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The Tea Leaves Report: A Look at Apple’s Major Product Transition

When it comes to Apple’s marketing team, they certainly know how to stoke the fires. Indeed, the tech press can’t stop talking about it. I can’t stop talking about it. In fact, I devoted a fair amount of time during my two-hour session on Craig Crossman’s nationally-syndicated Computer America radio show recently to what this major product transition is all about.

I don’t think I came to any hard or fast conclusions, but sometimes a little conversation can help illuminate the facts and separate them from the fanciful.

So let’s look at the prospects and see how whether they fit in with the concept of “major” or “significant,” with the requirement that they also encroach seriously on Apple’s profit margins for the current quarter.

Certainly, Apple doesn’t have a lot of time to deliver this magnum opus of a new product. They haven’t even sent out RSVP invitations to the press yet, although some suggest that’ll happen by early September.

For now, I’ll look at some of the products that appear to be in desperate need of some change, and then consider a couple of product segments where Apple has yet to venture.

There’s little doubt that new iPods are forthcoming. Some suggest a nano-flavored iPod touch, with a smaller touch screen, but the existing one is quite small enough, thank you. Then again, I don’t think there’s much Apple might do with the aging iPod line beyond giving it a shave and a haircut and keep it going till sales really begin to falter. Or iPhones fully take over.

With the recent introduction of some new, spiffier Intel chipsets, it would seem that the MacBook and MacBook Pro are crying for a product update. Speedier chips would make a nice dent in the usual canned benchmarks, but is that all there is?

Maybe not. Consider the case designs, which when it comes to the MacBook Pro, date back several years to the original models dipped in scratch-prone titanium. Where might Apple take its professional note-book, now that Windows PC makers are going after different colors to help their products stand out from the pack?

Certainly the fundamentals of note-book design are not going to change significantly, but a slimmer form factor, with the requisite beveled edges, might have greater sex appeal, particularly if the changes extend to the MacBook. And adding MultiTouch to the latter would help as well.

As far as touch screens are concerned, I don’t see it, because they aren’t quite as practical with larger displays, and all they’ll do is inflate the price by a fairly decent margin. If Apple decided to eat the price increases that would reduce the profit margins substantially, but is that truly part of the plan? Sure, it’s a fairly major product transition, but I’m just not impressed by this possibility.

A tablet computer? Well, those things haven’t really set the PC world afire, so does Apple have any incentive to start yet another note-book line? No doubt they’d deliver a design that really stands out from the pack, but I don’t think adding yet another note-book line is in the cards right now.

When it comes to desktops, what about the Mac mini? Is Apple finally going to give this forgotten product some attention? Would a combo Apple TV and fully-enabled personal computer form the next iteration of Apple’s entry-level computer lineup? At one time there were rumors that some media center capabilities would appear in the mini, so would that and a little rejiggering of the looks help?

Another possibility is that infamous midrange minitower that a lot of us have written about in recent years. For me, it all started with my concept of a headless iMac, meaning the basic components of the iMac in a compact standalone computer that also included a reasonable degree of expandability.

What do I mean by reasonable?

Well, the ability to add a second hard drive, perhaps a second graphics chip and surely more RAM slots. Apple actually produced something similar to what I envision way back in the late 1980s, with the IIcx and its successor, the IIci. They were light and powerful and great choices for graphic artists and other content creators.

I suppose such a model might cannibalize sales from both the iMac and even the Mac Pro, but I prefer to think the later caters to a specialized audience for whom maximum power and maximum expandability are both essential.

Moving beyond these essentials, would Apple consider some sort of major expansion to its Apple TV line? Just where would it go? One possibility is incorporating a TiVO-style DVR, designed to work with your existing cable or satellite connection. Here Apple would probably want to upgrade its high definition support from 720p to the maximum of 1080p, which is the Blu-ray DVD standard.

Another possibility is integrating this enhanced Apple TV into a full-fledged flat panel TV, available in the standard widescreen sizes of 42 inches, 50 inches, and perhaps 58 inches. Yes, the TV market is heavily saturated. Some companies are already cutting back. An example is Pioneer’s superbly-engineered plasma lineup. But don’t forget that I was just as skeptical about Apple’s potential entry into the highly-saturated mobile phone market.

And you know how wrong I was there!