The Apple Product Announcement Waiting Game

October 7th, 2008

At one time, if you posted photos or other information that was dangerously accurate about a forthcoming Apple product, you’d get a legal letter demanding you stop. But after losing a high-profile case against some popular bloggers last year, and convincing Think Secret to close shop, it appears Apple has pulled back and is taking a less obsessive view of the situation.

You see, at the end of the day Apple benefits from all those predictions and expectations, even if, at the end of the day they can’t fulfill all the hopes and dreams. More to the point, with the mainstream media joining in the rumor game, legal letters would basically have little or no impact. It’s not as if, for example, they could stop CNET, which is now owned by CBS, if it posted secret content. CBS would probably just laugh at them.

So with all the extra help, all eyes are looking towards the next group of product announcements, which may happen later this month. What, for example, is that major transition that will severely impact on Apple’s profit margins? Surely it wasn’t the recently-revised iPod line. Yes, Apple doubled the memory on the iPod nano for the same price, but Flash memory costs far less these days.

Since it’s been months since the note-books and iMac lines were refreshed, they are the focus of media attention, especially the note-books, which are super hot in the retail market these days. How, for example, might Apple enhance the MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro in a way that you can regard as a major product transition?

It’s not just faster processors and bigger hard drives at the same price. Even if the rumors about the next MacBooks containing graphic chips from NVIDIA are true, the bill of materials probably won’t be much higher. There’s nothing there, so far, to hurt profit margins unless Apple becomes especially aggressive on price.

Consider, for example, a refreshed MacBook line retailing for $999, which is, I gather, a sweet spot for a low cost note-book. This doesn’t mean that Apple will suddenly get the customers who buy the cheap PC knock-offs at $699 and $799, but three digit pricing surely has its appeal.

Indeed, if Apple is earning $100 less per note-book, that is going to have a fair amount of impact on the bottom line. Then again, they may make up for that in increased volume, which can lower the cost of raw materials.

But what if the new note-books contain major revisions to case design? Not so much the MacBook Air, which is brand new in terms of form factor. But today’s MacBook Pro shares much of its looks with the original Titanium PowerBook, released several years ago. The MacBook is somewhat different from the original iBook, but not substantially so.

While the guts of these note-books might not change all that much, aside from using up-to-date parts, beveled edges and other case slimming efforts might have broad appeal. Certainly the difficult economic climate will make it hard to sell anything these days, unless a company can demonstrate its value and ultimate appeal to customers.

I don’t pretend to know how Apple will fare in the current quarter, but major redesigns for the MacBook and MacBook Pro and lower prices might help them get sales where just a simple refresh would have far less impact.

As far as the iMac is concerned, since the aluminum case is of recent design, I wouldn’t expect any significant change beyond the requisite speed bump and perhaps lower prices.

Of course that leaves room for a major new product introduction of some sort.

Would about, for example, an expandable desktop computer that would serve as the missing link between the Mac mini and the Mac Pro? That returns us to the concept of the headless iMac that I suggested long, long ago, or the “mythical midrange Mac minitower” that Macworld’s Dan Frakes envisions. Either way, it would be a Mac without a display, perhaps a direct descendent of the IIci, with room for an extra hard drive, more RAM, and perhaps a separate graphic card or two, along with an easy-upgrade case design.

Such a computer would surely be a compelling product for potential Windows switchers who are used to such designs and also loads of Mac users for whom the Mac Pro workstation is just overkill, and no doubt far too expensive for stretched budgets.

Other possibilities include major changes in the Mac mini line, perhaps merging its functions with that of the Apple TV to provide a souped up media center computer. Then again, the Mac mini probably remains in the lineup simply because it’s cheap to produce and seldom receives updates. The Apple TV remains a hobby, if you can believe Steve Jobs.

It’s also true that no computer maker has figured out how to handle the integration between the PC and the living room. If anyone can do it, it would probably be Apple, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see their answer this fall.

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