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  • Apple’s Special Event: Reading the Tea Leaves

    February 25th, 2006

    As you may have heard elsewhere, Apple plans a Special Event on February 28th. Journalists are receiving cryptic messages in their mailboxes, asking them to “Come see some fun new products from Apple.” Fun? Well, that raises lots of possibilities. But if you take “fun” as representing a consumer computer, there is one set of prospects.

    If you are a regular reader of these columns, you know that I don’t truck in rumors, and I do not claim to possess any magical powers to determine what Apple Computer might be up to in the foreseeable future. At the same time, when you look over the details and consider the trends, you can come up with some reasonable conclusions.

    Of course, when it comes to reasonable conclusions, Apple has a nasty habit of confounding logic and reason and surprising us. So let that be my excuse if I happen to be dead wrong about all this, although others have presented similar ideas.

    First, let’s look at the sales picture, because it shows the challenges Apple is confronting. All current estimates show that MacIntels (Macs with Intel Inside) are selling quite well, thank you. Published surveys show that iMacs are moving fast, and that Apple continues to be backordered on the MacBook Pro. But where does that leave the rest of the line? Not much past the starting gate, it appears.

    Consider the Mac mini and the iBook, both of which haven’t been updated in a long, long time. In fact, other than some extra memory, and the possibility that a few units shipped with somewhat faster processors, the mini is pretty much the same as the product that made its debut 13 months ago. That’s an eternity in the computer business and then some.

    The iBook? Well, educational systems are going to be placing their orders for fall in the coming months, and this model is a cornerstone of Apple’s school-based initiative. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the present iBook. In fact, it’s quite a nice laptop, except that PC laptops are getting cheaper and cheaper as processor performance heads upward.

    Now consider one other factor, that Intel is about to ship single core versions of the chip that powers the new iMac and MacBook Pro. Without knowing any specific details, I don’t think you can dispute the fact that Apple has been working on its Intel-based revisions for the Mac mini and iBook for quite some time now, just waiting for the right parts to finish the job. Those parts are just about at hand, which means that MacIntel versions may indeed make their debut next week.

    It would seem reasonable to assume a new iBook would become the MacBook, and that the Mac mini’s name will be unchanged.

    But how does all that account for the fun factor? What if the new models also feature, say, a Front Row 2.0, which expands the possibilities of Apple’s new remote control system? The major element that separates Front Row from a Windows Media Center computer is latter’s the ability to record TV shows. Sure, that capability is already filled by third party products, such as the EyeTV line from Elgato Systems. But Apple usually has its own ideas about such things. Besides, this important feature, and other enhancements to Front Row are sorely needed to match up with what you can get today on Windows. Put a proper Apple spin on the new capabilities, and you can imagine how the MacIntel versions of the iBook and Mac mini might be configured.

    Even better, since Front Row is software, it would seem sensible to be able to download an update and deliver the same capabilities to the iMac and MacBook Pro. Fascinating!

    As to pricing, the Mac mini will probably continue to have a starting price of $499, but Apple is under pressure to cut the price of the iBook replacement. Consider an $899 laptop with iSight and a Front Row upgrade. Now match that up with Windows laptops, and they suddenly don’t look quite as attractive when you consider the lack of features. But the form factor of the mini clearly doesn’t allow for a Webcam provision.

    Some are suggesting that Apple might just install the slowest Intel Core Duo in these models, citing only a modest increase in costs. But when it comes to the low-end of the product line, even a few dollars can mean a lot. If a Core Duo is used, it’ll only be on the higher-priced spreads.

    One more aspect of the sales picture: Although iPod sales are reportedly still good, they have clearly cooled somewhat from the holiday season, which is to be expected. So there may indeed be updated iPods, perhaps a high-end model with a larger screen and enhanced video playback battery life. Some of the speculation talks of a Boom Box version of the iPod, but that’s a need that’s already filled by third parties, so I hardly see why Apple would develop an integrated product.

    As I said at the outset, I may be all wrong on these possibilities. Perhaps Apple will simply extend its consumer electronics reach with an all-new product line, one that again stretches the joys of the iPod in unexpected ways. Regardless of what happens on February 28th, it’s clear the whole world will be watching.

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