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  • Apple’s New Products: Don’t Forget the Rest of the Story!

    September 15th, 2008

    Right after Apple’s new product presentation last week, Apple’s stock continued on its progressively downward spiral. Now in all fairness to Apple and the financial community, it may well be part of a general trend. Things on Wall Street are pretty shaky these days, and most companies are apt to suffer, regardless of their actual financial condition or sales performance.

    However, Apple’s new iPod lineup seems surprisingly predictable. The rumor sites had already suggested a return to the tall and slim profile for the iPod nano, and perhaps a few features cribbed from the iPod touch. The latter received the expected modest redesign to bring it more into conformity with the iPhone 3G, and the prices dropped somewhat.

    That and the introduction of iTunes 8 didn’t light too many fires, I suppose. The larger question is the fate of the major product transition promised by Apple’s financial executives during the last conference call with the analyst community. That was the one that would supposedly hurt the company’s profit margins.

    What Wall Street may fail to realize, and what I only mentioned in passing in this week’s newsletter, is that there is no reason to consider last week’s announcement to be the only one that’ll happen this year. I can understand Apple’s logic in wanting to sharply focus it towards music and media players, although I was disappointed at the lack of the famous “one more thing” product introduction.

    It may also be that the rest of the revised lineup just wasn’t available for release in early September, although wanting to focus more heavily on their scope and meaning with a separate presentation might be a better option from a marketing point of view.

    Since I don’t pretend to know anything about such things, I’d rather just consider where Apple might actually raise the bar during the remainder of this year.

    I suppose we could see an iLife ’09 and an iWork ’09, although they would seem to be products that are more suited to introduction at Macworld 2009. Instead, I would expect more hardware, and that’s where there’s lots of room for reasonable speculation and otherwise.

    Certainly, any new Macs that appear from here on have missed the back-to-school season, but does that really make a difference? After all, industry analysts have already weighed in with surveys that demonstrate that Mac sales are going through the roof and then some. Some are even suggesting that at least three million Macs will be sold before the present quarter ends, and that would be an all-time record for Apple.

    So there was no incentive to change things immediately. On the long haul, Apple is certainly expected to continue to add speedier chips to Macs as they become available, and maybe even graft more of the MultiTouch capabilities that premiered in the MacBook Air and later in the revised MacBook Pro.

    One suggestion is using an iPhone-style LCD as a trackpad, complete with virtually all of the smart touch capabilities of Apple’s super-successful smartphone. You may ask why Apple doesn’t just provide a standard full-size touchscreen, and perhaps that could be considered as a custom-built option, but it may also add hundreds of dollars to the purchase price, whereas a tiny LCD display would be fairly cheap. In fact, Apple could keep prices as they are without seriously hurting their profits.

    But does that truly constitute a major product transition? Perhaps, but I’m expecting more. To some, in fact, such a feature might be regarded as more of a gimmick than a genuine productivity enhancement. So clearly there’s more afoot.

    I suppose there will be an iMac refresh too, but that particular form factor has proven to be highly successful already, and the all-in-one competition from the Windows box makers doesn’t even come close in price or specs.

    So where does that leave us?

    Well, what about the always-ignored Mac mini? Sure, Apple could make simple revisions, with speedier Intel chipsets, larger hard drives and perhaps more standard memory. Maybe they can even graft a simpler upgrade method, so you don’t have to resort to putty knives or similar tools. But none of that would require a huge amount of development expenses, and it wouldn’t amount to a major transition either.

    To be sure, there are other possibilities. One is the so-called “Mythical Mac Midrange Minitower” or headless iMac, a simple, expandable computer in the tradition of the venerable IIci. It would come without a display, and give you the capability of adding a second hard drive and perhaps a second graphics card or other peripheral. At a purchase price of, say, $999 for a basic configuration, it would be a killer product that would attract a lot of potential Windows switchers who regard the iMac as too much of a computer. That’s particularly true if they already have a perfectly good display and don’t need another one.

    Another potential Mac product segment is the tablet computer. One company has already grafted a custom-built tablet-style screen onto existing Mac note-books, but will Apple choose to move to the real thing? The big question is whether there’s a real market for such a device? I know of only one businessperson who actually uses tablet PCs, in this case Fujitsu note-books, and that’s our family doctor. To him, they are significant repositories of online patient records and other important data.

    But would such niche markets provide enough of an incentive for Apple to add tablets to its lineup? I remain skeptical.

    Anything left? Probably lots of possibilities. One might be to take the Mac mini, marry it to the Apple TV and build the first media center computer “to die for.”

    Regardless of what Apple is working on in the hidden recesses of its development labs, it won’t be very long before we all know the answers.

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