The Speculation Report: Getting Ready for Macworld Expo San Francisco

November 19th, 2005

As the only remaining Mac trade show in North America, you can expect a tremendous focus over the coming weeks on just what Steve Jobs has lying in wait for us in January at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Predicting what Apple is up to is no longer the exclusive right of Mac-oriented sites, and fodder for those who deal in rumors. The mainstream press has already begun to talk about what you and I can expect and the results will make headlines across the planet.

Now perhaps someone from Time or Newsweek is even now planning sessions with Steve Jobs to get an advance look. Conspiracy theorists might even suggest that one or more of the major newspapers will have stories about the new products attributed by “sources within Apple.” No doubt they will be planned leaks, to hype the announcements to a fever pitch.

Having watched this scene play out in various ways over the years, I can tell you that I remain amused by the process. I’m reminded of the photographers who look for test automobiles covered in cloth or tape to hide their design, hoping to get a picture of the new models coming from Detroit, Japan, Germany and Korea. At the same time, you won’t read much speculation about what new products will emerge from Dell, HP and Samsung.

Looking at the possibilities, it would seem almost certain there will be an iPod-related product of some sort. Some are talking of a super-sized model, emphasizing its video capabilities with a more watchable screen, humongous hard drive space, and perhaps a digital video port so you can play it through a large screen high definition TV at full resolution. I have mixed feelings about such a product, since Apple has been making its iPods smaller, not larger. If it gets too big, it loses its utility as a portable music player, and becomes a stationary appliance. Is that what Apple wants? Besides, even though we’re seeing rapid movement towards alternate distribution for TV shows, it remains to be seen how many will buy them from iTunes after the initial excitement wears off. Oh well, maybe the episodes of “Night Stalker” that were filmed before the show was cancelled and never broadcast will be sold online.

I’m expecting any new iPod to be largely a variation on the theme. Slicker, more capacity, an extra feature or two or three, and a similar or lower price.

Now about those computers. In June, Steve Jobs said the first Intel-based Macs would appear by the middle of 2006, and the company hasn’t changed its tune. At the same time, with Intel’s dual-core “Yonah” chip hitting volume production next year, some are already putting them inside new Macs. The stories have it that Apple is working full bore on developing its first MacIntels, and bringing Mac OS X development in sync on both the PowerPC and Intel platforms.

So what does that mean? Now a June introduction might be suitable for a business computer, but Apple would want to get consumer models in the channel as quickly as possible. This would also help educational buyers get their orders in by spring. There’s also another dilemma facing Apple. So far, Mac sales have increased sharply. There has been no negative impact because of the impending processor changeover. But I don’t expect free sailing after the holiday season. Expectations will be high, and Apple will want to fill demand as soon as it can.

At the same time, it is clear that Apple has been moving towards Intel for quite some time, long before the official announcement. It’s not just the operating system, but the products that would carry the new chips. The basic designs may have been completed months ago, and Apple only needs to fine tune the electronics with test samples of the new Intel chips. Lots of components, such as laptop displays, hard drives, networking chips and so on are already industry standard and don’t have to change. The focus may be largely on cooling systems and whether, for example, an iBook or PowerBook can gain a slimmer form factor as a result.

I rather suspect that, except for the iMac G5, which was just modified, you will see modest or perhaps significant changes as the new MacIntels are introduced.

The timing at a Macworld Expo keynote would fuel a tremendous demand. I am willing to go along with the speculation that a Mac mini and perhaps an iBook and PowerBook will be the first to go Intel and that one or more of these models will be unveiled in January. I don’t see Apple having much of a choice, because buyer expectations may well kill sales of existing models after the first of the year.

On the application front, Apple has already updated its professional applications. iWork has been a non-starter, and perhaps a 2006 version, with a spreadsheet component and some flashy new features, might help to make the suite a true AppleWorks successor. I also expect an iLife ’06 with perhaps an additional application, but that prospect requires some more thought.

I’ll be back soon with more.

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