hazards of Inflated Expectations

    January 8th, 2005

    No doubt Steve Jobs is busy preparing his keynote address for next week, making sure the slides and other demonstrations go off without a hitch. Since he’s the consummate perfectionist, I’m quite sure he has worked his staff overtime on what may be the most important speech of his career. A lot depends on the new product announcements, and whether they receive enthusiastic applause or just polite responses.

    One week from now, we’ll know the real answers about what’s to come, but for now speculation has reached a fever pitch. Even the regular media has come aboard, and, surprisingly, begun to quote Mac rumor sites. I never believed that could possibly happen. Unfortunately the serious and wide-ranging scope of that speculation also has its downsides.

    As you probably know, the main rumors center on several products. First, of course, is that alleged headless iMac or iMac mini, which may end up being nothing more than an eMac without the display. Regardless of what form it takes, if it appears, it’ll end up being a modern day equivalent of the LC, costing either $499 or $599, depending on whose opinion you take seriously at the moment.

    Another rumor talks of an inexpensive iPod with Flash memory. With 1GB chips getting cheaper, it’s felt Apple could get one out for, say $100, although $149 seems more doable unless memory prices go down a lot more than you’d expect). There’s also talk of a FireWire-based interface module for GarageBand.

    Now Apple has, in the past, thrown lots of cold water on the first two. It claims it’s not economically feasible to enter the cheap PC arena, and that Flash-based music players are simply not practical. But Apple has thrown cold water in possible products before, but somehow still manages to come up with solutions to address the limitations and answer the “why not?” question. So I can’t take those objections seriously, or at the very least, anything permanent, since things do change.

    Other rumors speak of new applications. One, dubbed iWorks, will replace the aging AppleWorks. On a practical basis, this would seem credible, if only because current integrated application is so long in the tooth. You might also wonder just how many features Apple would dare pile on without generating the wrath of Microsoft for competing head-on with Office. On the other hand, there’s always a need for a low-cost program that combines word processing, spreadsheets, database and presentations. That takes is to Keynote. Will it be rolled into the new application, or remain a separate product? Or maybe both.

    On the positive side of the ledger, gossip is fun, and, besides, it helps to generate interest in the Expo and anticipation for the announcements during the famous Steve Jobs keynote. I’ve little doubt that the press box will be overflowing, more so than in recent years. Hopes are high.

    At the same time, not everyone believes such products are in the pipeline ready for release this quarter. For example, one online commentary called folks who believe in the possibility of a cheap Mac “deluded,” forgetting such models as the LC, which was cheap, at least for its time. Now since I’ve long urged Apple to meet the Windows world head-on with an affordable Mac sans display, I suppose I’m deluded too, but I’m in good company. Besides, this is still speculation. The reality may be something else entirely. Some talk of a media center that could double as a low-cost PC.

    So let’s look at the downside of all these hopes and dreams. If Apple fails to satisfy such elevated expectations, what will happen then? Will you come away disappointed that Apple didn’t deliver the products you wanted? Will it hurt sales of existing products? And how will Wall Street react if Apple doesn’t deliver several home runs? It is possible the rapid run-up of stock prices will be history.

    But first, let’s have a reality check. There has been no admission, anywhere, that a headless eMac or iMac and a Flash-based iPod actually exist? Now maybe such things reside in Apple’s test labs, but testing the waters and actually committing to a product’s release are very different things. Many products just never progress beyond the prototype stage, and even if they are eventually produced, a number of variations will be assembled before final designs are approved.

    So for now, we’ve got to depend on “informed sources” or sheer speculation to give reality to the iMac mini and all the rest. So here’s a neat, if implausible, conspiracy theory, with at least one element grounded in reality. Apple is suing people for allegedly disclosing protected trade secrets. The reasons are no doubt genuine, but it may also be a smokescreen to hide the fact that company executives are surreptitiously fueling the Mac gossip columns. Now I don’t believe that for a moment, but I’ll be eagerly awaiting the outcome direct from the press box in San Francisco next week.

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