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Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Give Up on the Mac

I have to tell you, my friends, that I do not pretend to be expert at prognostication, certainly not when it comes to assessing Apple’s possible future behavior. So when I read about the next Apple “Back to the Mac” media event, scheduled on Wednesday, October 20 (my late father’s birthday, I might add), I was somewhat surprised. That announcement definitely came out of left field.

Knowing the topic of discussion opens up ripe possibilities for speculation, and they’d have to be major to warrant the decision to summon the media to Apple’s Cupertino, CA campus for the morning session.

At the top of the list of potential hardware introductions is a serious revision to the MacBook Air. This thin and light portable has been a poor slave to the rest of the MacBook lineup, having not had an update since last year. Starting at $1,499, it is also regarded as overpriced, underpromoted, and not a barn burner when it comes to sales.

The speculation about the update is fairly consistent across the board: It will be lighter and thinner, weighing less than three pounds and sporting an 11.6-inch display, compared to the 13.3-inch display featured in the current edition. The processor may be another low-power Intel chip, or perhaps represent Apple’s first foray into installing AMD parts, other than their graphics chips.

The price of admission is one huge question mark. With more and more cheap Windows note-books out there, Apple can’t justify a price that’s actually higher than a decently equipped MacBook Pro. So I expect the biggest surprise of all may be that the Late 2010 MacBook Air will cost between $799 and $899.

When you consider how aggressively Apple priced the iPad, up to the point where competitors, caught flat-footed, cannot hope to compete, such a cheap price makes a lot of sense. More to the point, Apple, now reportedly the third largest PC maker in the U.S., may move loads of them this holiday season, perhaps cannibalizing sales of the MacBook to some degree.

The iPad won’t be impacted, since it appears to exist in a universe all by itself. The real victims of the iPad’s incredible success appear to be netbooks and entry-level PC note-books, although some say it’s just another gadget, and doesn’t impact any traditional PC product.

But Apple isn’t going to summon the media just to introduce a single new Mac. Even adding some minor revisions to the MacBook and MacBook Pro lineups doesn’t justify such an event. There has to be more, and the next level of speculation speaks of new versions of iLife and iWork. The former will have the requisite changes, such as being compiled as a true 64-bit app, with the possibility that iDVD will be history, and iWeb will receive a major upgrade.

As far as I’m concerned, the loss of iDVD doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Even though more and more people have given up on physical media, I still think making your own DVD serves a valuable purpose, from home videos to product demonstrations. Even if the app gets a minor shave and haircut, it doesn’t make sense to drop it. But Apple is notorious for dropping features or entire products, unlike most other tech companies who can’t contemplate discontinuing anything, unless there’s a replacement at hand.

With the impending release of Office 2011 for the Mac, it also makes sense to expect a new edition of iWork, perhaps with greater integration with the iPad version. I wouldn’t presume to speculate on the new capabilities of the iWork suite, other than more powerful number-crunching capabilities in Numbers that bring it closer to Excel.

On the whole, I like iWork, though I find that Pages could run faster. I’m also concerned that, after you print a Pages document, you have to click Save before quitting. That makes no sense if you haven’t changed anything in the document, and I wonder why this irritating little defect remains unfixed.

But the real heavy-duty speculation speaks of Apple’s plans to offer a preview of the next version of Mac OS X, 10.7, which will clearly get the designation “Lion.” How do we know? Well, the invitation to the event displays a lion peering out from a stylized Apple logo. There would be no other conceivable purpose to put it there, not even to indicate that Apple is getting a lion’s share of business in some market segments. Remember, it’s all about the Mac.

Speculation about what 10.7 might deliver is all over the place. The possible release date will probably range from spring of 2011 to next summer. The latter might be more sensible, since it would give developers a reasonable amount of time to examine the betas, ensure compatibility with their products, and add support for 10.7’s new features. Also, having it arrive after a WWDC gives Apple the opportunity to schedule workshops so developers can have access to the final betas and get assistance from Apple.

It would also afford Apple an opportunity to begin a major marketing push, past the expected release of the next version of the iOS.

With this media event coming two days after what many believe to be news of another blowout quarter for Apple, you almost wonder how long it’ll take the stock price to hit the magic $400 mark.