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On Raising Unreasonable Expectations

One of the downsides of a company as secretive as Apple is that customers and the media will feel compelled to speculate about new products. Some of that speculation will be true, some of it not, but it’s usually hard to know in advance which predictions will pan out except through logic, reason and a lots of good luck.

The biggest downside of all is that, if the predictions all point to a single product or service, expectations increase. Folks come to believe such a thing to come from Apple in the near future. If the product is an upgrade to one of the existing lines, it creates the annoying prospect that sales will dip temporarily as customers wait for a revision.

If the revision doesn’t arrive, then Apple suffers from lost revenue. This happened to some degree after the original migration to Intel processors was announced during the WWDC in 2005. In one fell swoop, all of Apple’s Mac hardware was rendered obsolete, kaput. Originally, the transition was expected to be completed in 2007. Yes, that’s what they said back then.

Now it turned out that the sales impact was, according to Apple, not so severe, and they managed to get most of the Intel-based Macs out beginning in January 2006, months ahead of schedule. The transition was over by the summer of that year with the introduction of the original Mac Pro.

For the most part, the new x86 Macs were actually quite reliable. The basic designs weren’t altered that much, except in a few cases, beyond reconfiguring the internals to accommodate new logic boards. However, there were some notable early adopter issues, such as hot-running MacBooks and MacBook Pros. With modifications to the cooling system and basic design revisions, today’s Mac note-book runs noticeably cooler, by the way.

I can see, in retrospect, a dual-edge sword here. Apple’s vaunted reputation for superb hardware reliability was diminished somewhat because of the early teething pains on the Intel-based note-books. If you look at the surveys published by Consumer Reports, for example, you’ll see that other note-book makers match Apple for the most part, and a few exceed them.

That was then and this is now.

Ahead of the WWDC and the fall product introductions, which would generally involve new versions of the iPod, you can see where tension is building.

We know, because Apple said so, that they are working hard on iPhone 3.0. We also know a few additional details because some of the developers who have worked with the new firmware and programming tools have evidently breeched their confidentiality agreements to let us in on the ongoing status. The final release will happen this summer, no doubt along with a new lineup of iPhones.

What form will the new iPhones take? Well, there are published reports that Apple is hiring graphic chip designers, perhaps with the expectation of building new embedded hardware for the iPhone and iPod. However, hiring people doesn’t guarantee immediate results. Indeed, it make take another year or two for the products emerging from these design initiatives to go into production. Meantime, Apple will continue to rely on third party manufacturers for their parts, which basically means that other companies can build gear with the same components.

However, just because the makeup of these gadgets can be duplicated doesn’t mean the software is the same, and that’s Apple’s huge advantage. In addition to the new iPhone software, interest is growing in the status of Snow Leopard. It is widely expected that there will be a full demonstration at the WWDC, but that the actual release date may be a few months later, but still ahead of the release to manufacturing of Microsoft Windows 7.

Even though Apple claims Snow Leopard will have mostly internal changes compared to the standard version of Leopard, and the promise of much greater performance and reliability, some still suggest that major feature visible changes might still happen. A new user interface, closer in concept to iTunes, might appear.

The problem with raising expectations for Snow Leopard is that, if it ends up being little more than Apple has stated so far, a speed-up release that streamlines the plumbing, will you be disappointed? I suppose you would if the price of admission remains at the standard $129. However, if it is given away with a modest fee, sufficient to meet accounting regulations, that may make a huge difference in its potential uptake. I’ve been thinking in terms of a $19 fee, but I suppose even $49 wouldn’t seem excessive for most of you.

Apple could present a cheap Snow Leopard as a thank you for loyal Mac users, and also as a way to get as many of you to upgrade as possible. Although it will likely be limited to owners of Intel-based Macs, having the vast majority of the user base on a single operating system will make it easier for Apple to continue to test and improve Mac OS X. It’ll also make it easier for developers to take advantage of the new features.

It’ll also make it easier for tech writers like me, since we’ll have fewer operating systems to write about. Then again, I haven’t said anything about Tiger in months, and 10.5 discussion could also vanish in the haze before long. Meantime, it’s also possible that Apple will still amaze us in the months to come, so stay tuned.