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The Apple Hardware Report: What Will 2010 Bring?

I can start this discussion with just one word, and that’s iTablet, or iPad, or whatever Apple will choose to call that presumed tablet-based computer. But the question remains whether there’s a need for such a product in the real world, regardless of the rampant speculation and all those rising expectations.

It’s not whether or not it would be a cool product, but whether it would be cool enough for millions of people to buy during its first year on sale. If that’s not the case, it makes little sense whatever for Apple to build them, and I don’t pretend to know the answer. I’m sure that Apple will do the appropriate level of market research to decide what direction to take.

As for me, an Apple tablet just isn’t high on my agenda, unless it would be a suitable replacement for my 17-inch MacBook Pro. Alas, since the screen size estimates are closer to the 10-inch range, I need plenty of convincing. The things such a product would do well, such as being able to display books and magazines, don’t interest me all that much. I’m still a print guy, so I don’t think I’m necessarily the target user.

However, Apple has a habit of taking existing product categories and making them seem new and different. A couple of months ago, I didn’t seriously consider replacing my Mac Pro with an iMac; that is, until the 27-inch version came out with the option of an Intel quad-core i7 processor. Suddenly the equation changed for me, meaning that my biannual desktop system upgrades will be a whole lot cheaper, not to mention the greatly reduced heat buildup in my office.

The iMac has been the hero of Apple’s fall product lineup, with the NPD Group reporting huge sales increases, and that, probably more than any lingering screen display glitches, is the cause of the ongoing product shortage. Besides, Apple has just released a downloadable fix for the 27-inch iMac line that “updates the graphics firmware on ATI Radeon HD 4670 and 4850 graphics cards to address issues that may cause image corruption or display flickering.”

Now that Apple has the form factor in place, no doubt 2010 will see continued performance boosts as newer Intel chips come out. I’m also wondering whether Apple will amaze us all and provide room for a second internal drive, and perhaps an eSATA port for high performance external devices in the next revision. That is if they don’t simply jump to USB 3.0 instead, which will offer backwards compatibility with existing devices.

The Mac Pro will likely get its overdue upgrade early in the new year, as soon as those six-core Intel chips are out. The rest of the improvements are apt to be incremental, perhaps with the addition of USB 3.0 and/or eSATA ports for extra devices. It’s also possible Apple will throw out the baby with the bath water and build a new version that uses the latest developments in miniaturization to install the same guts in a much smaller case. It would surely be the politically correct thing to do, plus it’ll make the product less daunting to transport.

Since Apple revised the note-book form factors last year, I expect changes will also be mostly of the speedbump variety. As Intel gets more and more low-power quad-core chips into production, some will surely find their way into certain MacBook Pro configurations. Yes, there are quad-core mobile chips out now. You can get them on some PC note-books, but you have to put up with higher heat generation and significantly reduced battery life.

I do not expect to see Apple adhere to my suggestions and make the expanded life battery easier to remove. As some of our commenters have suggested, Apple is protecting the environment by forcing you to go to a dealer for a battery replacement, so they can dispose of the spent batteries in the safest fashion.

The fourth generation iPhone will like be here by summer. There are already reports that Apple has reserved the end of June for the start of the WWDC, a good place to introduce the newest iPhone and OS 4.0.

As to the iPhone upgrade, perhaps the biggest expected change will be a multicore chip, with more internal memory, as opposed to increasing maximum storage to 64GB. At the same time, I would hope Apple will manage to increase battery life some, although it’s not bad now. The huge story though, stems from the belief that Apple’s exclusive deal with AT&T will expire around that timeframe, which paves the way for other carriers to carry the iPhone.

Therein lies the tale. Will Apple build a CDMA version tailored to the requirements of Verizon Wireless? Or just provide a version that will operate with the compatible GSM network on T-Mobile. While T-Mobile doesn’t have the 3G coverage of AT&T, where they do apparently offer more reliable service, not to mention charging a lot less money. Do we really need Verizon?

Past the tablet computer, genuine Apple innovations remain an open question. Will Apple find a way to make Apple TV come into its own, or even accede to the requests from some that they build a large screen TV? Certainly the 27-inch iMac takes us far into that direction.

Then there’s Mac OS 10.7. As Snow Leopard approaches its first year anniversary, you have to expect Apple to be readying its successor. More to the point, it will clearly be a feature upgrade, and thus maybe it’s time we bring back the Night Owl’s official 10.7 wish list.