The Macworld Expo Report #2: Handicapping the Reactions

January 14th, 2006

It’s fair to say that there are far more important things happening on this planet than the impending new product introductions from Apple Computer. That a single profit-making corporation, other than a major auto maker, occupies the hearts and minds of people of all walks of life, is just amazing. Some compare the iPod, for example, to the impact the Sony Walkman had when it first appeared, but the comparison isn’t accurate. The original Walkman wasn’t a cultural icon; it was simply a small device to listen to something and, unlike the iPod, you didn’t spend money buying accessories to expand its capabilities or protect it from harm.

When Sony was about to introduce new products, technology pundits around the world didn’t waste very much time speculating on the subject, beyond a few paragraphs here and there that were quickly forgotten. The mystique built around the Steve Jobs keynote has swelled to unheard of proportions. Now maybe Apple has been quietly stoking the flames, feeding tales, tall and otherwise, to rumor sites and specially selected journalists, so they’d write their stories and encourage others to write still more stories.

At this early hour, I’m not about to do any more speculating about the product announcements that will echo worldwide. I’ll update the commentary later with some of the details, along with links to the appropriate Web pages, so you don’t have to depend upon my imperfect summary, or the imperfect summaries of others.

Instead, I’m going to consider just how the media will react to whatever Apple presents to the expectant world. If, for example, the first round of Intel-based Macs appears, it’ll be regarded as a triumph by nearly all involved. On the other hand, if there’s any delay in getting the products out, or if they don’t appear at all, it will be seen as a major failure. In fact, Apple’s stock price will take a tumble and naysayers will begin, anew, to predict the impending death of the company or no better than tepid computer sales until it gets its act together.

Sure, Apple said it wouldn’t have its first set of Intel-based hardware until the middle of this year. So long as the products appear within this timeframe, the promise is kept. However, there’s a huge feeding frenzy over the issue. The fact that other PC makers will be making boxes using the Intel chips that Apple is expected to adopt, which are shipping now in quantity, simply adds to the pressure. As I said some weeks back, Apple has no choice here, even if it were otherwise not quite ready to accelerate its processor switch. At the same time, there’s no room for excuses, and it’s probably true that more and more potential buyers have put off purchase plans in hopes something better will soon come along.

Pricing is also going to be a factor. If a new version of the iBook remains at $999 for the entry-level model, it’ll still be a good value, but you can buy a serviceable laptop from PC-land for several hundred dollars less. Even if Apple can tout superior features, a faster processor an so forth, the perception will continue that the company can’t compete in the price arena. In any event, it’s questionable whether Apple is paying much less for an Intel processor as compared to the G4, but using Intel-designed logic boards will help keep the costs down. But $200 may be a stretch, unless Apple is willing to sacrifice profit margins to move boxes. But let’s not forget the Mac mini.

On the iPod front, the competition had its day in the sun at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. Depending on whose commentary you’ve read, there is no worthy opposition or the iPod killers are out in force and Apple can’t rest on its laurels. It’s possible, considering the speed of iPod releases of late, for Apple to ditch the entire line and start anew. The perception of success or failure will depend on the degree of changes.

When it comes to other products, highly anticipated introductions of new versions of iLife and iWork will be consistent with the experience of previous years. It is the norm, and any improvement is good. The lack of new versions is bad.

It won’t matter whether you see a demonstration of Mac OS 10.5 better known as Leopard. Apple could wait until the WWDC, but if it is to appear before the end of 2006 to match Windows Vista, that may just be a little bit late in the scheme of things. You see, Vista is, among other things, being evaluated on how well it compares with Tiger. If the target moves, Microsoft will be judged as being late to the party again. Otherwise, the pressure will be on Apple to continue to excel in operating system development.

Of course, none of this is fair. But the iPod’s success has put Apple on a pedestal, a very small pedestal.

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