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Will There Be Any Big Surprises from Apple in 2012?

As you might imagine, the last few weeks have been filled with speculation as to what Apple, with Tim Cook at the helm, will do in 2012 to upend the tech industry. But the real question is whether Apple needs to make any deep changes in order to remain hugely successful.

By changes, it’s not just product initiatives but corporate policy. Since Cook has been prospering under Apple’s policy of extreme corporate secrecy, it’s hard to imagine he’d change anything except to a very minor degree. The present corporate posture made Apple amazingly prosperous, and it made Cook very, very rich. So there’d be no incentive to alter any policies.

Some financial pundits are even suggesting Apple ought to return some of their huge cash hoard in the form of dividends to stockholders. But that recommendation is based on the assumption that Apple has too much cash, and they ought to spend some of it now. Besides, it’s not as if Apple is likely to make major acquisitions that cost more than a few hundred million. Apple buys companies with technologies they need rather than companies who just sell products. Still, there’s no reason for anything to change.

When it comes products, you know there will be a new iPad, a new iPhone, some new Macs, and some minor revisions to the iPod lineup. That’s a given, though it’s probably worth speculating on a “one more thing” that’s also been discussed endlessly.

Recently, rumors have arisen that the so-called iPad 3 will debut on February 24th, the birthday of Steve Jobs. But it’s not as if Apple observes anniversaries, birthdays or other special events. After all, there was 25th anniversary Mac. Nonetheless there are unconfirmed reports that Apple is already ramping up production of a line of iPads featuring a higher resolution display, to essentially match the Retina Display on the iPhone. Certainly, when you look at the displays of both, you’ll see text is much sharper on an iPhone when viewed at roughly the same distance.

But building 9.7-inch displays with double the current resolution is not cheap. Apple would have to find a way to keep the costs low enough in order to sell the iPad 3 at the same price as the iPad 2. Some suggest an iPad Pro, at $100 more. This is based on the assumption that if it costs an estimated $127 for the iPhone 2 display, it may be quite a bit more when you add more pixels. That’s a steep climb for Apple, but they are famous for signing sweetheart deals with suppliers for millions and millions of components. It’s also possible they have worked with their LCD display partners to devise new technologies to deliver more pixels at lower prices.

Besides, Apple is making big profits from the iPad so, faced with the competition presented by the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble Nook, they might be able to absorb higher component costs anyway for the same retail price. They might also offer a cheaper iPad with similar specs to the current model at a lower price to enhance the product line and attract customers for whom $499 and up is just too steep a climb.

When it comes to the iPhone 4s, it appears only uninformed tech and financial pundits made a big deal about that alleged disappointing update. But would the iPhone 4s have been any more useful if it was marketed as an iPhone 5 with a new case? Certainly those who build iPhone accessories are glad there were no changes in form factor. But next year there will probably be a new design, a faster processor, and, quite likely, support for LTE, the 4G service that’s getting lots of promotion from the wireless carriers.

Sure you can get LTE phones now, only the chips kill battery life, at least based on reviews of the first products to support the new standard. That, of course, is precisely the reason Tim Cook gave for Apple delaying release of LTE hardware. Assuming that power utilization is brought under control, and the chips are reliable, Apple will jump aboard. Even if there’s a slight battery life reduction from LTE chipsets, maybe Apple will compensate with a somewhat more powerful battery.

The Mac universe may include a 15-inch MacBook Air, perhaps new versions of the MacBook Pro with or without optical drives, and maybe a new Mac Pro. But the latter depends on a new set of Xeon processors from Intel. The iMac and Mac mini will, like the other consumer models, get Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips.

The open question is Apple’s possible solution for a connected TV. There has been a whole lot of speculation as to just what form Steve Jobs solution for the TV dilemma, as quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography, will take. Will it be a full-blown TV, or a better Apple TV box? Could Apple harness the power of Siri to provide nearly full voice control of your TV, even if you’re using the standard run of set top boxes from your cable or satellite provider? Yes, some tech pundits suggest that Apple wants to replace those services, but that approach may create a whole new can of worms.

Even if Apple crafts the right agreements with content providers, just how will they distribute the content? It’s one thing to stream a one or two movies each week and perhaps a few TV shows, but if Apple is feeding you hundreds of gigabytes a month, the abandoned cable providers are going to want to exact much higher payments for their broadband services. There is not going to be a simple solution to this dilemma.

And maybe, just maybe, next year’s WWDC will pull the wraps off Lion’s successor, which I presume will be Mac OS 10.8. But that discussion is really premature, at least for now. And I’m not going to engage in any discussion about those ongoing intellectual property lawsuits, but it doesn’t seem as if that situation is going to change very much.