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Reading the Tea Leaves About Apple Product Intros

It has begun. Even the mainstream media is busy posting stories about when Apple is expected to introduce new products later this year.

It all started when someone did some basic research (for a change) and discovered that time was reserved for a corporate gathering beginning the second week of June at the Moscone West exhibition hall in San Francisco. That’s where Apple has been holding its developer events in recent years, and the selection corresponds to the timeframe of a typical Apple WWDC gathering, so it stands to reason that they’ve outed Apple about the so-far unannounced event.

All well and good, and I’l grant that the information is accurate, except for the fact that, until the WWDC is officially announced, those dates can change, although it would seem that Moscone’s schedule is pretty full and juggling events is probably not very easy.

But even if we are certain now when WWDC will take place, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we know what products will be launched there.

It does seem logical that Snow Leopard will play a part. Certainly developers will want to participate actively in informational sessions on the new operating system, particularly since the release is expected by mid-year. That, though, doesn’t mean Mac OS 10.6 will necessarily go on sale beginning with the WWDC keynote. It could happen before or after, even if the event is heavily devoted to that topic.

Despite the clear uncertainty over the matter, it hasn’t stopped some members of the media from declaring Snow Leopard must be “launched” at that event.

What will really happen may really depend on how well development progresses between now and then. That, my friends, is something I doubt many people outside of Apple know, and they aren’t telling.

The next possibility is iPhone 3.0. This doesn’t seem a great stretch, although perhaps a tad premature. Last year’s rollout of the iPhone 3G occurred in mid-July. It doesn’t have to be WWDC related, although it’s certainly possible Apple might announce a date and perhaps introduce a major upgrade to the iPhone SDK and perhaps even the App Store.

I have no inside information to offer here. I’m just putting last year’s events in perspective. Besides, after a year, a smartphone is quite long in the tooth.

The next theory has it that Apple is poised to release its first netbook in the second half of the year. Again, it could be introduced at WWDC, and there may be good reasons for that, particularly if such a gadget uses a modified version of the iPhone software to function.

This information supposedly comes from sources in Asia that are not known to be particularly reliable. Indeed, rumors of new Apple products have been spread far and wide in previous years from similar alleged “insiders.” Few have come to pass.

Also, let’s not forget that Apple has, so far at least, thrown cold water on netbook prospects, but they haven’t shut the door entirely. Both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have stated that Apple won’t produce what they regard as “junk,” which as their parlance for PCs that sell for less than $500. Yes, the original Mac mini came in at $499, but the current model, far more powerful, lists for $599.

If Apple releases a sub-note-book of this sort, just what form would it take. Well, there are folks who apparently still adore their small screen PowerBooks with screens ranging from 10 inches to 12 inches. Now I’m not one of those people. I like larger screens and anything smaller than my 17-inch MacBook Pro would cramp my style big time.

The latest talk is in the range of 10 inches. So how would Apple implement such a product? Would it just be a stripped down MacBook? Well a smaller screen and case wouldn’t account for more than $200 off the price of the entry-level white MacBook, which now sells for $999. But that’s still somewhat out of netbook territory. Indeed, Apple would probably have to come in at around $499 to $599 for it to make sense and it would have to differentiate itself sufficiently from a regular Mac note-book not to cannibalize sales at the low end.

That’s the dilemma being confronted by PC makers now. Microsoft’s dilemma, of course, is what to do about the lost licensing fees because current netbooks come with Windows XP or — worse — Linux. Well, worse from their standpoint. They are hoping a crippled version of Windows 7 will fill the bill.

Apple, on the other hand, has more options, one of which harkens back to the eMate 300, a tiny portable computer based on the Newton that was circulated in the educational market over a decade ago. The screen was even tinier, but the keyboard was, as I recall, reasonably usable.

Now consider a 21st century equivalent, with a touch screen of seven to 10 inches in size, based on the iPhone version of OS X. To take advantage of a wireless carrier’s subsidies, Apple would want to consider including telephone capability with it. Otherwise, it might become an expensive item, although using a standard hard drive and larger parts are sure to reduce production costs.

In the end, I don’t know how this will play out. It could be that the netbook is just a flash in the pan, something people are buying now out of necessity, because of their economic situation. If things improve, they might dump their netbooks and get regular note-books again. If that happens to any large degree, all this talk will be for naught. And don’t think Apple hasn’t considered those possibilities in deciding how to move forward.